Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Chris 2010 Viewings #1: It's a Gift

I love W.C. Fields something fierce. Usually when I express said love to friends they make a stink face because the only Fields they know is the Rich Little version of Fields, one that bears little resemblance to the one on display in his greatest films. This is an impression shared by the general populace, one in which the only film Fields ever appeared in is his duo with Mae West, My Little Chickadee, which shows neither star at anything like their best.

My favourite Fields film is also fairly atypical. The Fatal Glass of Beer is a 21 minute short, hands down the funniest film I've ever seen, and virtually impossible to describe accurately, but I'll try. It is vaguely a prodigal son story set in the Yukon, in which prospector Mr. Snavely (Fields) and his wife welcome back their errant son, Chester, who has been seduced by drink and women in the big city. Mostly, however, it is a bizarre series of non-sequiturs, demolishing countless narrative cliches and Hollywood artifices in its path. The world of Fields is always a bit absurdist, but The Fatal Glass of Beer cranks the absurdity up to 11, much as Duck Soup did for the Marx Brothers the same year. It gave the world the only line any self-respecting person should utter when looking out into a snowstorm: "And it ain't a fit night out for man nor beast." I am also especially fond of the following exchange, the final line of which somehow manages to make its way into my conversations every few weeks:

Mrs. Snavely: He wants more money and if he don't get it, he'll take our malamutes.
Mr. Snavely: He won't take old Balto, my lead dog.
Mrs. Snavely: Why not, Pa?
Mr. Snavely: 'Cause I et him.
Mrs. Snavely: You ET him?
Mr. Snavely: He was mighty good with mustard.

Anyway, I didn't watch The Fatal Glass of Beer. I watched It's a Gift, which is probably Fields' best feature-length film, and possibly the best introduction to his universe. It is a universe in which every single person, object and place is specifically designed to cause maximum grief to the Fields figure, a man whose family and community hold him in contempt. Fields doesn't particularly want their respect (though in the end he usually gets it in some bizarre way); he mostly just wants to be let alone to enjoy his booze. In It's a Gift, Fields is Harold Bissonette (pronounced Biss-on-AY), New Jersey general store proprietor, who dreams of owning an orange grove in California. There is not so much a plot as a series of set pieces.

One scene of absolute genius is set in Harold's general store in which he tries to avoid telling a loud customer that he doesn't have the kumquats he ordered, while a blind man lays waste to his displays and Baby Leroy lets molasses flow freely on the floor. The climactic series of scenes in which Fields and family travel to California in a car barely held together by rope. Especially delightful is a picnic lunch outing, trespassing on a wealthy man's property.

The scene that earns It's a Gift a place in the pantheon involves Harold trying to get a good night's sleep on the porch. It's a scene that is beautifully played out in every detail: Fields' wife eternally suspicious and reprimanding of his every move; the mindless blather of a neighbouring woman and her daughter, each prolonging their vapid conversation by refusing to make a decision in a simple matter; a milkman with rattling bottles; a coconut making its leisurely way down the stairs; the porch bench falling apart; Baby Leroy dropping an ice pick from the upper balcony; and, genius stroke of genius strokes, the salesman who wants to know:

Insurance Salesman: Do you know a man by the name of LaFong? Carl LaFong? Capital L, small a, Capital F, small o, small n, small g. LaFong. Carl LaFong.

These are the people and things that populate the Fields universe, and It's a Gift is a great place to introduce yourself.

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