Friday, November 16, 2007

#79: W. C. Fields - Six Short Films

W. C. Fields - Six Short Films, 1915–1933, various directors and writers.

In The Bank Dick, W. C. Fields says, "In the old Sennett days, I used to direct Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the rest of them... Nights, I used to tend bar." Six Short Films gives viewers a chance to see the product of that kind of schedule. The results are pretty much what you'd expect. Here are the Six Short Films:

Pool Sharks, 1915, directed by Edwin Middleton, written by W. C. Fields (according to the IMDB; there's no credited writer). Despite what the IMDB may tell you, this was Fields's first film. He basically does his best Charlie Chaplin:

Fields is 35 in this still, still relatively unscathed by drinking. But even at his young age, Fields had grasped the principle of comedy that would inform so much of his career: when in doubt, have somebody start throwing shit.

That's about 30 seconds after the credits. So, film historians, here it is: the first projectile to hit W. C. Fields in the back of the head.

It would not be the last. There's just about no plot to speak of; Fields agrees to play pool with Bud Ross for the hand of the unnamed actress on the hammock. Havoc ensues. The chief distinction between Fields in this film and Fields in the rest of his work is that he's occasionally cheerful:

Of course, he's cheerful about bashing Bud Ross's face in with a pool cue. Some things never change. If you prefer more malice to your physical comedy, rest assured that there's plenty of that as well:

Unfortunately, Pool Sharks gets weighted down in the middle by the actual game of pool. Fields and Middleton put a groundbreaking special effects sequence at the heart of their film, the kind of thing that dazzles any audience. I'm speaking, of course, of jerky stop-motion.

Every time Fields or Ross takes a shot, Middleton cuts to an unconvincing scale model of a pool table, and the balls lurch around in single-file lines. It's a shame, because the rest of the film is remarkably funny for a basically plotless silent. Fields is already remarkably misanthropic, and there's an absurdity to some of the gags that shows up in his later work. For example, is this any place to keep a goldfish bowl?

Well, as long as you're going to be standing under it when people start throwing billiard balls, the answer is yes. Clearly, Pool Sharks was included on the disc simply because it was the first movie Fields appeared in, but it's got its moments. Here's one of them:

The Golf Specialist, 1930, directed by Monte Brice, written by W. C. Fields. One of the best films on the disc. W. C. Fields plays J. Effingham Bellweather, fifteen years older, drunker, and fatter than he was in Pool Sharks. He's still sporting that ridiculous moustache, though.

Writing about The Bank Dick, I said I'd have been perfectly happy to watch a film called W. C. Fields Gets Drunk and Beats Up An Eight-Year-Old. I underestimated him. In The Golf Specialist his opponent is only five.

The Golf Specialist presents us with W. C. Fields in his purest form: unjustified rage and unsated desire. After a brief introduction in a hotel lobby, the film settles down to an extended scene where W. C. Fields tries, against all odds, to impress another man's wife by successfully hitting a golf ball. He's accompanied by Al Wood, who plays the saddest sack of a caddy imaginable. His character doesn't have a name, so let's call him Estragon:

Fields's increasingly desperate attempts to accomplish a simple task (and his mantra-like repetition of the line, "Now stand clear, and keep your eye on the ball"), are a perfect example of one of the great principles of comedy: after a certain number of iterations, tragic failure transmutes into hilarious failure. The Golf Specialist is a short film, but in the right hands you can keep that kind of gag going for nearly fifty years.

The Dentist, 1933, directed by Leslie Pearce, written by W. C. Fields. This is the first of the films from "the old Sennett days" that's actually, you know, from the old Sennett Days:

Or rather, the new Sennett days. Mack Sennett, having made his name years earlier with silent comedies (including the Keystone Kops), had just started a distribution deal with Paramount that would bankrupt him a year later. The remaining four films in Six Short Films were all produced by Sennett at Paramount, and released between December of 1932 and July of 1933 (Sennett went bankrupt in November). If that seems like a remarkably fecund period, take a look at the titles of the remaining films; not just The Dentist, but also The Pharmacist and The Barber Shop (only The Fatal Glass of Beer is its own thing). It's a lot like the McKay/Ferrell collaborations: pick a profession, put "W. C. Fields is" in front of it, walk out of the pitch meeting with a greenlight and a suitcase full of cash. That's not enough to make a good movie, whether it's with Will Ferrell or W. C. Fields. In the case of The Dentist, however, it's enough to make an unreleasable movie, because one of the film's patients reacts to being drilled as though she's, well, being drilled:

The Criterion Collection release was the first time the film was presented uncut. The Dentist is otherwise unremarkable; Fields has lost his mustache and submerged himself in a look I like to call "cantankerous Grandpa":

Most of the jokes revolve around how miserable it is to go to the dentist, which is well and good, but not exactly fresh comic territory. The Dentist does compare favorably to The Golf Specialist in one key area, however: treatment of caddies. Fields throws his into a water hazard.

