December 9 is the anniversary of the release date of the classic W.C. Fields short The Dentist (1932). Along with The Fatal Glass of Beer and The Golf Specialist this film ranks among the classic comedies I have watched the most times. A compilation video was one of the first videotapes I ever got (back when home video was new) and I’ve certainly watched these movies dozens and dozens of times. (These films fell into the public domain in the 1960s, thus they are among the most accessible of all films and have been for half a century. If you haven’t seen them yet, we hope the rectify that right here and now)
The Dentist was adapted from a a sketch Fields had done in Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1928, with some elements of his famous golf routine from the Ziegfeld Follies, and some other new narrative elements. It was filmed during the window of time when Fields’ status as a movie star was at a low ebb. He’d been a star of Paramount features in the silent 1920s, but that career had fizzled out. By the mid 30s he would be a star of Paramount comedy features yet again — after he proved himself in these shorts and several parts in ensemble comedies. Thus, Mack Sennett was briefly able to grab him for his comedy shorts. Sennett was on his way out at this late date — his films with Fields are considered his last gasps of greatness. But what a note to go out on!
The plot is simple. Fields plays a small town jawbreaker who butchers several eccentric looking patients, in between holes of golf, and attempts to prevent his wayward daughter (Babe Kane) from eloping with the ice man (Arnold Gray). The latter development provides the only semblance of plot, the majority is just a hilarious, sometimes naughty backout sketch, full of laugh-out loud jokes and physical business. “You’re fortunate it wasn’t a Newfoundland dog that bit you,” quips Fields when his cute, flirtatious patient (Dorothy Granger) bends over to show him the spot on her ankle where she was nipped by a Dachsund. He must also wrestle with a “horse-faced”, long legged woman who resembles Olive Oyl (Elise Cavanna) in order to yank a stubborn tooth. And then there’s the small Russian man (Billy Bletcher) whose beard is so thick Fields can’t find his mouth. When he disturbs the whiskers trying to get to the teeth, two birds fly out. (BTW, this gag is the source of one of show business’ best known real life stories. When Fields presented it onstage in the Vanities he was actually arrested and tried for animal abuse when one of the birds died.) Other notables in the cast include Bud Jamison as the Dentist’s pal Harry Frobisher, and Bobby Dunn as the Dentist’s caddy.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy, including films of W.C. Fields, please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media