A New Book on the Silent Movies of W.C. Fields

Speak of the devil! I was only just expressing the need for more attention paid to W.C. Fields’ silent pictures in my review of Arthur Wertheim’s most recent book on the life and art of the Great Man, and now, Lo and Behold, not even two months later he has brought out a new book on that very subject, published by Bear Manor Media.

The Silent Movies of W.C. Fields: How They Created the Basis for His Fame in Sound Films is handy as a centralized source on Fields’ films from the period 1915 through 1928, the leg of his screen career least well known to the public. Since around half of Fields’ silent films are lost, there is a “getting blood from a stone” quality to the book, though Wertheim does his best to recreate the lost ones from contemporaneous references in reviews, correspondence, etc. Since many of the bits in the silents were revived for his sound films (as indicated by the title) it is probably an easier job with Fields than most stars of the period. Wertheim reminds us of one that often gets lost in the cracks — his first screen appearance was in a film that was shown only in the Ziegfeld Follies, as part of the show. Then there was a very brief juncture in 1915, when many Broadway stars were being signed, where he made two slapstick shorts, Pool Sharks and His Lordship’s Dilemma. And then his stretch in the mid to late ’20s when he made several features. Early ones like Sally of the Sawdust (1926) and It’s The Old Army Game (1926) survive, but later ones like his team-ups with Chester Conklin are apparently lost for good.

Wertheim gets us as close as he can to this material, but to be truthful, there’s only enough truly germane stuff for a strong article. The rest is digressive padding with information about the studios he worked for, his co-stars, and so forth and not about the films directly. This will be highly entertaining to relative newbies on the topics at large; much less so for the folks who have long been steeped in it. Still, if taken in the spirit of Fields own long, winding shaggy dog stories (as when he explains how he came to be known as “Honest John”), it’s a worthwhile ride. To get your copy of The Silent Movies of W.C. Fields go here.