W.C. Fields is one of those distictively American comic performers who have always passed me by, having not been brought up on the brand of vaudevillian comedy of pratfalls and slapstick that he seems to fit into. Indeed, another great troupe in that lineage (the Three Stooges) is represented here by a small role for Shemp Howard as a bartender. It’s a comedy style that really emphasises physical grace, not something you’d expect from a man with his diminutive stature and alcoholic persona (which I gather rather carried over into his personal life), but Fields is excellent at these, no doubt due to a lifetime of stage training which began with juggling. This 1940 feature film also incorporates a number of tropes that are repeated throughout his oeuvre as elements of his comic persona, including a dismissive attitude to people of other races (luckily a fairly minor part of this film) and a strong dislike for children — though they tend to get one over on Fields’s protagonists in the end. As to the film itself, which follows the fortunes of one Egbert Sousé (who is indeed a souse, but not pronounced that way) as he unwittingly foils a bank robbery and quickly finds himself installed as a security guard, it’s a loose structure to hang a series of gags and setpieces. However, that needn’t be a bad thing for a comedy, and there are indeed plenty of laughs, though quite how you’ll take them depends on your taste for Fields’s work.
Criterion Extras: Nothing is included on the disc aside from the film, but there’s a printed essay with a bit of context for the new viewer.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Edward F. Cline; Writer W. C. Fields [as “Mahatma Kane Jeeves”]; Cinematographer Milton R. Krasner; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 February 2016.