Today, January 29, is the 128th birthday of William Claude Dukenfield. Happy birthday to the man who gave Bruce Willis his line in Die Hard, "I'd rather be in Philadelphia." Best wishes to the equal-opportunity offender who remarked, "I am free of all prejudice. I hate everyone equally." And many more to the proud drunk who scorned teetotalers and assured us that "I exercise extreme self control -- I never drink anything stronger than gin before breakfast."
Happy birthday, W.C. Fields!
Born in 1880, Fields left home at age 18. He soon found his place as a world-class juggler-comedian on the international vaudeville circuits, as a headliner in the Ziegfeld Follies, and on Broadway, where his talent for comic patter flourished. (He told American Magazine in 1926, "In the ten years since I had run away from home ... I had gone through more strange experiences than the average person crowds into a whole lifetime.") From there, striking out for Hollywood was inevitable, and a honed and polished facsimile of his adult real-life personality found full expression on the screen.
He trademarked the eminently quotable curmudgeon whose pretense of dignity came with a bulbous booze-reddened nose, an unapologetic disdain for children ("I'm very fond of children; girl children, around eighteen and twenty"), and the sarcastic disposition of a cynic never at a loss for a sotto voce insult. He is best remembered as the smooth-talking, top-hatted scoundrel deploying humorously pompous throwaway lines in his much-imitated nasal drawl.
Alternatively, his variation on this Americanized Falstaff was a type of castrated male that Depression-beaten audiences could identify with: the beleaguered middle-aged misanthrope, having failed at "the good life" and henpecked by a harridan wife, his driving goal is simply five minutes of peace.
Fields wrote his own screenplays under names like Otis J. Criblecoblis and Mahatma Kane Jeeves (from a cliché in old English drawing room dramas: "my hat, my cane, Jeeves!"). His usually lumpy narratives were never confused with art, but his best moments are worth the effort, his best lines immortal ("'Twas a woman who drove me to drink, and I never had the courtesy to thank her for it"), and his status as an archetypal grandmaster of early Hollywood comedy is steadfast. Where Al Bundy, Rodney Dangerfield and John Cleese's Basil Fawlty walked, W.C. Fields beat that path first.
A five-disc set, Universal's W.C. Fields Comedy Collection offers a hearty sampler of Fields' mid- to late-career feature films. Aficionados will be delighted to find two Fields classics -- It's a Gift (1934) and The Bank Dick (1940) -- plus other titles that deliver Fields' unique approach to the slow burn, the euphonious come-on, and the polysyllabic put-down.
Probably his best and funniest domesticized turn, It's a Gift sees Fields as a grocer who takes his horrid, screeching family to California for a dubious get-rich-quick scheme. Memorable highlights include a blind man destroying his grocery store, and his attempt to get a night's sleep against such obstacles as a rolling coconut, a splintering support beam, Baby Leroy, and the mysterious "Carl LaFong." It's also the source of this timeless Fieldsism:
Rich man: "You're drunk!"
Fields: "And you're crazy. But I'll be sober tomorrow and you'll be crazy the rest of your life."
If It's a Gift had been written by an existentialist, it would have been Sartre, because as far as Fields is concerned, Hell is indeed other people.
In The Bank Dick, Fields is Egbert Sousé ("it's soo-SAY"). Trapped within another loathsome family, Sousé is a drunk who accidentally catches a bank robber. As a reward he gets a job as the bank's guard, which positions him well for a scheme that, he says, isn't really embezzling. Stooge Shemp Howard plays Joe the bartender:
Fields: "Was I in here last night, and did I spend a $20 bill?"
Fields: "Boy, is that a load off my mind. I thought I'd lost it."
Grady Sutton is perfect as slow-witted would-be son-in-law Og Oggilby. (Fields: "Og Oggilby. Sounds like a bubble in a bathtub.")
Also here is My Little Chickadee (1940), remembered for pairing Mae West with Fields in his most identifiable persona -- the rotund cardsharp decked out in top hat, white gloves, and scruffy frock coat. ("Is poker a game of chance?" someone asks him; he replies: "Not the way I play it.") Chickadee has some funny moments and punchy lines ("Once, in the wilds of Afghanistan, I lost my corkscrew, and we were forced to live on nothing but food and water for days"), but it's still an uninspired Wild West comedy with no zing between its two headliners. West, whom Fields described as "a plumber's idea of Cleopatra," seems to be her own camp female impersonator.
In You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939) Fields' Larson E. Whipsnade ("Somebody's taken the cork out of my lunch") runs a two-bit circus, where he trades insults with Charlie McCarthy, the dummy of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, carrying over their popular comic feud from radio.
The earliest title here, International House (1933), is the manic oddity of the collection. While lampooning that newfangled gadget television, it trots out appearances by period radio stars made visible via Prof. Wong's "radioscope." We get George Burns and Gracie Allen, Franklin Pangborn, Sterling Holloway, and even Bela Lugosi taking an unusual comic spin. Its musical numbers include Rudy Vallee, Baby Rose Marie, and -- worth the price of admission -- the great Cab Calloway's "Reefer Man." Fields, as Prof. Quail, arrives in an art-deco autogyro and thereafter owns the movie. International House is the most dated item on the menu, though as an archeo-entertainment curio it's the most interesting movie in the set.
This W.C. Fields Comedy Collection presents all five films with clean, vivid prints and good transfers (1.33:1). The Bank Dick and It's a Gift are especially stunning. The DD 2.0 monaural audio is also well preserved, clean, and wholly reliable. Enthusiasts whose slogan is "W.C. Fields forever" will be pleased all around.
The main extra is the Arts & Entertainment TV documentary, W.C. Fields: Behind the Laughter (45 min.), a fine overview of the man's life and work and quotable crankiness.
We get trailers for My Little Chickadee, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, and International House. The five-disc digipak comes housed in a handsome slipcase.