Once, on a trip to Tibet, Judge Maurice Cobbs lost his corkscrew and was forced to survive on nothing but food and water for eight weeks.
Peggy: Won't you join me in a glass of wine?
Professor Quail: You get in first, and if there's room enough I'll join you.
-- from International House
Sufferin' sciatica! What a set of DVDs! This is easily one of the funniest DVD collections ever released. Strong words? You bet. But the W.C. Fields Comedy Collection more than lives up to the hype.
Facts of the Case
Universal presents a career-spanning sampling of the films of the great W.C. Fields. In Fields's 1940 masterpiece The Bank Dick, the comedian is Egbert Sousé—that's "Soo-zay"—a sottish curmudgeon who, through no effort of his own, becomes a hero for thwarting a bank robbery. My Little Chickadee, also from 1940, features the Great Man with the sultry Mae West in their only on-screen team-up, a Western screwball comedy. You Can't Cheat an Honest Man plays off the "feud" between Fields and Edgar Bergen's Charlie McCarthy, as Fields attempts to keep his foundering circus afloat. 1934's It's a Gift, essentially a remake of his silent classic It's the Old Army Game, features Fields at his most downtrodden, as a mercilessly henpecked grocer with dreams of owning an orange grove. And International House is a 1933 cavalcade of Paramount stars, featuring not only W.C. Fields but George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bela Lugosi, Rudy Vallee, Sterling Holloway, and Cab Calloway, among others.
"You know, I'd like to see how I would've made out without liquor."—William Claude Dukenfield
No, it's not a character played by W.C. Fields—that's the Great Man's real name.
Fields expressed that regret shortly before his death, but he'd struggled his entire life with a lot more than just an addiction to alcohol. Has there ever been a comedian who put more of his personal and private pain on the screen for ridicule? Born in Philadelphia in 1880, he suffered terribly from a violently abusive father and ran away from home in his early teens, surviving through petty theft and living in a ditch. He eventually found work with a carnival, and later made his way into vaudeville as a juggler. The character that he made famous, the misanthropic drunken loner, was an exaggeration of his true personality—he made fun of everything he hated, including himself. He hated his mother-in-law passionately (he would sometimes tease her at the dinner table by almost effortlessly balancing a lit cigar on top of his head for the duration of the meal); his relationship with his wife Helen was combative, at best; and he would be always remembered by friends as a depressed, though talented, loner. He would never overcome his addiction to alcohol, and his work sometimes suffered because of it—it eventually got him fired from Paramount, and in the end his alcoholism had ravaged his body to the point that his last few movie appearances would be little more than cameos.
Nevertheless, W.C. Fields is one of the wittiest and most inventive comedians in cinema history, and this collection stands as a testament to that legacy. The transfers are very good, with great sound and picture, and the only real fault that I can find is with the distinct lack of special features. The included episode of Biography is great, don't get me wrong; but considering the wealth of material that could have been included—especially given the relatively short running time of these movies—it doesn't seem like enough. Not too surprising; the Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection is also fairly stingy with the extras, although the studio did more for that set than they did for this one. But these sets seem downright barren when compared to Warner Brothers' set of Marx Brothers movies, which are practically overflowing with commentaries and extra features. There is more than enough W.C. Fields material out there: Some radio broadcasts, interviews, and commentaries would have been more than welcome.
All in all, this beautifully packaged compilation is sort of an odd mix—the decision to include International House, as opposed to, say, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break or The Man on the Flying Trapeze, is rather confusing, but no matter; there is enough comedy gold here to send the sternest agelast away with a silly grin on his face. Despite the lack of fun extras, this collection is a must for anyone who enjoys classic comedy or just hates children, dogs, and shrewish women. Personally, I love children—but only if they're properly cooked.
• The Bank Dick
"Don't be a luddy-duddy! Don't be a mooncalf! Don't be a jabbernowl! You're not those, are you?"—Egbert Sousé
The first movie presented in this collection features Fields in one of his last major roles: Egbert Sousé, a drunken gadabout cursed with a nagging wife (Cora Witherspoon, Dangerous Business), a vicious mother-in-law (Jessie Ralph), and horrid daughters (Una Merkel and Evelyn Del Rio). Egbert's only relief is his favorite watering hole, the Black Pussy Cat Café (where Shemp Howard of "Three Stooges" fame tends bar), and his detective magazines. The movie rambles along, following (as most Fields pictures do) the thinnest possible plot and allowing for endless sketches within the film; one particularly savage sequence has Egbert filling in for a movie director. "I've changed everything," he announces to the baffled actors. "Instead of being an English drawing room drama, I've made it a circus picture."
Egbert is thrust into the spotlight when he—through no effort of his own—is credited with stopping a bank robber's escape. The grateful bank rewards him by making him the bank guard, helped along by his prospective son-in-law, Og Oggilby (Grady Sutton, My Man Godfrey), a teller at the bank in love with Egbert's oldest daughter. On Egbert's dubious advice, Og embezzles some money to buy stock in a failed mine, fully planning to repay it a few days later. Naturally, a bank auditor, J. Pinkerton Snoopington (perrenial Fields foil Franklin Pangborn), shows up moments later. But another bank robber strikes just in the nick of time, kicking off what is without a doubt one of the greatest car chases in movie history.
