Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"I'd like to see Paris before I die. Philadelphia will do."

The Devil's own: Mae West and W.C. Fields in My Little Chickadee
(Image: Universal Pictures and Hudson Square Bid

I have long intended to make a better acquaintance of the right honorable Mr. William Claude Dukenfield, better known as W.C. Fields.  As a kid, I repeatedly watched a cheap VHS tape of three of his shorts; ever since, I've tried to shoehorn into conversation whenever possible a line from The Golf Specialist, "Bringing a pie to a golf course!  It's like bringing... something or other... somewhere... or other."  (This is not easy to do, I would point out.)  And of course I couldn't help being exposed to the Fields clips and quotes that litter 20th century popular culture.  All of which was more than enough to let me know that he was my kind of guy, at least as a comic persona on the screen and not as someone I actually had to put up with in real life.

Film Forum's recent Fields series confirmed this - although none of the three movies I squeezed in were terrific in their own right, whenever he ambled onto the screen, he zapped them to life like a comedy defibrillator.  He was one of those personalities who was scarcely containable by the constricted structure of his industry - he comes across like an emissary from another world, stopping in to let us know that there are stranger things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in the Production Code Administration's philosophy, while at the same time he's always relatable as a human being.  

Rather like my favorite star of the era, Jimmy Stewart, he had a comfortably established persona that was deceptively simple but within which he operated with remarkable variety, subtlety and grace (although as far as I can tell he never got to stretch the way Stewart did later in his career).  He was the misanthropic, shiftless drunk muttering one-liner complaints and insults while stealing and cheating without a pang of conscience - insulated by his dysfunctional personality from having to observe the civilized pieties that shackled other characters, and thus exposing their hollowness, rather like a Hollywood court jester.  

All of this is standard Fields commentary, but what surprised me watching him this past week was just how damn good he was.  His repertoire of physical and verbal ticks was vast and almost infinitely flexible - groans, whines, grumbles, sneers, snorts, double-takes, starts, stumbles... on and on... the things he could do with a hat alone are remarkable, to say nothing of his characters' weirdly florid vocabularies (and names - Harold Bissonette, Ambrose Wolfinger, Eustace McGargle,Cuthbert J. Twillie).  His stock character could be despicable or lovable (often both), giddily triumphant or inconsolably downtrodden, cynical or deludedly optimistic - he could be the untouchable smartass who can put one over on anyone, or the hopeless loser who can't catch a break - and remain funny and convincing in almost every moment.  This, boys and girls, is the benefit of honing your craft for years in the unforgiving glare of the vaudeville stage.

Compare him to legendary sexpot comedienne Mae West, his co-star and co-writer on the overrated My Little Chickadee (1939).  In theory, they're a screen match made in Heaven - both amoral, one-liner-dropping outcasts and swindlers who gave the guardians of pop cultural mores the fits.  But as an actress, she's bloody awful, delivering every line with a robotically same come-hither intonation, arched eyebrow and wiggle of the hips.  Whenever West was onscreen, I just wanted Fields to come to the rescue.  (Clip by way of example at the bottom of this post - you will note the presence of Margaret Hamilton, still playing a wicked witch of the West.)

I experienced a similar impatience with Million-Dollar Legs (1932) and International House (1933), both quite strange ensemble comedies (the first intentionally, the second accidentally) that were rather aimless whenever he was offscreen, which was too often.  I regret not having shoehorned into my schedule some of the vehicles where he took front-and-center position, like The Bank Dick or It's a Gift.  But hopefully I'll remedy that soon with my DVD player, now that I've been reminded afresh that W.C. Fields once graced our earth with his glowering visage and sour snarls.