March 3 is the anniversary of the release date of the hilarious W.C. Fields short The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933).
Classic comedy buffs cherish this film to a degree that you can scarcely imagine. Fields only made about a half dozen comedy shorts during his film career; most of his movies are features. Most of the shorts (like this one) were made for Mack Sennett and count among the Keystone founder’s very last films. Fields’ shorts were based on sketches he had originally presented in Broadway revues. Many of them slipped into the public domain in the 1960s and thus have gotten a good bit of play, originally on tv and then on home video. This little movie was one of my earliest exposures to the comedy of Fields, and was one of the first videeotapes I ever owned — I’ve probably seen it 50 times.
Further The Fatal Glass of Beer has that very arcane quality that is the very thing (I’m convinced) that drives certain people TO classic film comedies, and drives everyone else away. I’m referring to the bizarre, uncanny strangeness of the antique. Most people, to their deep discredit, FLEE from everything they don’t understand. Others are more intrigued. They want to know what it’s all about. Part of the enjoyment is grappling with it, understanding it better over time. Speaking personally, I’ve always been a person who approaches things intuitively. I am able to acclimate myself pretty quickly to unfamiliar territory by gathering what’s going on from the context. But in the meantime, I enjoy the accessible aspects, especially when they happen to be hilarious. It’s really not much different than a lifelong engagement with the Elizabethans, or opera or something. And since this is so much EASIER and more accessible than that, it makes people who appear to be challenged by such deal-breakers as black-and-white, silence, and historical cultural references seem all the more TRULY PATHETIC. At any rate, some audiences were bewildered by the self-reflexive comedy of The Fatal Glass of Beer even in 1933. If you find yourself among the bewildered now, those people were probably your grandparents.
The Fatal Glass of Beer was based on Fields’s comedy sketch “The Stolen Bonds”, originally presented in the Broadway revue Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1928. It is a parody of a theatrical and cinematic genre that was old-fashioned even then; now it appears to be next to unknown, despite its near ubiquity a handful of generations ago. I’m talking about MELODRAMA. This one is a kind of mash-up of a temperance (anti-booze) melodrama and a “Frozen North” tale of the Yukon. The film’s most famous recurring gag is Fields opening the door to his cabin and declaring “‘T’aint a fit night out for m-a-a-a-a–an nor beast!”, only to be hit in the face by a handful of stage snow. The film is intentionally stage-bound, and some of the laughs are garnered from the very artificiality of the storytelling. (I especially like it best when he is driving his sled dogs, with the insane process shots behind him). Silent film veteran Rosemary Theby (whose resume went back to the earliest days of Vitagraph) plays his wife; George Chandler plays his son Chester, just out of jail. The fun is in the ritual of it, and Fields’ surreal sense of humor (such as the lengthy piece of bread he keeps dunking, and his pronunciation of the word nugget as “nougat”). Unless, of course, you don’t think it’s fun at all, in which case, get lost.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy including the comedies of the great W.C. Fields, don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube