The W.C. Fields Comedy Collection, Vols. 1 and 2
Reviewed by Robert Cashill

W. C. Fields as Larsen E. Whipsnade and Eddie Anderson as Rochester in You Can't Fool an Honest Man

W. C. Fields as Larsen E. Whipsnade and Eddie Anderson as Rochester in You Can't Fool an Honest Man

Vol. 1 includes International House (B&W, 69 mins., 1933, with the A&E Biography episode W.C. Fields: Behind the Laughter, 1994), It's a Gift (B&W, 69 mins., 1934), You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (B&W, 79 mins., 1939), My Little Chickadee (B&W, 84 mins., 1940), and The Bank Dick (B&W, 72 mins., 1940).

Vol. 2 includes You're Telling Me! (B&W, 67 mins., 1934), The Old Fashioned Way (B&W, 72 mins., 1934), Man on the Flying Trapeze (B&W, 67 mins., 1935), Poppy (B&W, 74 mins., 1936), and Never Give A Sucker an Even Break (B&W, 71 mins, 1941, with the TV show Wayne and Shuster Take an Affectionate Look at W.C. Fields, 1965). Universal, distributed by Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

There was something missing when I reviewed James Curtis's excellent W.C. Fields: A Biography in the Fall 2003 issue of Cineaste, and that was, Godfrey Daniels, the films themselves. A full year later, the first volume of this essential set was released, followed belatedly by the second volume in 2007. What they lack in supplements—a few trailers and two once-over-lightly documentaries, one per set, is the extent of it—they make up for in quality transfers and sturdy, blue-chip packaging, as good as any star has warranted on the DVD market. Arranged chronologically, from 1933's International House to 1941's Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, you pretty much have Fields in clover, from his salad days at Paramount and Universal, when he was one of the country's top entertainers.

What he would have made of the Sixties counterculture, which favored the bong over the bottle, is open to question. It's hard to imagine him sharing a joint with hippie Austin Pendleton, as Groucho Marx does at the end of Otto Preminger's trippy Skidoo (1968). But his antiauthoritarian persona found its way onto the cover of Sgt. Pepper, where his one-time costar Mae West, another vaudevillian whose act was embraced by nonconformists, joins him. Fields's brand of choleric humor has been rechanneled; the Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm is basically one of Fields's long-suffering strivers who has made it to the top of the economic ladder, and still can't get any rest (which is what his family man characters always yearned for; wealth and social position are mere incidentals when the tide finally turns his way). But it has not been surpassed. Strip David of his put-upon, aggressive attitude and there's not much left; like so many contemporary comics, he's a one-tic pony. Fields contained multitudes.

Onscreen he poured his talent into two vessels: The peace-seeking husband and father, warily solicitous of the wife and devoted to the daughter, and the scheming mountebank, the one who threw Charlie McCarthy to the crocodiles when he got in his way. That hustling reprobate, always drinking but never drunk, springs from the confinement of Prohibition and enlivens International House, an all-star concoction (prominent are Burns and Allen and frequent Fields foil Franklin Pangborn) that sporadically doles out the performer, as if testing his suitability for bigger parts. "Professor Henry Quail" was one of the more restrained sobriquets Fields adopted for a character, but the distinctive charlatan apparel is there, as is the throwaway plotting and recurrent fascination with gizmos and geegaws. Piloting "The Spirit of Brooklyn," Quail beerily drops in on a hotel in "WooHoo, China," where a new miracle device—television—is being tested and auctioned off. (The monitor-only unit brings us footage from the period acts that take up much of the brief running time, including Rudy Vallee and Baby Rose Marie.) Fields pitches moderately risqué woo at inanimate leading lady Peggy Hopkins Joyce but in a missed opportunity doesn't mix it up enough with sneaky Russian Bela Lugosi. For today's viewers the show is stolen by Cab Calloway's pre-Hays Office rendition of the taboo-flirting "Reefer Man."

