W.C. Fields in the Silents

We have accumulated over 100 posts on Travalanche about quintessential classic comedian W.C. Fields (1880-1946), so many that long ago we bundled them all into their own section. Starting with a biographical post about his vaudeville days in 2010, we continued to expand over the next dozen years, covering such things as his Broadway years, how he evolved from a juggler into a comedian, an overview of his film career, separate posts for each one of his movies, his politics, myths about him, his radio career, various writers and performers he worked with, books and exhibitions about him, references to him in the culture, and notices about my own live events (talks, performances, screenings etc) celebrating him. You’d think I had it covered, but how could I?

Not that I need a reason, but there are many in my head for today’s addition to that burgeoning collection of essays and bulletins: the recent passing of Arthur Wertheim, whose last book was about Fields’ silent films; the 10th anniversary of the release of my book Chain of Fools (as well as the immanent release of the audio-book version) which talks a bit about Fields’ silent pictures; the looming centennial anniversary of the stage premiere of Poppy; and the birthday (yesterday) of Dorothy Donnelly, author of Poppy. And it occurred to me that, while I have written about each of Fields’ silent movies individually on this blog, and mentioned them as a phase in his overall career, it would be useful to have one single post on the topic that could be linked to, in the fashion of my radio one. All that!

Fields’ silent films are his most obscure movies. Even those who know and love his talkies tend not to have seen them. There are reasons. While they aren’t bad exactly, neither do they rank with the masterpieces of the silent era. Granted there is copious physical business throughout the surviving films. Fields was a juggler initially, not an acrobatic slapstick clown. Physicality is not integrated into the plot, as in the great films of Chaplin, Lloyd, or Keaton. On the contrary, the plots in these films will stop dead in order for Fields to do one of his routines. He may have once sneered at Chaplin as a “goddamn ballet dancer” – yet a ballet dancer and not a voiceless talker was precisely what was needed in the silent era. Fields does plenty of humorous business with hats, canes, balls, handkerchiefs and playing cards, but for the most part he doesn’t do mime or slapstick. Thus, Fields’ excellence as a physical performer notwithstanding, his films struggle for the most part to tell their stories with intertitles. A couple of them are based on stage plays. Granted, the titles are often funny and are usually written in Fields’s verbose style with funny character names, and dialogue written in what we recognize as Fields’ “voice”. But boy do we miss hearing that voice.

Fields actually had two silent film careers, in two phases. The first began very early, in 1915, the same year when Chaplin was really beginning to stretch his legs as an artist at Essanay Studios, Fatty Arbuckle was flourishing as Keystone’s biggest star, Douglas Fairbanks was breaking into the industry, and Harold Lloyd was beginning to make films with Hal Roach. Also, 1915 was the same year that Fields made his premiere with the Ziegfeld Follies. So he thought he would try movies as a kind of an experiment. He made two films for the American branch of the French studio Gaumont.

The first of these Pool Sharks (1915) was, as the title indicates, based around the pool routine Fields had made famous in vaudeville and Broadway revues. Whereas he had used a trick pool table on stage, the film makes use of crude stop motion effects to achieve his trick shots. The film delights nonetheless for many reasons. It is a rare chance to see a relatively trim and youthful Fields in action. And it’s an eye into his origins. Even casual movie buffs have seen Fields do trick pool routines from his films of the 1930s. It’s a delight to see him doing it 20 years earlier.

The second, His Lordship’s Dilemma (1916) is sadly lost and very little is known about it. It’s principally of interest because it was where he committed his famous golf routine to celluloid for the first time, which was later resurrected in So’s Your Old Man (1926), The Golf Specialist (1930) and You’re Telling Me (1934).

Fields’ brief early experiment in the cinema was clearly not successful enough to lure Fields away from his flourishing and lucrative stage career. He went back to the theatre, and would not return to films again for almost a decade. In the intervening time he became a major star in comedy sketches in the Broadway revues of Ziegfeld and others. Then, in 1923, he starred in the musical Poppy, in which he created the role Eustice McGargle, the florid-tongued, top-hatted 19th century mountebank, variations of which he would play to his dying day.  His performance in that show had garnered the attention of critics like Alexander WoollcottRobert Sherwood, and George Jean Nathan. This changed everything. His stock had risen and now he could be taken seriously as an actor.

