Tonight on TCM: The Best of W.C. Fields (Introduced By His Only Grand-daughter!)

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2015 by travsd


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.

Poster - You Can't Cheat an Honest Man_02

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 Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Tonight at Coney: Unicycles!

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, ACTS, Circus, Coney Island, Contemporary Variety, PLUGS with tags , , on September 4, 2015 by travsd


Unfilmed Fields: 20 Movies W.C. Fields Might Have Made But Didn’t

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, W.C. Fields with tags , , , on September 3, 2015 by travsd


Fans of W.C. Fields know that throughout his 41 films he always played some version of his irascible self, usually with one of the following variations: 1) a middle-class small town everyman with a hen-pecking wife; 2) a florrid-tongued circus showman or melodrama actor; 3) his literal self, Bill Fields, Hollywood star; and, on one memorable occasion, Dickens’ Micawber. The latter especially tantalizes, given that Fields was such an inveterate fan of 19th century literature of the likes of Dickens and Twain.

At any rate, during his lifetime as now, because Fields was such a known quantity he was easy to cast and doing so was fun — it stirred the imagination. Here are some roles discussed by Fields, the studios and various creative teams during his career which, for one reason or another sadly never came to pass:

  • Show Boat. The role of Cap’n Andy in the original stage production of the classic musical was originally conceived for Fields (largely on the strength of his excellence as Eustace McGarrigle in Poppy), but he was busy with other projects when they had to get the production on its feet in 1927.  He did eventually get to appear briefly in the role in a regional production for 2 weeks in St Louis a few years later. Charles Winninger played the part on Broadway. In various film versions it ended up being played by Winninger and Joe E. Brown. The closest Fields got on screen was the river boat captain in Mississippi. 
  • The Pickwick Papers. Fields was spoken of as a possibility for playing Samuel Pickwick, Esq. in the Dickens classic no less than four times: initially in a silent D.W. Griffith version in the 1920s, then later in 1935, then in the early 1940s, and finally in a 1943 version to have been directed by Orson Welles. Who wants to rewrite history? I do!
  • The Wild Man of Borneo. Herman J. Manciewicz and Marc Connelly wrote the original play, and the lead role of a medicine show con man was initially talked about for W.C. Fields. When the film was eventually made in 1941, the part went to Frank Morgan. That proved to be the SECOND time Morgan would substitute for Fields.
  • Quick Lunch. This  proposed comedy would have reunited Fields with his old silent comedy co-star Chester Conklin. The pair were to have played a couple of waiters
  • Fericke, The Guest Artist. Based on a German novel, the screenplay was written by Gene Fowler and Ben Hecht, was to be directed by George Cukor, and would have co-starred Marie Dressler. The latter detail is especially tantalizing: think how good Fields was in combinaton with similar actresses like Alison Skipworth and Pauline Lord. Unfortunately, Dressler passed away in 1934, so it wasn’t to be.
  • Three Pair. This would have been a sequel to Six of a Kind, reuniting him with Skipworth.
  • Greasepaint. For this one I have nothing beyond the intriguing and appropriate sounding title.
  • Hearts and Flowers. Eddie Cline, with whom Fields often worked, directed a silent movie by this title in 1919 starring Ford Sterling and Louise Fazenda. Whether or not this was to be a remake of that one, I don’t know.
  • Things Began to Happen. Was set in England and would have co-starred his drinking buddy John Barrymore.
  • The Need of Change, based on a popular Julian Street novella about tourists in England. Fields had long wanted to do this but ill-health kept him from it when it came close to fruition.
  • Rip Van Winkle. The title role of course!
  • Don Quixote. Again, the title role. With his pretentiousness and mock bravado, it might have made a great fit.
  • Don’t Look Now
  • The Count of Luxembourg. Presumably an adaptation of the comic operetta. Read a description here.
  • Mr. Bumpus Goes to London
  • TopperFields and Jean Harlow were Hal Roach’s original choices to play the lead characters in this 1937 screwball ghost story classic. What a different movie that would have been!
  • An unnamed Harold Lloyd collaboration, in the late ’30s. It’s intriguing if nothing else. Perhaps Lloyd in a Grady Sutton type role, a ne’er-do-well son-in-law?
  • The Wizard of Oz. This is perhaps Fields’ best known never-was. Fields and MGM actually got quite far long in their negotiations but in the end could not get together on money. In the final analysis, one can only have partial regret, for in 1939 Fields made Never Give a Sucker an Even Break instead.
  • A “South American story” was discussed, no doubt in the same climate in which Welles made It’s All True and Walt Disney made The Three Caballeros
  • A story about a “theatrical mother and infant, who aces the father out of the picture”
  • Falstaff. The above scenarios were all actual productions that were discussed by various studios and Fields. To my knowledge, Field as Shakespeare’s Falstaff was never tossed around by the same parties but CRITICS often mentioned the possibility, and so I leave that as the last delicious daydream, for it would have been hilarious. And while we’re at it, what about Sir Toby Belch?

