W.C. Fields and the Musical Laughtrack

I don’t like to have humor spoon fed to me. I think humor is best when it’s smart—even if it’s lowbrow. The laughtrack is the easiest example of a tool of comedy that insults my intelligence. I know there are a handful of reasons for them in a show, and not all of them are evil, but I’ve always been able to laugh without being cued by the creators that something funny just happened. Turns out I’m a minority. My wife says it’s uncommon, and I’ve heard that from others over the years. Many times, late at night, I’ve woken her up with my gales of laughter, watching a film while next to her in bed.

This could be hereditary. My Pop once told me of drawing stares on a Philly subway in the 60s, as he laughed uncontrollably while reading a Jules Feiffer book. Last year, history repeated itself: while reading a Philip Roth book on a NY subway, I was convulsing with laughter and I could feel the same stares. As I got off the train, a woman walked over and said, “OK, I have to know what made you laugh so hard?” She was being nice, but it still makes me wonder: is laughter exclusively a group experience? Is there something inside that warns us that to laugh alone is a sign of marching to the beat of your own drummer?

But I digress. I mean to talk about mickey mousing, which is when music in a film is put in synch with the action, as a way of reinforcing its point. Obviously, the term derives its use from animation, where one can easily see it’s necessity: since there is no sound recorded with an action something has to be added, so why not music?

Mickey mousing’s derogatory meaning comes when music is used to directly steer a viewer to a punch line or emotion. I can’t remember if it was Mel Brooks or Billy Wilder, but one of them said he stayed clear of using music cues to tell the audience that a joke just happened. Likewise, Sidney Lumet said this on his audio commentary for The Verdict: “I believe the [score] should not be doing what the movie’s doing. It shouldn’t be (what we call) ‘mickey mousing’ what’s going on. It should provide something else.”

The focus here, however, is a specific kind of mickey mousing which is when a soundtrack was added to silent films as they were “updated” for the audiences of sound era. That was how I first noticed this technique: as a kid, I would watch silent films on PBS, and they’d always be spiced up with silly, fast music and an abundance of sound effects created by musical instruments. There were timpani booms, kazoos and penny whistles. Lots of penny whistles. I was too young to think they were insulting my intelligence, but I was definitely like WTF? Pretty soon I was watching these with the volume down.

In the mid-80s, I taped an early talkie onto VHS, the W.C. Fields short film The Dentist (1932). This may be the funniest film I’ve ever seen. Here’s a sample, when Fields goes is golfing…

Then, as now, I laughed so incredibly loud watching this alone late one night, I think I woke my mother on the floor above.

When Criterion put out W.C. Fields 6 Short Films, I was thrilled to retire my fifteen-year old VHS tape.  In typical Criterion fashion, it looks great, obviously created from the best possible archival elements. But the sound? Well, here’s the same scene from that DVD…

Really? Really?! Whoever added the music blows the joke and, in the process, makes the gag less about a completely out-of-left field and malicious sight gag to just a silly bit of business. There are a few more instances of this short, but you get the idea.

The DVD doesn’t come with any explanation for this though I feel pretty damn certain the music-less version (my VHS) is the original. There are notes on the DVD about the transfers, which contain some clues: “The Dentist was created from a 35mm composite duplicate picture negative and a 35mm optical soundtrack negative; two scenes excised from the film in accordance with the provisions of the Hays Code have been restored from a 16mm composite duplicate negative, along with original opening and closing credits.” That last fact—about the credits—means a lot: there was a prior version of the film that Criterion did not use for their source material. (How weird is it to write anything negative about Criterion.) And though it’s not clear, the scenes that were excised had been in the initial release of the film but were removed after 1934, when the code was enforced.

You can watch the two and judge for yourself—but to me it’s crystal clear. The proof comes from the people I laughed awake.

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1 Comment

Filed under Film, Plucked from Obscurity

One response to “W.C. Fields and the Musical Laughtrack

  1. Pingback: W.C. Fields Suffers the Weight of the World | Peel Slowly

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