In 1924, Fields was given a cameo in the film Janice Meredith, a Revolutionary War romance starring William Randolph Hearsts’s paramour and pet project Marion Davies, with Harrison Ford (not the living one!) as her co-star. Fields is the only comic relief in this 2.5 hour long silent feature, as a drunken, gluttonous British sergeant who is guarding Davies’ jailed lover.

The following year, D.W. Griffith, who was just then leaving United Artists to begin working for Paramount, chose to adapt Poppy for the screen as Sally of the Sawdust. In Sally, Griffith did to Poppy precisely what you would expect — he concentrated on the story’s melodramatic aspects and focused mainly on the travails of the young heroine (Carol Dempster). Although Griffith genuinely loved Fields’ comedy and acting, he reduced his role somewhat to a colorful supporting part. Still, Fields got to squeeze in much impressive business, including a couple of juggling routines, and familiar little turns we recognize from his talking films. Sally of the Sawdust was a hit and launched Fields on a career as a silent comedian.

Eight more films for Paramount followed over the next three years.

Fields next, That Royle Girl (1925), another Griffith-Dempster-Ford collaboration was just a minor supporting part, although it’s hard to evaluate as it is now lost.

It’s the Old Army Game (1926), directed by Eddie Sutherland, may be thought of Fields’ first true starring vehicle. The title is misleading, as the movie has zilch to do with the army. The phrase is part of Fields’ shell game patter, meant to reassure you that it’s okay to participate in what anyone who’s not a rube knows is a rigged con game. It’s the Old Army Game is one of Fields’ most interesting silents to watch. Much of it was derived from sketch material Fields had devised for the 1925 revue The Comic Supplement, and later wound up using in his 1934 talkie It’s a Gift. (Such as the “trying to sleep on the noisy porch” routine). Fields plays small town druggist Elmer Prettywillie; the titles in the film amusingly mirror his now famous verbose speaking style. Flapper Louise Brooks, with whom Fields had appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies several years before, plays his pretty clerk here in one of her first movie roles. (She would wind up marrying director Eddie Sutherland). Also in the film: Blanche RingWilliam Gaxton and Mary Foy (NOT one of the famous vaudeville Foy family). Critics were unkind to the film at the time, already accusing Fields of recycling material at this early stage. Today it is something of an indispensable curiosity.

Then came So’s Your Old Man (1926), directed by Gregory La Cava. If you’ve already seen the 1934 talkie You’re Telling Methen you’ve practically seen So’s Your Old Man — the latter is a remake of the former. The film was based on a story called Mr. Bisbee’s Princess by Julian Leonard Street and revives Fields’ famous golf routine, which he had devised for Broadway revue sketches, and had filmed in his 1930 short The Golf Specialist. (To my mind, the vehicle also has more than a little in common with George Kelly’s The Show Off). In the film, Fields plays a crackpot inventor named Sam Bisbee who has a lot riding on the sale of his latest invention, a shatterproof windshield. In the remake, it is punctureless tires. I’ve always thought this switch is eloquent about the two different kinds of movie, silent vs. talkie. A brick being thrown at a window and the resulting breakage is highly visual: perfect for silent comedy. A tire exploding is highly auditory; great for talkies. (Yes, glass breaking make a great noise, too. But a pop followed by a hiss is probably funnier). When Bisbee’s big presentation to auto executives goes awry, he is ready to call it quits but he is bailed out by a stranger whose life he touched, enabling his daughter to marry into the snobby family of her beau (Buddy Rogers).

Next came The Potters (1927), directed by Fred C. Newmeyer. The Potters is one of several lost Fields features and the loss of it is keenly felt. There is a sense in which it is a kind of UR-vehicle for Fields. It is based on a eponymous novel and Broadway play by J.P. McEvoy. The play, starring Donald Meek, ran from 1923 through 1924, the same time as Fields’ Poppy. The following season McEvoy and Fields teamed up together for the Broadway show The Comic Supplement, which was the blueprint for all of Fields’ domestic comedies thereafter, in much the same way as Poppy became the blueprint for all his Mountebankian comedies. There is very little in the Fields canon which can be said to fall outside one of those two categories. Ironically, two of Fields’ earlier comedy features follow the domestic formula established by the earlier McEvoy vehicles. In 1927, Paramount decided to go back to the source. Fields plays a bumbling dad who fancies himself a financial wizard but constantly looses his shirt. Thus the seasoned Fields fan would find the seeds here for later dreams of California orange groves (It’s a Gift) and the Beefsteak Mines (The Bank Dick). Unfortunately, the film didn’t do so well at the box office.