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 Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


This Friday: The Emancipation of Kitty Nights

Posted in Burlesk, African American Interest, PLUGS, Contemporary Variety, BROOKLYN, AMERICANA, Coney Island, Women with tags , , on September 2, 2015 by travsd


R.I.P. Barbara Vann

Posted in Indie Theatre, OBITS with tags , , , , on September 1, 2015 by travsd


I heard last night from the grapevine that Barbara Vann, Founder and Artistic Director of Medicine Show Theatre passed away a few days ago.

I didn’t know her, but I knew her work, and the news made me sad. One by one, her generation of off-off-Broadway artistic leaders is passing from the scene. Ellen Stewart, Judith Malina, Curt Dempster, and (from the critic’s chair) Jerry Tallmer. Vann was one of the original members of the Open Theater, and like every person I named and some still living whom I won’t name, she was, by all accounts, a bit of what I call “an Old Nut” — a phrase I use with unbounded admiration and affection. I have stood at the elbows of many such people to learn what I could, because they brought so much I value into the world. Sometimes it really seems like that generation, like Moses, struck a rock with a stone and brought forth life-giving water. Who but but a very determined, stubborn, virtually possessed iconoclast can get such things done in this expensive, hostile city? And who WOULD do it on behalf of such moonshines as independent theatre? Not only does it not make you rich, but it IMPOVERISHES you! But some people go to the wall to make it happen, over spans of decades and decades and decades. What a barren, soulless world this would be without the Old Nut Leadership Principle. Rage, Rage, Against the Dying of the Light.

I saw many productions at Medicine Show over the years. Like many other companies I admire (Theater for the New City is a prime example), the company’s work is at least in part what I would categorize as “community theatre”, with all the virtues which that sometimes maligned form can be said to possess: above all, the enthusiasm and joy that can be so hard to sustain but is absolutely essential to ultimate success in the theatre. And as I’ve said on many an occasion: I’d rather see a production at Medicine Show than something that was much slicker and polished but far less genuine, honest and real.

Vann also did those of us with a historical bent a real service by digging out long buried Broadway shows and reviving them, exposing them to the light of the day again so these once-important works will be more to us than footnotes in the biographies of of our heroes.

By all accounts, Vann’s illness was mercifully brief. I hope Medicine Show will keep up the good work. And if you want some wild, surprising, good news: Edith O’Hara at 13th Street Rep is very much still with us — at the age of 98! 

Keaton and the Marx Brothers Celebration This Month

Posted in Buster Keaton, Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers, Movies, PLUGS with tags , , on September 1, 2015 by travsd


Charlie Chaplin in “His New Profession”

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Hollywood (History), Silent Film with tags , , , , on August 31, 2015 by travsd


Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin comedy short His New Profession (1914).

This film is quite distinct from His New Job, Chaplin’s first film for Essanay a few months later. In this, Charlie is busy minding his own business in the park when a young Charley Chase (then still billed as Charles Parrott), runs up and hires to be a home health aid to his invalid uncle (Jess Dandy) so that he can go cavorting around with his girlfriend (Peggy Page). The job consists mostly of pushing the old crank around in his wheelchair, presaging some of the comic fun he will later have with Eric Campbell in The Cure. 


Naturally, they wind up on a pier. There they encounter a blind man. When both the unfortunates are napping, Charlie steals the coins out of the blind man’s tin cup, so that he can go drinking at the bar, surely one of his lowest onscreen acts. Eventually of course the story winds up with all of them on the pier, and lots of harrowing fisticuffs.

To learn more about silent and slapstick comedy history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.



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