Fields would steal back You Can't Cheat an Honest Man. It's not much of a contest: As a miserly circus owner, he has one of his best Dickensian names (Larson E. Whipsnade) and his costar is Edgar Bergen, who on his own is effete and sexless, and not difficult to outmaneuver when Whipsnade decides that his daughter needs a wealthier marriage prospect. Bergen's id, his dummies McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, are more of a challenge. McCarthy calls him "Old Rubber Nose"; perturbed, Whipsnade retorts, "I shall send over a couple of pet beavers to romp with you," in that inimitable forged-in-Philadelphia way. His customers are even more loathsome: "You kids are disgusting. Standing around here all day, reeking of popcorn and lollipops," he growls. Fields wrote much of his own material, under fanciful pseudonyms ("Charles Bogle" here and in other pictures, "Mahatma Kane Jeeves" for The Bank Dick and "Otis Criblecoblis" for his final feature, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break), and he was never meaner than here—calling Eddie "Rochester" Anderson a "cheerful pickaninny" is the closest he comes to an endearment (this is the only Fields picture that stoops to racist humor). He takes the dislikable side of his characterization to the extreme and wins ugly. The film is funny but the laughter more forced than usual, and the ventriloquism-intolerant are duly warned.

Fields made much of the casual, eccentric nature of his comedy, which he actually worked hard to perfect. In his final bow as a scalawag, in Honest Man follow-up My Little Chickadee, he consciously refines the character. The film has long been pegged as a disappointment, and isn't as raucous as a teaming of free spirits Fields and West might be. Thanks in large part to West (her quarrel was mostly with the apportioning of their screenwriting credits and not with the comedian himself) the movie is however the most sharply plotted in these sets. It takes place in the lawless Wild West town of Greasewood City, which is badly in need of a moral tune-up. Enter the two stars, to lower the tone even further. He is Cuthbert E. Twillie, a potions peddler; she has the "euphonious appellation" of Flower Belle Lee, who has been kicked out of her hometown for consorting with a masked bandit. To clear her not-so-good name Lee enters into a sham marriage with Twillie, fending off his polite but earnest letch (how strange it is to see the usually browbeaten or self-absorbed Fields on the make, for the first time since International House) as Twillie is romanced in turn by Lee's chief denouncer, played by the most un-West like Margaret Hamilton. By the end the disturbers of the peace have restored law and order, with a final exchange made in Hollywood heaven, as the two trade catchphrases: "Come up and see me sometime," teases Twillie, to which Lee responds, "Mmm, I will, my little chickadee." A classic capper like that makes up for a lot of flaws, but the two troupers break out of their self-containment and manage to interact, and that Fields's wheeler-dealer is obliged to take a stand for society (he becomes town sheriff) is a pleasing wrinkle on a well-worn persona.

But Fields was much happier cast as a beset dad, the standard bearer for whom nothing goes right till the last moments of final reel. The characterization was a kind of wish fulfillment; off the lot, he maintained a shell of a marriage and was contemptuous of his son, Claude, whose onscreen stand-in (sometimes named Claude, a cruel touch) was a dithering son- or brother-in-law or the toddling nemesis, Baby LeRoy. There is great comedy here, and where possible Fields worked much of his stage act into these pictures—The Old Fashioned Way, where "the Great McGonigle" heads a traveling repertory company, wraps with an astonishing display of his juggling. I still-stepped through it several times and couldn't isolate the lightning-quick manipulation of the cigar boxes. And the ire directed toward Baby LeRoy, including a swift kick in the pants, is a still-stunning rebuke toward the sanctimony shown toward children in so many films. Faced with the patchwork storylines and indifferent direction, it's tempting to fast-forward to the funny stuff in these weaker pictures. But that is to miss the underlying pathos of these father figures. The Old Fashioned Way has a Stella Dallas-type scene where the self-sacrificing McGonigle leaves his soon-to-wed daughter, and Fields plays it as indelibly as Barbara Stanwyck. (What would his career have been like if he had a girl in real life?)