Next was Running Wild (1927), directed and co-written by Gregory LaCava. In this film, Fields plays an early version of one of his countless hen-pecked husbands, disrespected and bullied by his boss, co-workers, clients, wife, family and even his dog. In keeping with the Fields formula, only his daughter (Mary Brian) is good to him. One day, while fleeing an irate store owner (he has just accidentally broken his window with a thrown horseshoe), he ducks into a door which turns out to lead onto the stage of a theatre — where a show is in progress. A hypnotist is giving a demonstration and he hypnotizes Fields to think he is a lion. Fields immediately knocks the hypnotist unconscious and is therefore permanently stuck in ferocious mode. He goes back and squares accounts hilariously (sometimes brutally) with everyone who had done him dirt throughout the picture. I saw this film years ago at the Museum of Modern Art and the audience loved it. Audiences of Fields’ day did not. It is an odd one for Fields, probably his least characteristic surviving feature. Normally, his portrayals are more complex. While browbeaten, his husbands normally have brief moments of satisfaction, mumbled asides and little surreptitious acts of defiant sabotage. That is what MAKES his character. Here, La Cava allows him nothing. Similarly, most of the humor from the rampage comes from shock. It’s not clever in the Fieldsian way, just violent (more like early Mack Sennett). The failure of this film sapped Paramount’s confidence that they could make a solo film star out of W.C. Fields. His remaining silent features would all co-star Chester Conklin. Fields liked working with Mary Brian, though, and later went to great lengths to get her cast in Man on the Flying Trapeze. And he and LaCava remained lifelong friends.

Two Flaming Youths (1927) was the first to pair him with Conklin. For a period of a few months Paramount tried the men as a team, hoping to bolster the box office pull of both comedians, although unfortunately the move had the opposite effect. The lack of interest in this film at the time resulted in its complete disappearance, and fans today count it as a great loss. Also in the cast was Mary Brian, her second with Fields. Two Flaming Youths had a carnival setting that anticipated You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man . It was chock full of cameos by top vaudevillians, including Weber and FieldsClark and McCulloughThe Duncan SistersSavoy and BrennanMoran and Mack, Kolb and DillJack Pearl, et al, AND it featured some bona fide sideshow freaks, including Fat Lady Anna Magruder. Thus its loss was not just a blow to comedy fans but to theatre history buffs as well. But ya never know. It just may turn up, though time is running out. The title seems a reference to the 1923 Flaming Youth, starring Colleen Moore. 

After this the erstwhile team returned in Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1928), directed by Eddie Sutherland. As the name suggests, the film was a remake of the Mack Sennett film of 14 years earlier, although much altered. Mack Swain returns as Tillie’s father, but the now elderly Marie Dressler was replaced by Louise Fazenda, and the entire story was transplanted to a circus to make it a better vehicle for Fields. Fields’ film career was floundering at this stage, and even the recent effort to form a team with Conklin, begun with the previous year’s Two Flaming Youths wasn’t saving it. The critics panned this film, and the public stayed away. Sadly, this film is now considered lost; no known copies survive.

Lastly, there is Fools for Luck (1928), directed by Chuck Reisner. The plot concerned Fields as a shady businessman who sells a dubious oil well to Conklin. The well proves to be dry; the pair quarrel; then Conklin strikes oil after all. Happy ending. Fools for Luck was the last of three films the team co-starred in and indeed Fields’ last silent film. Paramount dropped him after its failure, and it was only with great difficulty that he made his way back in a few years later after proving his viability in talking comedy shorts. The lack of interest in this film at the time resulted in its complete disappearance, and fans today count it as a great loss. Nothing daunted, Fields came back to Hollywood to have a go at talkies in 1930 where he finally achieved the successes the vast majority of the public still know and revere him for.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy, including the films of W.C. Fields, don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube