W.C. Fields
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W.C. Fields is one of the most imitated of all the great comedians. With slow, mannered speech and eccentric mannerisms, he's a wealth of material for professional and amateur imitators of all ages. Stock phrases such as "Godfrey Daniels!" and "Ah, yes, my little chickadee" are easily recited, but few if any imitators are aware of the variety of characterizations that Fields created.

There is the hen-pecked husband of It's a Gift. There is the hen-pecked but more bombastic Fields of The Bank Dick. There is the anarchic Fields of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. And there are several shades of Fields in between these characterizations. In It's a Gift, Fields is in his kindest, easiest to like mode. He submits to the constant nagging of his wife and mother-in-law with few complaints. He doesn't like their control over his life, but he blithely disregards them once he's out of their sight. He's a dreamer and a schemer. He has his eye on becoming an orange farmer in California and he doesn't ask for his wife's opinion. He simply spends the family's money on a ranch and packs them up--submitting to a hail of abuse. The Fields of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is very different. He confronts his problems with a sneer and a wave of the hand--part (incompetent) huckster and part (incompetent) magician. Any thing he accomplishes is done through brute (cowardly) force and luck (frequently bad but also opportunistic).

The Bank Dick, now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection, places Fields between these two extremes. He's still henpecked and trapped in a domestic situation that he doesn't value whatsoever, but the difference becomes apparent in the first scenes when his wife and mother-in-law berate him as heads out the front door: he grabs a potted plant and very nearly heaves it through the front door. He doesn't, though (because his daughter interrupts him by introducing her boyfriend), and that places this Fields character much closer to It's a Gift than Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.

Significantly, unlike the Fields of It's a Gift, Fields in The Bank Dick doesn't have a steady job. In It's a Gift, Fields runs a corner grocery store. And in several of his short comedies, namely "The Pharmacist," "The Barber Shop," and "The Dentist"--all available on W.C. Fields: 6 Short Films from The Criterion Collection--Fields has a profession. But in The Bank Dick, Fields stumbles into jobs. He becomes a movie director for a short while after a producer mistakes Field's blustery lies for wisdom and begs him to help out a troubled local production (where the original director is "on a bender"). Later, Fields stumbles into a job as a bank security guard after apprehending a bank robber. Actually, the bank robber was knocked unconscious and lying on the ground before Fields accidentally topples on him. Of course, Fields doesn't set everyone straight when it's assumed that he captured the crook: "He pulled a knife on me that long!" he says. "The sword that Lee surrendered to Grant was a potato peeler by comparison." Soon afterwards, the bank president gives Fields a job as a security guard.

stills from
The Bank Dick

[click photos for larger versions]

The Bank Dick is one of the all-time great American comedies. It features one of Fields' best performances. In general, his acting skills have been horribly underrated, but The Bank Dick largely succeeds because of Fields' blustery presence. There are no pie fights or car chases (until the final reel, that is). Instead, the emphasis is upon Fields as he goads his daughter's fiancé into embezzling bank funds to invest in a cockamamie scheme to purchase shares in a Nevada beefsteak mine; as he diverts a bank examiner into a local bar and arranges for the bartender to slip the unsuspecting examiner a Mickey Finn; as he takes over as director on a movie being filmed in his hometown; etc. It's the force of Fields' personality that makes this movie succeed.

Fields plays a character named Egbert Sousé. "Accent grave, over the 'e'," he says. Many townsfolk think the pronunciation "Souse" (as in stinkin' drunk) is more fitting. He hangs out at the Black Pussy Cat Café, where Joe the bartender (Shemp Howard of Three Stooges fame) pours the libations.

The Bank Dick doesn't really have a plot. Fields' screenplay (written under the felicitous pseudonym Mahatma Kane Jeeves!) tags together an absurd chain of events that brings Fields from his lowly, henpecked, and unemployed status to a millionaire man of leisure. Fields accomplishes nothing from hard work or perseverance. Instead he relies upon luck, circumstance, and deception, and while Fields has plenty of bad luck, his good luck tends to multiply like rabbits.

For additional examples of Fields' comic genius, check out The Criterion Collection's W.C. Fields: 6 Short Films. These shorts place Fields in a variety of situations, but as the titles suggest--"The Pharmacist," "The Barber Shop," and "The Dentist"--occupations play a significant role. In these three shorts, considerable screen time is devoted to showing Fields as he deals with customers. There aren't any plots. The focus is simply upon Fields' attempts to make it through his work day.

