Thursday, January 7, 2010

Maggie's Films of 2010:

#11. W.C. Fields -- Six Short Films

"Never mind where I told you to stand, you stand where I tell you to stand!"
-- W. C. Fields, The Dentist

When Chris posted his glowing review of W.C. Fields' It's A Gift, I racked my brain for some recollection of seeing Fields' work; but raised on a steady early comedy diet of Wayne & Shuster, Charlie Chaplin, and the Marx Brothers, Fields somehow slipped my notice. When it dawned on me that Fields' work spans the transition from silent picture to "talkie," this became an especially striking omission: The two forms of cinema lean on very different devices to convey narrative, and as such, those who stood out in the former didn't always survive in the latter. It took a rare talent to be successful at both.

Sure enough, this Criterion Collection piece gathers six short W. C. Fields films (from 1915 to 1933) that highlight his transition well: In "Pool Sharks" a delightful use of stop-motion photography informs a predominantly slapstick romp between two men vying for the love of a lady. In the next four films, all "talkies" from 1930 to 1933 -- "The Golf Specialist," "The Dentist," "The Fatal Glass of Beer," and "The Pharmacist" -- we see pure physical slapstick graduate into more nuanced verbal forms, exploding common exchanges like "How do you do, Mr. Dilweg?" ("It doesn't matter how I do," snaps Fields) and "Don't you love me anymore?" ("Of course I love ya," says Fields, his arm upraised to strike, and later: "She's not going to tell me I don't love her anymore!").

Often an appeal is made in art to our "better natures," but in W. C. Fields' characters we instead see the great, clumsy war we wage most of all against ourselves. Much of Fields' comedy in these short films arises from a sense of "the left hand not knowing what the right hand does," allowing for great posturing and equally great, hypocritical failings -- most often through Fields' own, aggressive engagement with his surroundings.

Yet the sixth film, "The Barber Shop," stands strikingly at odds with this tendency, for in it Fields' character is a reclusive, self-aware mediocrity -- all mild-mannered talk and long trails of incidental damage in his wake. Is this a failing of the work? I think not: From this most soft-spoken of the six short films, with Fields' humour delivered in its gentlest form, you gain the clearest understanding of his character as a whole. It all comes down to a cello, really, which W. C. Fields' barber often plays, but not at all in the usual sense of the term; and a touch of magic (literally, in the film's narrative) that emerges when he does. Marching to the beat of one's own drummer thus doesn't even begin to describe the character lesson at work here: As W. C. Fields plays it in all six of these short films, life is an act of constant irreverence you'll never see coming. Not bad for 80-year-old theatre. Not bad at all.

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