W.C. Fields short films (1915-1933)

W.C. Fields’ film career perplexes me a little. He didn’t really flourish on screen until the 1930s despite first appearing on screen in 1915, and after a few starring roles in features in the 1920s he went back to short films for a while (and small feature roles) before hitting it big again. Maybe it’s just me but it seems odd. Anyway, I’ve got me a DVD of those six shorts (not actually the Criterion one illustrated, but I wonder if Big Sky sourced their disc from it. There does seem to be a fair bit of interlacing going on, the artwork is similar, and DVD Beaver’s review of the Criterion disc observes that some of their source prints were apparently much later ones with new music added decades after the fact, as is the apparent case here, neither the music nor the recording sounding like 1930s vintage), so let’s consider those now…

Pool Sharks (1915): Fields’ first film, one of two made in a lull during his theatrical commitments with Ziegfeld (the other appears to be lost). Fields and Bud Ross (the former with a weird fake moustache he apparently had in all his silents, the latter in a checked suit the horror of which must be seen to be believed) become romantic rivals over a girl and decide to settle things over a game of pool. The latter involves some fairly crude stop motion work (with a glorious error noted on the film’s Wiki page), but on the whole it’s more amusing than I thought it might be for some reason; also remarkably aggressive stuff too (with a fine Fieldsian moment at a picnic where he steals a seat from a small boy). For whatever reason, though, Fields didn’t go in front of a camera after this until 1924. Was he not sufficiently interested in film, or was film not interested in him?

The Golf Specialist (1930): Or was it simply a matter that Fields needed the sound film in which to really take off? Cos that voice does suddenly give this film a markedly new dimension completely unlike the mid-teens slapstick of the earlier film. He seems to have made this short as a one-off for RKO, again I wonder why it didn’t go any further cos the film itself is pretty good, as long as you take into account the “1930 talkie”-ness of the enterprise (particularly the barely mobile camera). Simple enough story—Fields is a con artist holidaying in Florida, gives a golf lesson to the flirty wife of the jealous hotel detective—but leavened with some nice sound gags (exploiting the sort of noise rustling paper made on those early microphones) and also a very odd support performance by Al Wood as the caddy. IMDB lists this as his only film credit, and I don’t think I’ve really appreciated until now just how unnerving he actually is.

The Dentist (1932): And then there was Mack Sennett, who’d come through the talkie transition OK and had scored a deal with Paramount. Under Sennett’s aegis Fields made four more shorts, starting with this one, in which he gets frustrated at golf again, then has to contend not only with his patients but his daughter’s romance with the ice delivery man. This was reasonably ribald stuff back in the day, as witness the tooth-pulling scene (trying to defang a woman who somehow gets her arms and legs wrapped around him), though I’m not sure how well it really stands up on the whole now. Probably not really that well; I think the two-reel story split was better balanced in The Golf Specialist. And the “new” music and effects don’t really do it any favours.

The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933): There’s something quite astounding about this, and I have no idea exactly what it is; maybe it’s the utterly deadpan approach. I don’t know if Fields was targeting any specific film or story, but his sights were set at any rate on the backwoods melodrama, and the end result is quite a marvellous bit of parody; from Fields’ bizarre song about wastrel sons to the return of his own wastrel son, with a bit of elk milking along the way, The Fatal Glass of Beer is kind of breathtaking in the way it disregards anything like naturalistic convention while somehow never really drawing attention to the fact that it’s being funny. I first saw this maybe about 20 years ago, at which time I think I just thought it was weird (and because it’s not obviously funny I can easily imagine people not getting it); now I think it’s kind of hysterical.

The Pharmacist (1933): Of all Fields’ shorts, this is the first one that strikes me as particularly resembling one of his later features (or at least the ones I’ve seen). As the title suggests, Fields runs a little pharmacy, and has to contend with a hen-pecking wife, a daughter with a fondness for a young man called Cuthbert, another who’s hungry enough to eat a canary, old ladies who don’t want to ask a man if there’s a ladies’ bathroom, a fainting woman alarmed at the sight of Fields, and finally a gangster shootout. Much more like The Dentist than Fatal Glass, though probably better overall, at least the narrative elements seem to be handled better.

The Barber Shop (1933): The last of the Fields shorts. Interesting how Arthur Ripley was the only director to make more than one, this and The Pharmacist. This time he has to face a brilliantly casually violent baby, a little girl with an apparently endless supply of conical hats, and a bandit looking for a quick image change, as well as his own basic incompetence. It’s good but, well, it’s awfully similar to the last film, and seems especially more so when you watch them both in rapid succession like I just did. Maybe when they were released a few months apart in 1933 it seemed less obvious. Still, it probably does have the best ending of any of these films, a surreal vision you might expect more from a 1940s/50 Warner cartoon.

In between the last two films, International House appeared, featuring Fields in a thunder-stealing performance. I don’t know if that influenced the decision to move him into features or not, but whatever, apparently he was supposed to make seven shorts for Sennett but only made those four; Sennett lost the Paramount deal and went into bankruptcy before 1933 was over. Fields went on to bigger and brighter things, of course, and I really should try and get my hands on DVD upgrades of the features…

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