Today marks the anniversary of the release date of the classic W.C. Fields comedy short The Barber Shop (1933). Based on a sketch Fields had performed in Earl Carroll’s Vanities, the film was directed by Arthur Ripley, and is the last short Fields made for Mack Sennett .
As in The Dentist and The Pharmacist, and many later films, in The Barber Shop Fields plays a hen-pecked small town burger. As in The Pharmacist, his shrewish, vegetarian wife is played by Elise Cavanna (perhaps better known as the long-legged patient lady from The Dentist). He spends a lot of time loafing around gossiping about passers-by,encouraging his son’s corny riddles, flirting with the manicure lady, playing his bass fiddle (he beats it like a drum), and occasionally waiting on a customer. As in The Dentist, his character’s ineptitude results in several sadistic, if hilarious gags. A dog patiently waits for him to cut an ear off a man he’s shaving (it’s been known to happen). An enormous man walks into his new steam room, gets left in too long, and emerges 300 pounds smaller. All through the film, Fields boasts about what he’ll do if he ever catches the escaped bank robber who’s said to be nearby. At the climax to the film, he gets his chance to prove his heroism, when the robber bursts in seeking a make-over at gunpoint. You can guess how that goes. The whole thing ends on a surprisingly risque visual gag about Field’s bass fiddle mating with another one that’s been left there and producing a little of small fiddle pups!
By the time of The Barber Shop, Fields had proved his mettle in talking features in the successful Paramount romp International House, so he was able to move on from shorts. And it was just as well. Sennett would only be producing for another few months anyway, and most of the other studios (except for Columbia) would cease producing them in the mid ’30s, as well.
For more on comedy history see my 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