Tag Archives: Film Forum

W.C. Fields Suffers the Weight of the World

Beginning tomorrow, Friday, April 22nd, New York City’s Film Forum, will have a 12-day W.C. Fields film festival, showing most of his films (all 35mm prints!). So it’s a perfect time to share some of my observations on Mr. Fields. I think most people nowadays—those unfamiliar with his films—would characterize his iconic persona as ‘a drunk who doesn’t like children.’ There’s a lot of truth to that interpretation, but there was much more, something that I became more attune to as I got older. The characters in his domestic comedies (i.e. The Man on a Flying Trapeze or The Bank Dick) endured a very deep suffering. The struggle of being a husband, a father, a provider is a theme I began to appreciate as I’ve moved on in years. Subsequently, my aching laughter when watching his films has evolved into empathy.

A case in point is It’s a Gift (1934), generally regarded as Fields’s masterpiece and the film that kicks off the Film Forum Festival this weekend. Fields plays Harold Bissonette, a family man and owner of a grocery store, who suffers endlessly at the hands of his wife, children, customers—even his neighbor’s children–all the while dreaming of buying an orange grove in California. Most scenes are set-pieces, isolated sketches, typical of comedies of the early 30s; for example, early on, in his store he concurrently battles an enraged customer demanding kumquats, an inept employee, and the blind, near-deaf, cane-swinging Mr. Muckle. It’s sisyphean comedy at its best. It’s not unlike scenes from his earlier shorts, i.e. “The Dentist,” but thanks to the context—a middle-aged man pursuing his dreams against tremendous odds—the pain in these scenes is all the more painful.


I think my point is shown best midway through the film. It’s nighttime and having already endured endless hen-pecking from his wife, Harold takes his pillow and blanket outside (A). Thus begins an 11-minute sequence, where he tries in vain to sleep on their apartment balcony (B). Although the clock says it’s 4:30am—when all the world should be asleep–he’s unknowingly moved into the eye of the storm.



In short order, he’s tormented by a falling cocoanut (1), a bottle-clanking milkman (2), an ice-pick-wielding toddler (3), and a continuation of his wife’s needling (4).


He’s even harassed by an insurance salesman…

In my teens, the funniest part of this scene was the prolonged spelling of the ridiculous name “LaFong,” however, as an adult/husband/father/freelancer trying to eke out a living, I’m struck by the sad, sad irony of trying to sleep while a man cheerfully tells you you’ll have to work every day until you’re 90. That’s when my laughter turns to fatigue. And fear. And bonding. If you listen closely, at the end of the clip, he emotes under his breath, “If I could only retire now.” No wonder at one point later in the scene, he looks at the camera—at us—as if to say, “See what I have to deal with?”…

The film is such an endless gagfest, it’s easy to miss its most subdued moment, its most poignant. Harold’s just used a recent inheritance to purchase an orange grove, much to his wife’s dismay. She badgers and bemoans, all of which he takes without rebuttal, like any beaten man would. However, at the end of the scene, he quietly tells her, as he’s leaving the room, that he’s sold their grocery store, a selfish act that will uproot his family. Her shock and outrage tells us he’s never done anything like this before.

But it’s Fields’s delivery that is so effective. There’s no fanfare, no argument, no “I’m putting my foot down!” outburst. He just says it. Because if Harold didn’t seize control, didn’t act impetuously, didn’t instigate change with his own hand, then all the other suffering would truly be unbearable. And so when he tells his wife that he’s irrevocably changed their lives, it’s the film’s Moment of Clarity, Harold’s quiet assertion of controlling his own destiny.
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For further reading I steer you to “Godfrey Daniel!”, an excellent piece by Ivan G. Shreve, Jr., on the blog Edward Copeland on Film. Shreve and I share a similar take on Fields’s film persona, and he astutely observes that his characters “suffer the slings and arrows…with a Zen-like stoicism that instantly puts the viewer in his corner.”

I also heartily recommend going to Film Forum and seeing any of Fields’s films with a packed house, which is how his films were meant to be seen. You shouldn’t take anything I’ve written here as an indication to look for something deeper, certainly not at the sake of laughing your pants off. But it’s there. It doesn’t make the films funnier; it just makes them more than funny.

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(By the way, I may not make it to Film Forum this weekend, where It’s a Gift is sharing a bill with “The Dentist.” If anyone does, please tell me which print of the latter they use. For further explanation of the various prints of the film that exist, check out my post W.C. Fields and the Musical Laughtrack.)

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Charlie Chaplin: What Was He Thinking?!

