W. C. Fields

On Film / Essays — Aug 29, 2000

Misanthropy is the better part of comedy. For every dozen good-natured clowns, there’s a humorist who finds the dark side of life a comfortable place from which to operate. There one sees the range of human folly sans romance and piety; the audience is less a confidant in a joke than it is the target of attack. The humorist who travels this road risks backlash and scorn, which makes the case of W. C. Fields all the more interesting.

In every survey of comedy’s greats, Fields is placed shoulder to shoulder with Chaplin, Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy. Though he’s deserving of such company, one wonders what, exactly, about Fields’ approach to humor keeps his reputation clean. References to Fields’ character and work usually boil down to his carnival barker’s voice, his jiggling fingers, his Hays Code euphemism for God damn: “Godfrey Daniels!” Fields’ taste for gin and tales of his many small bank accounts across the country help to complete a popular picture of a crazy but lovable old cuss who liked a nip now and then. The hard tone of Fields’ comedy is thus softened and made secondary to his legend, all-important in a celebrity culture. Happily, the work survives, and once viewers get past the nostalgia they can assess Fields in the proper climate.

Included here are all five of Fields’ talking shorts, released from 1930 to 1933, and his first film ever, Pool Sharks, released in 1915 (a silent, slapstick affair based partly on Fields’ stage act but also influenced by the comedic standards of the day, primarily those of Chaplin, which helps explain Fields’ fake mustache and twirling cane). As most people recognize the Fields of full-length features like My Little Chickadee and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, the talking shorts provide the counterbalance necessary to a full appreciation of his art.

Indeed, a viewer familiar only with the bumbling Fields of later years may receive a slight shock when witnessing the out-and-out maliciousness of The Dentist. Here Fields is nasty and brutish, his temper short, and the impact of his conduct is enhanced by the film’s brevity. Perhaps Fields knew that his “mean” character would never hold up at feature’s length, and therefore chose a lighter model for his longer works. In any case, for sheer comic viciousness, it’s hard to top this performance. (The film includes a previously censored scene in which Fields yanks so hard on the tooth of Elise Cavanna that she is lifted up onto Fields’ crotch. Their subsequent struggle, resembling a rough-and-raw dry hump, will be of interest to sadists and Freudians alike.)

In The Pharmacist, Fields’ disgust is played at a different speed. Far from being the tooth-pulling beast of The Dentist, Fields grants his pharmacy customers room to display their idiocy as he suffers in silence; only his family, specifically his daughter, bears the brunt of his wrath (the force of which is muted somewhat by his wife). As in The Dentist and The Barber Shop, the action revolves around small-town figures and their provincial concerns. Fields obviously enjoyed sticking it to those in the sticks; and though some may accuse him of elitism, his characters operate on the same level as the common folk they encounter. The difference is that a Fields character simply recognizes the hell he’s in, and makes little or no effort to hide his awareness. The Golf Specialist is of interest primarily as Fields’ first sound short—better than The Barber Shop, if not as inspired as the other films on this disc. The highlight here is Fields’ entanglement with a screaming little girl, not to mention the fake mustache from his silent days.

The Fatal Glass of Beer is easily the oddest short in this collection. On the surface a parody of Yukon melodramas, Beer makes no attempt to duplicate bleak arctic conditions; everything, from the snow to the rear projections of galloping elk, is phony and exaggerated to the point of caricature. This may be the result of a small budget, but Beer’s artificiality is so fluid that one is tempted to assume it was intentional on the part of Fields and director Clyde Bruckman. The acting is understated to the point of inaction, and a strange harmony is achieved, except in Fields’ song about his wayward son, in which no harmony is heard. The Fatal Glass of Beer is a peculiar classic, one well-suited to repeated viewings.

A warning to tender souls: Fields was known to toss barbs at non-Caucasians (though most of the time the Caucasian and his curious habits were Fields’ primary mark). In Beer, the proud Native American is reduced to cigar store status. In The Dentist, a joke is made with “Jap” as the punch line. In every short there’s disdain shown for women and true animus reserved for children. In The Barber Shop, vegetarians are given no respect whatsoever. All have it coming. But that’s what you get from a misanthrope.