Criterion Sunday 79: “W.C. Fields: 6 Short Films” (1915-33)

Having released his 1940 film The Bank Dick, Criterion followed it up with six of W.C. Fields’ short films, largely spanning the beginning of the sound era (1930-1933) though with one from 1915. He may be younger in 1915’s Pool Sharks, but he still has his comic persona largely intact, albeit with the inclusion of a particularly ridiculous moustache halfway up his nose. The film is also enlivened by stop-motion animated pool table sequences which present some of the most incredulous pool playing one could hope for, making it at least passably amusing. Less successful for me are The Golf Specialist (1930) and The Barber Shop (1933), which largely coast by on very slight comic premises — the former involving a con artist who tries at length to show a lady how to play golf but is constantly interrupted, and the latter involving an inept barber in a small town with a shrewish wife — though the former does at least feature a comedically delightful list of charges upon which the character is arrested. Appearing to have largely the same set as The Barber Shop is the same year’s The Pharmacist, with Fields this time playing a small town pharmacist, who again has a difficult wife and family, but is trying his best to keep his shop going. The Dentist (1932) also features a straightforwardly descriptive title for Field’s character, but here he exhibits even more rancour than usual in dealing with his various customers’ complaints, leading to a prolonged tooth-pulling scene which at least is as funny as it is difficult to watch. The pick of the bunch for me, though, is The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933, directed by Clyde Bruckman, a veteran of a number of Buster Keaton films). It’s a very odd little film with a period wilderness setting, in which all the actors’ performances seem pushed to the edge of deadpan blankness that seems strange initially but which sticks in my mind afterwards, giving the whole enterprise an oddly oneiric quality. For fans of W.C. Fields’s comic persona, there’s plenty in all the films to like, with annoying kids and some slightly off-colour jokes, but also lots of knockabout physical comedy. There’s also a consistent line in abrupt endings, one presumes for comic effect, though some are more satisfying than others.

Criterion Extras: Like the earlier Fields release, this is an absolutely bare-bones package, with nary even a trailer.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 February 2016.

Pool Sharks (1915)
Director Edwin Middleton; Writer W. C. Fields; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 15 minutes.

The Golf Specialist (1930)
Director Monte Brice; Writer W. C. Fields; Cinematographer Frank Zucker; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 20 minutes.

The Dentist (1932)
Director Leslie Pearce; Writer W. C. Fields; Cinematographer John W. Boyle; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 22 minutes.

The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)
Director Clyde Bruckman; Writer W. C. Fields; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 21 minutes.

The Pharmacist (1933)
Director Arthur Ripley; Writer W. C. Fields; Cinematographers Frank B. Good and George Unholz; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 20 minutes.

The Barber Shop (1933)
Director Arthur Ripley; Writer W. C. Fields; Cinematographer John W. Boyle; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 21 minutes.

Criterion Sunday 78: The Bank Dick (1940)

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.