Have you ever seen a Charlie Chaplin film projected, with an audience? I’m always surprised to find out how few have. It’s magical, a communal experience with everyone bonding via laughter. Not only will you enjoy yourself, I guarantee that at some point during the screening you’ll make a mental list of loved ones you wish could be there with you. It’s the most amazing side effect, craving to share your joy with others. My God, what could be a better feeling to have when seeing a film?

Currently, the Film Forum in NYC is having a Chaplin festival, through August 5. Screenings include Modern Times, The Kid, The Chaplin Revue (a shorts collection) and a collection of his Mutual Shorts from 1917, which will have live piano accompaniment (the inventive and indefatigable Steve Sterner). Naturally, they’re showing (arguably) his masterpiece, The Gold Rush (1925), which is screening tonight. Even though Chaplin calls this film, “The picture I want to be remembered by,” I can’t in good conscience suggest this screening. To know why, we must turn back the clock…

In 1942, Charlie Chaplin, 52, was caving to artistic insecurity. Virtually a Luddite when it came to talking pictures, his three features made during the Sound Era were either completely or mostly silent (he composed music but there was very little synchronized sound for the dialog). Like any performer who made a cultural impact, he feared two kinds of mortality: his own death and the death of his body of work. In an effort to keep up with the times, he modernized The Gold Rush for contemporary audiences. Drastically.

Obviously, Chaplin added music (again, his own compositions) and sound effects and seized the opportunity to tighten the plot some, removing a subplot. So far, so good. Logical. Also, he changed the film’s ending, which I think was a big mistake. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say that he altered the film’s conclusion to be something more chaste but less satisfying.

However, it’s the narration that does the real damage to The Gold Rush. Chaplin himself provides it, complete with his native British accent. Here’s a before-and-after sample which will state my case…

Did you cringe? I did the first time I saw the 1942 version (I was already familiar with the silent version). I looked around me as if someone in the audience were rudely speaking. Chaplin’s voice and demeanor is, frankly, condescending (“The Little Fellow”!) and clashes with the action on the screen. He sounds like a loud mime.1  His insecurities as an aging artist get the best of him and he spoon-feeds us set-ups and occasionally punchlines. Likewise, his music spells out every gag (his music is an acquired taste, to say the least).

Here’s another example, in this case one of the film’s most famous gags. The Tramp and his cohort (Mack Swain) are trapped and starving in a cabin, his delirious friend hallucinating that Chaplin is a chicken…

I feel like yelling at the screen, “Hey, Dude! I’m sittin’ right here! I can see what’s going on! Give it a rest!”

The obvious comparison is George Lucas’s infamous alterations to the first three Star Wars films, when he “spiced up” his films for a contemporary audience. And it’s a perfect way to defend Chaplin’s actions since they bear little resemblance to Lucas’s. For starters, Chaplin was a relic from the Silent Era and had become fearful that the bulk of his work would be forgotten completely. Film preservation wasn’t in style at the time (it wouldn’t be for decades), and he had seen the work of his peers literally disappear. (If Lucas seriously thinks his films will disappear or become obsolete, he’s an idiot.) And so Chaplin approached The Gold Rush with the logical notion not to preserve but to allow rediscovery. Unfortunately, he doubted the new audience’s ability to comprehend his brilliant mimicry, which is truly sad.

I guess when you add Ego, Age, Insecurity and Power, you get, well, the Loudest Silent Film Ever.

This is a part of the reissue's opening credits, the writing on the wall, so to speak.

To this day, the 1942 version is the one most readily available, at least the best- looking one. (In fact, to many of you reading, that may be the only version you know.) In 1953, the original version fell into the public domain in the US, so copies of that could be had on film and video, but always in less-than-reputable versions. Finally, in 2003, a 2-disc set was released which included both versions, though the 1942 version is the one presented front-and-center.

Sadly, for reasons that I’m sure are buried deep in one of Chaplin’s contracts, the new 35mm print at Film Forum is the 1942 version of the film, which makes me wonder when (or if) a new print of the original version of the film will be available. Like his other films from the Silent Era, The Gold Rush should be seen projected, with an adoring and receptive audience. It’s magical. But what’s screening tonight is a drag.

So, let’s call this post a PSA. If The Gold Rush is ever screening in your neighborhood, be sure to find out what version it is, or else you’ll find yourself yelling, “Shhhhh!” at the screen.

The reissue's poster. Notice the tell-tale caption: "With Music and Words."

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BACK TO POST 1 In the early 70s when Albert Brooks was doing stand up comedy, he did a bit on The Tonight Show as a French mime who spoke during his act: “Now I am walking against zee wind!…Now I am climbing zee rope!” That’s what I think of when I watch the 1942 version of The Gold Rush. And when you’re watching Chaplin, you don’t think of another comic. Sacrilege!

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