It's a Gift, the film around which the Fields cult coalesced, is the zenith of his beleaguered domesticity. This is the classic comedy of aggravation, and while the Depression is never really mentioned in these pictures, audiences languishing in the doldrums could, and can, relate. Fields's grocer, Harold Bissonette, is no misanthrope; the laughs come when, having bent over backwards to accommodate a blind (and blindly destructive) customer, his nagging wife (Kathleen Howard, a former opera singer), or his neighbors, he finally snaps—the setpiece on the back porch, where Bissonette goes for some respite, is a precisely timed escalation of small disasters ending in collapse. Even the typically saintly daughter, who hogs the bathroom mirror when Bissonette is trying to shave, is an irritant here. A reversal of fortune offers a satisfying deliverance, to a California grove where the grocer has an endless supply of oranges to freshen his drinks. The blissed-out escape is total, an appealing, no-consequences withdrawal from the day-to-day grind.

Elsewhere, Fields attempts to do right by his dependents and preserve family unit. I hadn't seen some of these films in years, and was particularly delighted with Man on the Flying Trapeze, where "memory expert" Ambrose Wolfinger is continually flustered by his harassing mother-in-law and spendthrift brother-in-law, Claude. (Fields doesn't make you guess at his intentions—besides the dig at his son, the tyrannical battleaxe, a staple of domestic comedy, was based on his own estranged wife.) Howard is again the agitated spouse, but this time she and her flailing husband—who, in an early gambit, had had her mother declared dead—take a stand against their exploitation, and are joined by their daughter. The film ends with the extended family relegated to a literal backseat, as the three Wolfingers enjoy a spin in their new jalopy.

Ill health got the better of Fields in the pictures following Flying Trapeze, and the material is less consistent. In his last starring role, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, he comes up with a meta-movie to rival the likes of Adaptation. Here he plays Bill Fields, adored by his niece but hated by prissy producer Pangborn—his last picture, The Bank Dick, has done "bupkiss" at the box office (like the rest of Fields's work, it would be rediscovered on TV) and Fields's inability to stick to a script is blamed. The film then goes off on a wild movie-within-a-movie tear, involving a mountaintop hideaway, a girl who's never been kissed, and a gorilla, and climaxes with a car chase, by now standard in the productions. He directly addresses the audience, informing us that a soda-shop scene was originally set in a saloon, "but the censor cut it out." This near-surreal picture was a career-closing catastrophe, but the star goes out in a lunatic blaze of glory.

If you prefer your Fields in bulk, these two sets have been eclipsed by the release last December of W.C. Fields: The Movie Collection, a Region 2 package that collects seventeen pictures, all the ones here plus Million Dollar Legs and If I Had a Million (1932), Tillie and Gus (1933), Six of a Kind (1934), Mississippi (1935), The Big Broadcast of 1938 (available in Region 1 on a Bob Hope double bill with 1938's Fields-free College Swing) and a post-headliner appearance performing his famed pool-table routine in 1944's flag-waver Follow the Boys. (That skit had long been part of his theatrical repertoire, and a version was incorporated into his first short, 1915's Pool Sharks, which is part of the Criterion Collection's W.C. Fields—Six Short Films.) That grab-bag of pictures, three of them costarring the distinctive dowager Alison Skipworth, is enough to warrant a third Universal set. That box (we can only hope) should also retrieve his turn as Humpty Dumpty in the all-star curiosity Alice in Wonderland (1933) and 1934's Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, two titles announced but dropped from the Movie Collection. Readily available on these shores, happily, is George Cukor's 1935 David Copperfield, with the star's sprung-from-Dickens performance as Mr. Micawber. "Boy, as I have frequently had occasion to observe, 'When the stomach is empty, the spirits are low,'" he tells Freddie Bartholomew. We are finally filling up on Fields, and our spirits are rising accordingly.

To buy the W. C. Fields box set click here.

Robert Cashill, a New York City-based free-lance writer and an Associate Editor of Cineaste, also blogs at www.robertcashill.blogspot.com.

Copyright © 2008 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.