As we noted here, here , here and here, 2015 marks the centennial year of W.C. Fields‘ first entry into pictures (Pool Sharks) and his debut with the Ziegfeld Follies. To mark the occasion, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz will be joined tonight by the lovely and brilliant Dr. Harriet Fields, the Great Man’s only grand-daughter. They’ll be screening four Fields’ classics. Not surprisingly, Harriet chose wisely and well:
8:00pm (EST): The Bank Dick (1940)
One of Fields’ most subversive and hilarious films (undoubtedly because he was old and sick and no longer gave a damn) Fields lays into small town hypocrisies and even (as he would do with even more force in his last film Never Give a Sucker an Even Break) Hollywood itself. Fields gets away with murder in this film, naming his favorite watering hole The Black Pussy, and telling young Og Ogilvy (Grady Sutton) that his name “Sounds like a bubble in a bathtub” — what can he be referring to but a fart? Somehow this stuff got past the censors, as did Fields’ much more dangerous example as a human being — getting the bank examiner (hilariously played by Franklin Pangborn) drunk so he won’t notice the money Fields (the bank’s security guard) embezzled so that he can invest in the Beefsteak Mines. The terrific ensemble includes Shemp Howard (who really sacrificed a decent solo career when he stepped in to bail out the Stooges–see here), Jack Norton and Una Merkel, among many others. A couple of nods to Mack Sennett here too. Pay close attention for one of my favorite recurring visual gags from the film, indeed, one of my favorite gags of all time, the “hearty handclasp”. The Bank Dick was directed by Eddie Cline.
9:30pm (EST): It’s a Gift (1934)
One of the best known and loved films from Fields’s Paramount period. Based on several stage sketches from Field’s Broadway years (strung together into a slim modicum of a plot), the film casts him as Harold Bissonette, a long-suffering husband, father and grocer who decides to pull up stakes and start a California orange grove. Many of the film’s most famous scenes revolve around the theme of Fields the Martyr. In one, he (unsuccessfully) tries to prevent the blind man Mr. Muckle (Charles Sellon) from destroying his shop. In another he tries to sleep on his back porch and is constantly being awakened and interrupted,a bit he’d also used in the silent It’s the Old Army Game. Of course Baby Leroy is present to add to his torture, as is Kathleen Howard, playing one of a long line of Fields’s shrewish wives. Norman McLeod directed.
11:00pm (EST): You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939)
Perhaps Fields’ best remembered (certainly most iconic) film. Artistically, Fields’ career trajectory went the opposite of most of the other so-called classic comedians of the early sound period. Whereas the Marx Brothers, Mae West and Laurel and Hardy all LOST all creative freedom and artistic control over time, Fields actually had the opportunity to go a little crazy (in a good way) toward the END of his career, due to leverage he enjoyed through his popularity on radio. Where his Paramount pictures of the 20s and 30s are certainly enjoyable, the Universal period (1939-1944) is a surreal free-for-all. You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man was the first of these. It builds on Fields’ many previous performances on stage and screen as carny Eustace P. McGarrigle in Poppy and Sally of the Sawdust, here casting Fields as shady circus owner Larsen E. (i.e., larceny) Whipsnade. Despite his best efforts as a crooked showman, Whipsnade is forever on the verge of losing his circus, always dodging the sheriff. The plot, such as it is, concerns his daughter’s plan to marry a stuffy moneybags to bail her father out. Fortunately the plot gets short shrift here — that’s one of the many positive aspects of the Universal period. The focus is on the comedy, which just keeps on coming. To bolster the box office, Fields is teamed up here with his frequent radio rivals Edgar Bergen (with Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd). The trading of barbs and quips between them comes fast and furious. Also in the cast is Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, acting in a similar capacity to his role in Jack Benny’s ensemble as Fields’ Man Friday. There’s an elephant named Queenie who sprays water on command, a pair of bearded twins (one of whom is the world’s tallest midget, the other of whom the world’s smallest giant), and much more nonsense like this. One of my favorite parts is when Bergen is AWOL from the circus so that he can pursue Fields’ daughter (whom he loves), forcing Fields to do a ventriloquism routine himself. I’m biased, but I think this is a film every human being on earth should own.
12:30am (EST): David Copperfield (1935)
David O. Selznick’s all-star 1935 Hollywood adaptation of the Dickens classic. Today this film is best remembered today for Fields’magical turn as Micawber, his only “legit” role, and a performance he knocked out of the park. One never regrets any Fields performance, but his turn in this film does make you lament performances that MIGHT have been, such as Fields as Captain Andy in Show Boat (a part originally devised for him), Fields as Don Quixote (which was being developed at one time), Fields as the Wizard of Oz (which came close to happening, though one hardly regrets that Frank Morgan ended up with the part), Fields as Falstaff, Fields as the Duke in Huckleberry Finn. Oh the might have beens (read more about them in my post from yesterday). But the man was in bad health and aging in the talkie era. The window was small, and like I said we must be grateful for what we have.
Directed by George Cukor, the film’s cast is almost unbelievable in the proliferation of faces nearly as welcome as Fields’: Freddie Bartholomew, Lionel Barrymore, Edna Mae Oliver, Basil Rathbone, Una O’Connor, Maureen O’Sullivan et al. Oddly, one of the more minor stars in the picture is the man who plays the adult David, Frank Lawton. In fact the film is a bit of too much…trying to cram in all the events of a fairly epic tale, it zips along from plot point to plot point like a speed date on real speed. But it packs plenty of magic nonetheless.
To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To learn about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.