Bill Wolfe: Sight Gag in Fields Films

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Today is the birthday of Bill Wolfe (1894-1975) that cadaverous looking scarecrow whom W.C. Fields used to stick in a lot of his movies. In the accepted vaudevillian fashion, Fields loved using freakish human beings as sight gags: fat people,bean poles, midgets, twins, etc.

According to author James Curtis, Fields picked Wolfe out of a line up for Poppy (1936), at the behest of director Eddie Sutherland. The gag in Poppy, later to repeated in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) is that Wolfe, the most gaunt, starving, poverty-stricken looking character imaginable, keeps asking Fields as the circus manager for the money he owes him, and Fields keeps and evading him and double talking his way out of it. Fields also employed him in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939), My Little Chickadee (1940), The Bank Dick (1940) and Follow the Boys (1944) as well. Other comedians or comedy auteurs Wolfe supported included Harry Langdon (Long Pants, 1927), Laurel and Hardy (Way Out West, 1938), and Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels, 1941)

It’s funny to know that Wolfe was from New York City and had a background in burlesque. He had the look of a country bumpkin (as a type he was not unlike Slim Summerville) and the vast majority of his credits were in westerns (scores of them) usually as a bit player or an extra. His last credit was the Randolph Scott oater The Nevadan (1950), in which he played the role of “barfly”.

To learn more about comedy film history don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For still more on show biz historyconsult 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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