Million Dollar Legs |
directed by Edward F. Cline
You're Telling Me
directed by Erle C. Kenton
It's a Gift
directed by Norman Z. McLeod
You Can't Cheat an Honest Man
directed by Edward F. Cline & George Marshall
(all re-released in 1998)
In the late '60s, the peace-love generation discovered a most unlikely icon: an irascible curmudgeon of a bygone era, a man who died before most of them were born and left more legend than legacy: W.C. Fields.
Yet the generation at war with its parents identified with the man who was always beleaguered, sometimes besieged, by his own family. A victim he may have been, but he never suffered in silence. And the lines he threw away as he went down slinging were memorized and passed from boomer to boomer like some secret code.
The Fields revival peaked in the mid-'70s, with the release of W.C. Fields & Me, a more than serviceable biography starring Rod Steiger as the juggler/pool shark turned Hollywood comedian. After that, Fields' films disappeared into a Hollywood haze of lavish color, faster-paced action and gags raunchier than Fields ever got away with even before the Hollywood censors toned him down.
While the Marx Brothers have maintained a sizable fan base and Laurel & Hardy have the Sons of the Desert to keep their memory alive, Fields fare has dwindled over the years. Even nostalgia channels like AMC and TCM rarely screen his most accessible films: The Bank Dick (1940), My Little Chickadee (1940) and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941).
But that all ended in 1998 with the release on video of four of Fields' formative features from the '30s: Million Dollar Legs (1932), You're Telling Me (1934), It's a Gift (1934) and You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939).
Of the four, Honest Man is the best known and most easily accessible. Based on a story by Fields himself, it shows him as most people -- even those who've never seen a Fields film -- remember him: the good-natured blowhard, genial con artist and acrobatic tippler with a talent for saying the exact wrong thing at the best possible moment.
As circus owner Larson E. Whipsnade (the jokes never get any better, but they pile up so fast you eventually have to laugh at them), Fields is in his element: he does a silly turn as the bearded lady, spars with his favorite radio nemesis, ventriloquist's dummy Charlie McCarthy; and ruins his daughter's chances to marry into society by telling an ill-timed snake tale that has everyone screaming, including the audience.
But the real gem is It's a Gift, a gentle, slow-paced film that provided the road map for his classic Bank Dick. In it, Fields perfects the character that soon came to dominate his films: the patient dreamer who suffers fools gladly long after most of his screen contemporaries would have pulled a trap door on them, or at least asked them to "pick two."
Witness the scene in which, under ceaseless torment from his wife, Fields finds it impossible to sleep in the house so he strings up a hammock on the porch, where he's similarly tormented by a man looking for one "Carl LaFong -- capital 'L,' small 'a,' capital 'F,' small 'o,' small 'n,' small 'g.'" Their back-and-forth banter -- complete with multiple spellings of Mr. LaFong's name -- is a study in irritation that's never been topped, even by Fields himself.
It's unlikely that these releases will fuel another Fields revival. But after years of scarcity, it's nice to know that -- video rental and retail stores willing -- we'll soon be able to graze in Fields aplenty.