W.C. Fields is a legend, a classic, one of the father’s of film comedy. He is oft parodied, oft remembered, and much loved. Starting in Vaudeville and making his way to Hollywood early in its existence, Fields found success in silent film and later in talkies. When looked at today, while many of his films are not laugh out loud funny, they are still timely, wise, and unquestionably show the viewer where present day comedy found its origins.
Universal has recently released its second collection of W.C. Fields movies, selecting five of his pictures, and helping remind today’s filmgoer where things started out. Chronologically, they are: You’re Telling Me!, The Old Fashioned Way, The Man on the Flying Trapeze, Poppy, and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. While the details of the stories may all be different, Fields is always the same. He is hen-pecked, put upon, good natured, jovial, and generally speaking, drunk as a skunk.
You’re Telling Me! Provides a perfect, prototypical, example of this. Fields is Sam Bisbee, an optometrist and inventor from the “other side of the tracks.” Sam’s daughter is in love with a boy from the right side of the tracks and whose mother simply refuses to accept Sam and his family. On his way back from a trip to sell a puncture proof tire that has gone horribly awry, Sam ends up talking to the Princess Lescaboura. The next day Lescaboura returns to Sam’s town and convinces the stodgy folks there how wonderful Sam and his family are and so the boy’s family accepts Sam, his daughter, and wife. And, they all live happily ever after, including the tire company coming back to find Sam to buy the puncture proof tire.
It’s weird, the plot is razor thin, the gags tend to go on too long, and for today’s audience it feels to last about one-and-a-half times as long as it’s scant 70 minute runtime. Even so, somehow, Fields, being Fields, is able to pull the whole thing off.
Or, look at The Old Fashioned Way, in which Fields portrays The Great McGonigle, a not-so-great actor in a flat-broke traveling troupe. He’s a thief and a lout, but lovable and endearing and with a sweet daughter that tries to make him a better person. Needless to say, there’s a well-to-do boy who has been following around Fields’s daughter in an attempt to marry her. The boy’s father is unhappy, and yet somehow, after the play is performed, everything works out.
There’s an odd sense about all these films that once they get to about 60 or 65 minutes into the plot, the writers felt the need to simply end the story and move on to something else. Certainly the endings all do work out, but everything seems to be wrapped in such a perfect bow that it’s odd. Here, McGonigle is happy moving to New York City and shilling snake oil.
There are not many extras to speak of included in the set, simply one brief documentary entitled “Wayne and Schuster Take an Affectionate Look at W.C. Fields” and a couple of trailers. The documentary is actually a great look at Fields and his art, as explored by two comedians. They go through how Fields did what he did, and what exactly makes him funny. While it would be great to see some more background content on who Fields was, it isn’t truly a necessity. People who will buy the set are already well aware of Fields and his work.
I simply can’t imagine this DVD set selling terribly well, but I’m very happy to see it available. The films are funny, and, more importantly, they show some of the roots of comedy on the big screen. Even if people don’t know W.C. Fields’s name, even if they have never seen a W.C. Fields movie, upon watching one they will almost instantly recognize that they’ve “seen him somewhere before.”