Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, April 21, 2011

WC Fields Forever: The Film Forum, NYC, starting Friday 4/22

It's impossible to avoid ballyhooing it up when announcing the seminal event in mine or any other film drunkard's life, the Film Forum's WC Fields retrospective, beginning tomorrow, Friday April 22nd. Unless I'm mistaken it includes every single film--even the silents and shorts--the Great Man ever appeared in. If you're unfamiliar with Fields, think Hank Quinlan in TOUCH OF EVIL if he drank more and strangled Akim Tamiroff less; think Nic Cage in LEAVING LAS VEGAS if he didn't leave, and didn't care about sex, love, or any form of gambling he couldn't cheat at; think Ray Milland in LOST WEEKEND if he stopped cringing and learned to laugh at the mouse-eating bats in his belfry. In fact, Fields would size up these aforementioned cinematic drunks and proclaim them a lot of "sissies." (He'd probably tolerate Geoffrey in UNDER THE VOLCANO, though).

Ironically, Fields never hit the big time until he was old, and almost dead, in THE BANK DICK. But he worked all through the silent era, and in Vaudeville, where he was huge, and came from a literal hard-knock life as a child in Philadelphia, a life few of us will hopefully ever come close to having. That trauma and pain was used by him as the ailment for which booze was the cure, and his clear-eyed ambivalence about the death he was drinking himself to is reflected in his existential gallows humor.

As for women, no luck or much interest sexually, but he loved to have young girls around--daughters, nieces, visiting princesses--and tolerated a slew of shrewish wives while generally steering clear of intimacy or most other physical endeavors outside of juggling, golf, deep elbow-bending, and pool, at which he was a master. He was married to booze, period, and like all true drunks, this singleness of purpose made him an almost holy figure, sanctifying him in film after film as the caretaker of abandoned orphan-style tykes and studio proteges. They were safer with Fields in his cups than they would be with any priest or adopted 'righteous' parents. Fields ferried orphans to rich relatives in SALLY IN THE SAWDUST, and POPPY while 'saving' a princess's life in YOU'RE TELLING ME, and protecting his daughter from bullies and/or suitors in MILLION DOLLAR LEGS, THE BANK DICK, and MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE. He also was given a niece in NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK. Perfect companions to this staggering talent, these girls and Fields worked together in a way that was surprisingly touching, especially considering Fields' rep as a reprobate and raconteur.

But it's his aggressive carny pitchmen and towering drunks that really stick out, and who made him such a hit on college campuses in the 1960s, and ever since for some of us, you know who you are, and you need to stop to drinking, or at least stop long enough to get out to the Film Forum.

Below I've laid out the first few films of the schedule for your convenience, but you can also check it out here on the FF website. I've seen most of them (though not in these new prints) except for a few of the silents and ALICE IN WONDERLAND, so I've rated them as well, in case you need to be choosy:

Friday and Saturday - April 22/23:
IT'S A GIFT - 1934 - **** (dir. Norman Z. McLeod) / THE DENTIST 1932 - *** / MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE- 1935 - *** (dir. Clyde Bruckman)
Fields had two personae: the roustabout carny pitchman who'd rob his own grandmother to pay his bar tab, and the harried husband, stoically enduring abuse at the hands of a shrill wife and loudmouth kids until he finally (hopefully) snaps. IT'S A GIFT is far and away Fields' best in the latter category, with one memorable set piece after another. THE DENTIST has been floating around in so many butchered public domain editions that the the occasional flash of 'what the hell' as Fields ends up practically mating with one of his female patients is sometimes long lost, but not this time, Josephine! FLYING TRAPEZE is, confidentially, one of the weaker of the family man films, with primitive Hal Roach-style gags, a truly evil wife and a stepson who steals Fields' wrestling ticket and otherwise makes life hell for him and his daughter from a previous marriage. Fields endures it all until...well, look out. The best part is the beginning, a gag involving burglars breaking into Fields' homemade liquor barrel.

Sunday/Monday - April 24/25
DAVID COPPERFIELD 1935 - **** (dir. George Cukor) / ALICE IN WONDERLAND 1933 - ***1/2 - (Norman Z. McLeod)
Fields as Humpty Dumpty! Cary Grant as a mockturtle! Etc. Weird but great in its weirdness (see here) COPPERFIELD: Fields was a huge Dickens fan and gave this his all -- but it's no comedy, especially with Basil Rathbone as the sadistic evil stepfather, and Fields only shows up towards the second half. But once he does show up he's so great, and the previous stuff is so grim, that tears shall surely ensue.

So if you're in NYC this coming weekend, look around for me! Say hi! Say, what's up!? You're not a jabberknowl, you're not a mooncalf, you're not those things, are you? Speaking of which, there's always some weird old man with a green plastic binder who sits right next to me, unbidden, whenever I go to revivals at the Forum, and he grins and looks at me during the jokes! It blows my mind, I can't escape him, so if you can't find me, just look for him, and shudder...


  1. Godfrey Daniels!! I do so wish this festival would be repeated on the West Coast. Haven't had such a blatant victimization by circumstance since that cur stole the cork from my lunch!

  2. Dragging my canoe behind me!

  3. Thank you, Erich! My viewing tastes aren't quite as eclectic as I'd like to admit, but terrific pieces like this certainly serve to open my eyes...have added several of his titles to my netflix queue. I get a bit fidgety reading about the actual culture you have there in the Big Apple. Michigan is a cold, barren, gun-toting dystopia that grows less tolerable by the second.

  4. Jerry, man, Michigan's no place for a sensitive artiste, but at least you have parking spots. I don't even got no car. God help us, but thanks! Opening eyes to these weird old wonders is my holy goal in life!


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