The Fatal Glass of Beer, 1933, directed by Clyde Bruckman, written by W. C. Fields. One of the most bizarre films on the disc. It's often mentioned in the same breath as Monty Python, and with good reason; it's their kind of humor. It's sort of a parody of films about the Yukon, but it's also a parody of parodies of films about the Yukon, like Chaplin's The Gold Rush. But it's also succeeds on its own. W. C. Fields is some sort of Yukon-type; it's not entirely clear what he does besides attempt to milk elk. Shortly after the film begins, the action stops completely while he sings a lengthy song about the evils of drink, accompanying himself on the dulcimer, while wearing mittens:

Yeah, it's that kind of movie. W. C. Fields's wailing tune plays over flashbacks of George Chandler playing "Chester Snavely, the Wastrel Son," as he's corrupted by the titular beverage:

By the song's end, Chester has learned a valuable lesson: "Don't go round breaking people's tambourines," and the film moves on. It's completely, wonderfully absurdist, and not coincidentally, hilarious. Consider this exchange:

                    MRS. SNAVELY
          He wants more money, and if he
          don't get it, he'll take our

                    MR. SNAVELY
          He won't take old Bozo, my lead

                    MRS. SNAVELY
          Why not, Pa?

                    MR. SNAVELY
          'Cause I 'et him.

                    MRS. SNAVELY
          You et him?

                    MR. SNAVELY
          He was mighty good with mustard.

As usual, Fields manages to take a good joke and turn it into a great one by taking it just a little further: with mustard.

The Pharmacist, 1933, directed by Arthur Ripley, no credited writer. This is slightly better than The Dentist, if only because the humor depends more on observations about what it's like to work in a service industry (The Dentist, one would hope, tells you very little about what it's like to actually be a dentist). Take a look at the unchecked passive aggression in Fields's smile as his character explains that, although he'll be glad to send a truck several miles to deliver a single box of cough drops, he won't be able to split the box.

The Pharmacist also features more of the sort of alcohol joke Fields got so much mileage out of in The Bank Dick, including the best martini shaker ever:

That's Marjorie Kane as Fields's daughter. She gets a wonderful moment of absurdity a little later in the film: exiled from the dinner table (and from the foreground of the shot) she devours the family pet.

In a some ways, this felt the most modern of the films on the disc, probably because there's an undercurrent of loathing that seems so central to most people's experience at work these days. Fittingly enough, The Office seems to have stolen at least one joke: take a look at the way Fields holds up this little stuffed man and waits for his unamused customer to laugh:

Ricky Gervais held the office stuffed monkey longer, and more uncomfortably, but I'd bet money that's where he got his facial expression.

The Barber Shop, 1933, directed by Arthur Ripley, no credited writer. Thoroughly mediocre. Most of the best jokes revolve around how miserable small town life is, but the kind of small town Fields targets (the kind where a proud denizen pronounces that they've got "A public library and the largest insane asylum in the state!") has pretty much died. Fields is in good form here, playing the same kind of antihero he plays in The Bank Dick: the terrible, terrible father. I suppose it was bracing at the time for a comedian to point out that the wisdom dad spouted at the dinner table might be rubbish.

My favorite line: "Mr. Lincoln used to tell riddles, and that, as much as anything else, made him the wonderful president that he was." The stuff in the barber shop itself is very much like The Dentist, but not as funny. It's a pity the disc doesn't end on a particularly high note, but that's the price you pay for chronological order. The Barber Shop hits the kind of absurdity that makes The Fatal Glass of Beer so much fun only once, at the very end. For reasons too convoluted to explain, Fields has left two double basses leaning against one another in the corner of the shop for the length of the film. When he picks one of them up at the end, it gives birth to a pile of violins.

So the disc ends as I suspect W. C. Fields would have wanted it to: on the wrong side of the Hays Code.

Watching this many short films in one sitting glosses over the fact that these were directed by different people over a period of years. And given the incredibly rapid rate at which the Sennett productions were churned out, comparing them to features that spent years in development seems a little unfair. The correct comparison is probably to episodic television, and if he had been born twenty years later, I suspect that's where W. C. Fields would have ended up. He only really played one character, but he played that character extremely well. Whether America would have welcomed a misanthropic, bumbling drunk into their living rooms once a week is another question. But I certainly would have.


  • The Golf Specialist has a Simpsons-style freeze frame joke. Near the end of the film, we're told that J. Effingham Bellweather is a wanted man, and we briefly see his wanted poster (one of the best photos of W. C. Fields ever).

    That poster's interesting in and of itself, because it seems to have all of the rejected ideas for Bellweather's name listed as aliases: Dirty Deal Duffy, Rev. D. D. Dunk, Prince Raviola... But although the poster shows his crimes as things like manslaughter and homicide, the next shot is a ten-second pan down a list of offenses that would be right at home at McSweeneys. Except for its racist conclusion.

    For your reading pleasure, here's everything J. Effingham Bellweather is wanted for:

    • Bigamy,
    • Passing as the Prince of Wales,
    • Eating spaghetti in public,
    • Using hard words in a speakeasy,
    • Trumping partner's ace,
    • Spitting in the Gulf Stream,
    • Jumping board bill in seventeen lunatic asylums,
    • Failure to pay instalments on a strait-jacket,
    • Posessing a skunk,
    • Revealing the facts of life to an indian.

  • Clyde Bruckman, who directed The Fatal Glass of Beer, had his own illustrious history. He wrote most of Buster Keaton's best work, including Sherlock, Jr. and The General, which he directed with Keaton. He also wrote Welcome, Danger! for Harold Lloyd, and directed films starring Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, and the Three Stooges. But he liked drinking even more than Fields did, was basically too drunk to direct The Man on the Flying Trapeeze, got fired (Fields apparently took over his duties mid-shoot), and nevere directed another film. If that reminds you of the director character in The Bank Dick, well, it should. Bruckman worked as a writer for a while, but became radioactive after Harold Lloyd sued Universal over stolen gags in one of his scripts. After directing an ill-fated live television show starring Buster Keaton in the fifties, Bruckman borrowed a gun from Keaton, went out to eat on Santa Monica Boulevard, bought a meal he could not pay for, and shot himself in the head.

  • Criterion doesn't offer much information about the origins of the prints used for this DVD, but there's a clue in the end credits. We briefly see an end title begin to fade in over the Mack Sennett logo:

    Before it's replaced with the following:

    It turns out that the U. M. & M. TV corporation bought virtually all of Paramount's short film library around 1955, on the condition that they remove the Paramount logo before airing them. Which they did, by cutting the original negatives. So the results are a mixed bag. The opening credits of The Dentist appear to have been restored but are windowboxed (perhaps by mistake?), The Fatal Glass of Beer features a static title screen—misleadingly claiming the picture is copyright 1933 by U. M. & M. TV Corp—while what is obviously the dog from the Mack Sennett logo barks on the soundtrack, The Barber Shop has the same dog barking in the background over a black screen, but then shows a Paramount copyright superimposed over what appears to be the U. M. & M. TV Corp's opening titles. The moral is that both copyright lawyers and film restoration experts have very difficult jobs, and when Paramount tells you to take their name off something, they don't mean destroy the original negative. None of that tomfoolery was quite as jarring as the intertitles on Pool Sharks:

    Yep, it's the Encyclopædia Britannica font, in a film from 1915. There's a reason the film has new intertitles, and it has to do with Raymond Rohauer's somewhat shameful career. The copyright page tells the story:

    Produced by Gaumont in 1915, but copyright 1968 by Raymond Rohauer. Rohauer was in the habit of taking films out of the public domain and copyrighting them himself (usually by making minor changes like the new intertitles seen here). He got his start running the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles (still extant on La Cienega Boulevard, next to one of my favorite dive bars—it's mostly used for comedy and theater now). He moved from art-house-owner to distributor when James Mason brought him a cache of long-believed-lost Buster Keaton films he found in the garage of a house he'd just bought, and apparently was so notorious for copyright manipulation that he was something of an inside joke for film nerds. As DVD Savant tells it:
    One gag film shown to great approval at Filmex in 1972 was an ersatz Rohauer copy of Fred Ott's Sneeze, an Edison film that lasts about four seconds. The parody surrounded the snippet with at least three minutes of redundant and insulting new scrolling titles, mostly proclaiming Rohauer's copyright and threatening legal action to pirates. It ended with the statement that Rohauer had successfully acquired the copyright on sprocket holes.
    Whatever his sins against the public domain, Rohauer preserved a large number of films that would otherwise have been lost, and gave Kino Video access to his entire collection on his death. Why not Criterion, Raymond?