"The Dentist" is one of the funniest comedies ever made. It finds Fields in a nasty, contrary mood. When a patient in the waiting room screams in pain from a toothache, he says: "Oh, the hell with her!" On the golf course, he sends three tee shots in a row into a lake, and then he throws his club in the water, followed by his golf bag, and then the caddie! He refuses to let his daughter see her boyfriend, the ice man. He locks her in her room and later pinches her hard on the arms to get her to stop stomping her feet (she's causing the ceiling of his office to cave in). The short's most notorious sequence finds Fields attempting to pull the tooth of a tall, gangly woman. He ends up with her legs wrapped around him as they thrash around the office!

stills from
W.C. Fields: 6 Short Films

[click photos for larger versions]

The Fields of "The Dentist" is far from the Fields of The Bank Dick, but this distance is illustrative of Fields' acting ability. He didn't simply play the same character in each movie. His characters had some of the same basic traits, but Fields varied the amount of cynicism and ill-temperedness. With "The Dentist," the needle on the nastiness meter tilts toward the top of the scale. In "The Pharmacist," however, the meter drops to less than half, and with "The Barber Shop," it drops near the bottom of the scale.

As in The Bank Dick, "The Pharmacist" places Fields in a less-than-blissful domestic situation. He's henpecked by his wife and his daughter is a constant irritant (she attempts to eat the pet canary!), but he's relatively harmless. His profession forces some civility upon him. He waits on customers with a fair modicum of patience. But the customers are insufferable. One customer orders a box of cough drops and expects it to be delivered 18 miles outside of town. Another customer orders a stamp: "Gimme the one in the middle!" Fields gladly cuts the stamp out of the sheet.

"The Barber Shop" places Fields in a slow-paced environment with less troublesome customers. He seems to genuinely like his son, and they have a good relationship. But his wife is a different story entirely. He purses her lips and complains constantly. Fields submits to the daggers that her eyes cast. Any chaos in "The Barber Shop" is a result of Fields' ineptness rather than ill-temperedness or nastiness. "I didn't recognize your face when you first came in," he says to a customer. "No, it's all healed up since I was in here last," says the customer. This Fields is a blowhard who tells whopping fibs. Attempting to impress a manicurist with his manliness, he says, "I belong to the Bare-Handed Wolf Chokers Association." But when pressed he'll tell the truth: "I'm the worst barber in town!" Precisely because this Fields isn't as ill-tempered as the Fields of "The Dentist," everything works out in the end. As in The Bank Dick, he even becomes a hero (momentarily anyway).

The other three shorts on this DVD move away from domestic situations. In "The Golf Specialist," Fields is a huckster/con man on vacation at a resort. Still sporting the same mustache that he wore in his silent era shorts, Fields wears a sport coat and tie. This is one of the few Fields characters to dally with the upper classes. The short's most famous sequence finds Fields attempting to tee off on the first hole of a golf course, but he's constantly interrupted by his caddie. However, the comedy's first sequence contains some of the funniest material, as when Fields wrestles with a child over a box of money.

"The Fatal Glass of Beer" takes Fields away from civilization. Most of the film takes place in a wooden cabin far north in Canada. A snow storm rages outside: "It ain't a fit night out for man or beast," says Fields several times, and each time a blast of snow (clearly thrown by someone just off camera) smacks him in the face. The short's title comes from an absurdly melancholy and sentimental song that Fields plays upon his dulcimer. Created as a parody of folksy melodrama, "The Fatal Glass of Beer" bear little resemblance to Fields' other work.

"The Pool Sharks" is noteworthy for being the oldest short collected on this disc. Filmed in 1915, it features a surprisingly slim Fields wearing his then-trademark mustache. The action is much more manic here than you'll find in any of Fields' sound era shorts. The opening sequence features a bit of eye poking that would have made The Three Stooges jealous. The bulk of the screen time is devoted to a game of pool, with many of the jokes (uncharacteristically for a Fields' comedy) coming from stop-motion photography that shows the pool balls magically rolling around the table.

The video transfer for The Bank Dick is in excellent shape. It was created from a 35mm fine-grain master, and the sound was created from a 35mm optical track. The quality of the transfers for the comedies on W.C. Fields: 6 Short Films varies from film to film. Most were created from 35mm picture negatives. However, in some cases 35mm composite prints were also used. "The Dentist" was a victim of editing required by the Hays Code, so while the bulk of the film still exists in a decent 35mm composite duplicate picture negative and a 35mm optical soundtrack negative, two excised scenes (as well as the opening and closing credits) have been restored from lesser materials--a 16mm composite duplicate negative. The difference in the quality of the prints is immediately apparent, with the 16mm materials offering inferior contrast and sharpness. But it's great to be able to see "The Dentist" again in its entirety.

The Bank Dick and W.C. Fields: 6 Short Films are now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection. Suggested retail price: $29.95 each. For additonal information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.