Tag Archives: W.C. Fields

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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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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Filed under Film, Plucked from Obscurity