I am a very ill-disciplined film buff. To fix this, I’m spending the next thirty days plumbing the depths of the Criterion Collection, the if not definitive than certainly standard film collection of the important touchstones in the world of film. Each day I’ll pick a Criterion film from a different decade, starting from the nineteen-teens and moving up to the 2000s, then starting again, as available.
W.C. Fields — Six Short Films
Only the first of this collection is actually in the teens (Pool Sharks, 1915), but W.C. Fields’ decade-spanning career seems a good place to start, ushering us from silent film to sound, all with an eager and (poked out) eye for slapstick and vaudeville-style film-making.
Pool Sharks, only 8-minutes long, is the somewhat incoherent story of two men competing for a woman’s attention and then matching wits in a game of pool. The contest of eye-poking and nose-twisting is an obvious template for the Three Stooges. More interestingly, is a young W.C. Fields’ striking resemblance to Steve Martin, complete with an expansive nose and a manic chesire cat smile. It provides an interesting window into thinking about how Fields’ combination of slapstick and misanthropy has proved a highly adaptable formula threading its way through various eras of comedy and film.
It is fitting that the film can be found on Youtube–arguably the wild west of American film-making–and seems right at home in this gleeful repository for amateurish film-making, slapstick schadenfreude and quirky stop-motion animation (the pool game quickly goes off the rails). It’s also comforting to know that butt jokes and masculine posturing have such a long history in film. I hereby justify my enthusiasm for the Jackass movies.
The Golf Specialist (1930)
I should note here that I’m watching these films not as a purely historical experiment, which means I’m not going to ignore things I think are shitty as a celebration of “how it used to be done.” WIth that said, I find this one much harder to watch. The 20-minute film is divided into two scenes, the first is a loose, awkwardly timed scene serving only to characterize the female in it as a manipulative trophy wife flirting with every man who passes through the hotel lobby as a way of trying to provoke her husband to fight. This characterization proves pointless: The next scene, in which Fields offers to teach her how to golf, gives her almost no lines, and she stands politely next to Fields’ bumbling attempt at golf.
With the benefit of sound, Fields goes from Three Stooge slapstick to a fully formed pompous idiot, a forerunner of Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau. The physical comedy is still there, and the scene’s tension lies mainly in the Golf specialist getting ever closer to hitting the ball without ever hitting it. The rhythm is the most interesting. We are used to our slapstick happening at a high speed, bouncing from one bit of physical humiliation to another in a sort of frenetic choreography. In comparison, the fumbling of the Golf specialist happens at a glacial pace, and adds an almost serene quality to his incompetency. If watched in fast forward it might provide the sort of humor we are used to, but at this speed it becomes a weird study of physicality–a dance of lowbrow comedy in a way.
The Pharmacist (1933)
In The Pharmacist, Fields tightens up the scenes, and tones down the pompous part of his idiot. His character is an overly-friendly and less-than-effectual pharmacist, who dabbles in the casual abuse of his annoying daughter. In a trend that plays into two other films–Fatal Glass of Beer and The Barber Shop–his family dinner table is constantly getting interrupted. It’s an easy joke to make in the 30s, when the family dinner table was likely much more of a formal, central and sacred place, but it’s also an interesting look into where Fields’ humor comes from: Playing the darker side of the all-American working man, one who attempts all the things that make a good, conventional American, but lacks the luck/character to get it quite right. In this case, his good-natured way of business (merrily lending credit, handing out Chinese vases as a free sample) gets him in trouble with his wife and serves as an opportunity for his customers to take advantage of him. It’s funny, but also a cynical takedown of the naive small-town American.
Next up is a Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)
Fields plays a gold prospector in the Yukon. This film started out as a Vaudeville play (where Fields got his start. There is a reference to his character in The Golf Specialist, if you care to go find it. Or, just wikipedia). The film plays as such–his son returns after having gone to jail in the big city for stealing war bonds. It’s the classic prodigal son story, with the son returning looking for a fresh start and a return to the way things were, only when his kindly parents find out just how much of a fresh start he made, the warm family reunion goes all wrong.
Fields comedy seems especially fascinated with the idea of economic opportunity–in the Pharmacist it’s an honest business man losing out to his less than scrupulous customers, in this one, a down-on-his-luck prospector goes after his son for not holding on to his ill-gotten gains. Two opposing paths in the once get-rich-quick america (keep in mind this is the 30s: Great Depression central): one honest, the other desperate, both paths unable to lead to wealth.
The film also makes a weird play at temperance America: In reality, the only mention of beer is in a song Fields sings to a Canadian mounty at the beginning of the film, warning of the perils of alcohol.
Bonus racism: For the first time, minorities are sighted! In the form of Indians who say “How” quite a bit, and are inexplicably dressed in the headdresses of the Lakota Indians. Nevermind this is the Yukon.
The Barber Shop (1933)
Ice Cube’s barber shop this is not: The streak of no black people, unsurprisingly, holds strong. The character of the inept business man returns, this time as a barber. The barber he is also somewhat of a liar, telling tall tales of his bravery to his smitten helper (his henpecked wife lurks upstairs, present only at yet another disrupted dinner table, scolding the Barber for listening to his son’s riddles). He terrorizes a man with his razor, and neglects another in the steam room.
In the end, his barber shop is briefly held up by a bank robber with a reward on his head, and so the business man character shows his inner gold prospector, proving to be both cowardly and opportunistic, attempting to take credit away from his son for catching the criminal, and claim the reward himself. He does end up with the reward, the first time a Fields character succeeds in business. This character is a blend of the other two–dishonest in a harmless sort of way, only trying to game the system when the opportunity arises and his pride is at stake–and it is the only one of these characters who both has an ego to protect and manages to make some money.
The Dentist (1932)
Thank god this isn’t Marathon Film. It is this film that seems least willing to disregard the plot and wander off in the direction of a solid one liner. Of the six films, this is the only character that is of a professional class, though Fields’ dentist is an irascible, sadistic man. It is his least likeable character, as he goes off bad-mouthing patients, hitting people with golf balls and locking his daughter away from a suitor.
I don’t like going to the dentist, and I certainly don’t like films involving bad dentistry, but this film is the one I found most tightly written and filmed.