Much like Egbert's car in the final chase scene, The Bank Dick races willy-nilly from one wildly improbable situation to another, providing Fields with endless opportunities to showcase his excellent comic timing and sharp dialogue, as well as his hysterical physical comedy. The convoluted plot and outstanding supporting players combine with Fields's comedy to create a true comedy classic.
• My Little Chickadee
Cuthbert J. Twillie: Tell me, prairie flower, can you give me the
inside info on yon damsel with the hothouse cognomen?
W.C. Fields and Mae West worked together only once—and perhaps it's a good thing. Fields's excessive drinking had already taken quite a toll on his health and his career; and West, who made a name for herself as a movie sexpot despite starting her movie career at the unlikely age of (gasp!) forty, was steadily declining in popularity. She had been the highest-paid woman in America only five years earlier; by the time this movie came along, she hadn't been on screen for three years. By all accounts, the two by-then fading stars despised each other and fought incessantly over every detail of My Little Chickadee. Their animosity ran so deep that they worked together as little as possible while making the movie, even to the point of using stand-ins for close-up shots.
However volatile their off-screen relationship may have been, on screen they compliment each other rather well. Fields's brand of broad silliness works well when contrasted with West's smoldering parody of her usual screen character, and although the result is not the best work that either of these stars has ever done, it certainly does make you wonder what the two of them might have accomplished had they actually liked each other.
A mysterious and elusive Masked Bandit has been terrorizing the West, and when he robs a stagecoach at the start of the film, he kidnaps the lovely Flower Belle Lee (West), too. Flower Belle turns up a few hours later, suspiciously none the worse for wear—with a bag of gold from the robbery, given to her by the bandit "for her trouble." When the masked man carries out a rendezvous with her under cover of darkness, the town busybody, prudish Mrs. Gideon (Margaret Hamilton, The Wizard of Oz), sees them kissing and blows the whistle on Flower Belle. Brought to trial, she is expelled from her home town of Little Bend until such time as she is "married and respectable."
Flower Belle boards the train out of town, planning to travel to nearby Greasewood—followed by Mrs. Gideon, who plans to keep an eye on the callipygian cutie with the aid of Greasewood's "Ladies Vigilante Committee." En route to Greasewood, however, the train is stopped by an Indian on horseback, so that Cuthbert J. Twillie (Fields) can get on board. After an Indian attack, during which Flower Belle displays both her sharpshooting ability and coolness under fire, Twillie begins to flirt with Flower Belle. After she notices the carpetbag full of cash that Twillie has with him, she's more than receptive to his attentions. "My heart is a bargain today. Will you take me?" asks Twillie. "I'll take you," Flower Belle replies, thoughts of Twillie's money bag dancing in her eyes. "And how!" By the time they reach Greasewood, the two have been married—by a phony preacher, unbeknownst to all save the crafty Flower Belle.
It is here that the movie starts the wild roller-coaster ride that characterizes a Fields film; one outrageous situation follows another, as Twillie cheats at poker (one of the movie's funniest sequences), unsuccessfully tries to share a bed with his "wife" on their wedding night (ending up instead with a goat), finds himself appointed Sheriff of Greasewood, and must evade hanging after being mistaken for the Masked Bandit. Meanwhile, Flower Belle romances both the oily Jeff Badger (Joseph Calleia, Touch of Evil) and newspaperman Wayne Carter (Dick Foran, the Singing Cowboy—but he doesn't sing in this). But does her heart really belong to the Masked Bandit? Or can she have her cake and eat it too (so to speak)? One of her finest moments in the film finds her substitute teaching at the local school; after assuring them, "I was always good at figures," she goes into her math lesson: "Two and two are four and five will give you ten if you play your cards right."
My Little Chickadee is the result when cinematic titans tussle. Unfortunately, there was too much going against the movie for it to become a truly great comedy; aside from the antagonism between the principle stars, the movie simply suffers from a terrible story—and maybe that's why Fields never tried to be too elaborate in his own projects. And honestly, the two stars seem a bit worn out in this movie. Nevertheless, though this is not a great comedy, it is a funny one, and it deserves classic status.
• You Can't Cheat an Honest Man
"I'm taking on the personality of a Mexican jumping bean. First the contortionist gets rheumatism. Then the sword-swallower gets tonsilitis. Hope nothing happens to that fan dancer…not 'til I get rid of this cold, anyway."—Larson E. Whipsnade
1939, that golden year of Hollywood, produced so much classic material that it's surprising that W.C. Fields wasn't able to deliver as well. The celebrated "feud" between the Great Man and Edgar Bergen's wooden wiseacre Charlie McCarthy had been such a smash on the radio that a movie outing for the trio seemed inevitable. Unfortunately, though this movie features some savagely funny sequences, they are almost all exclusively Fields's. Granted, I've never been much of a Charlie McCarthy fan (partly because ventriloquist acts don't really do it for me in the first place, partly because Bergen really isn't that great a ventriloquist anyway, and partly because—hello?—a ventriloquist act on the radio?), but most of the Bergen/McCarthy stuff is just bad.
But I thought the bits with Mortimer Snerd were funny. So sue me.
Anyway, Fields is cast here as Larson E. Whipsnade, owner of Whipsnade's Circus Giganticus. Unfortunately, his circus has fallen on some hard times—his outfit is just one step ahead of the law and an army of creditors. Still, Whipsnade manages to squeeze by, earning at least enough to keep his kids in college. His son, Phineas (John Arledge, Devil Dogs of the Air), is aware of his father's harsh financial situation and has figured out a way to bring some money into the family: He wants his sister Victoria (Constance Moore, Buck Rogers) to marry the wealthy playboy Roger Bel-Goodie (James Bush, The Lady in Scarlet). Learning of her father's desperate finances, she decides to take one for the team and marry Roger—but she can't quite get over her feelings for Edgar Bergen, Whipsnade's most troublesome performer. The only performer that Whipsnade dislikes more than Bergen is Charlie McCarthy (and frankly, I'm inclined to take Whipsnade's part in this case).
As always, Fields surrounds himself with excellent supporting players; Eddie "Rochester" Anderson is so rib-tickling that you wish he'd had more of Bergen's screen time, and Thurston Hall and Mary Forbes are quite good as Roger's snobbish parents. And the comedy is, for the most part, fast and furious; for instance, you'll find the funniest ping-pong game you're ever likely to see in this movie. So, while this isn't the best of Fields's movies, it's a far cry from being the worst, and it's well worth repeated viewings.
• It's a Gift
Old Man: You're drunk!
One of W. C. Fields's most brilliant comedies, It's a Gift uses some of the best routines that he'd developed for vaudeville and initially used in the 1926 silent film It's the Old Army Game. This may also be one of Fields's darkest comedies—he's never more downtrodden than he is as henpecked grocer Harold Bissonette (that's Bisso-NAY). His wife Amelia (Kathleen Howard) is the worst sort of shrew—the kind who never stops nagging and complaining. His teenaged daughter Mildred (Jean Rouverol) is demanding and self-centered. His young son, Norman (Tommy Bupp, Hey, Hey, U.S.A.!) respects him about as much as a dog respects a fire hydrant. In fact, not even the family dog likes poor Harold.
The long-suffering Harold's day is one disaster after another. He must contend with his horrid family; with his inept assistant (Tammany Young, She Done Him Wrong), who is no help at all; with a blind and deaf man who routinely wrecks his store; with obnoxious mothers and their equally obnoxious children; with rude neighbors and noisy salesmen and angry customers. But Harold has a fantasy of owning an orange grove in California. The thought of it keeps him going, and with the inheritance that he'll get from his dying Uncle Bean, he'll have enough to make his dream a reality. Despite the protestations of his wife, Harold buys an orange grove from Mildred's fiancé (Juilian Madison) and packs up the family, moving them all to his promised land. Naturally, things don't work out for Harold the way he wants—but there's still a chance for him to come out on top, even with the whole world against him.
There is no doubt why this side-splitting film was picked by the American
Film Institute as one of the 100 funniest of all time. Whether it's the
insurance man trying to track down Carl LaFong, capital L, small a, capital F,
small o, small n, small g, LaFong! or Fields's hysterical clashes with Baby
Leroy, or the poor man just trying to shave, for Pete's sake, this movie
will keep you in stitches with its nonstop parade of brilliant comic sequences.
This is no doubt partly due to the masterful direction of Norman Z. McLeod, who
also helmed the Marx Brothers classics Horse Feathers and Monkey Business as well as Topper, Topper Takes A Trip, and Road to Rio (my personal favorite in the
• International House
Peggy: I'm sitting on something!
International House is not so much a W.C. Fields film as it is a madcap cavalcade of stars. The movie revolves around the International Hotel in the Chinese town of Wu Hu, where the famous inventor Doctor Wong (Edmund Breese of the "Torchy" series of comedy shorts) has unveiled his latest creation: the Radioscope, an advanced form of television. A wild assortment of characters converge on the hotel to see a demonstration and place bids on the invention. Among these are jealous Russian businessman General Nicholas Petrologic (Bela Lugosi, Dracula), who still carries a torch for his ex-wife, Peggy Hopkins Joyce (and frankly, who can blame him? Grrrroooowwwwlllll!). Peggy has come to the hotel in hopes of finding a millionaire to marry (one of the best incentives for financial success that I've ever seen), hitching a ride with the American representative, Tommy Nash (Stuart Erwin, It Could Happen to You). Tommy meets up with his girlfriend, the delectable Carol (played by the delectable Sari Maritza), whom he can never seem to actually marry because he keeps breaking out with assorted diseases whenever he proposes.
Thankfully, this hotel has medical staff: Dr. George Burns and his slightly insane assistant, Nurse Gracie Allen. Crashing the party (in an autogyro, no less!) is Professor Henry R. Quail (W.C. Fields), who has taken a wrong turn on his way to Kansas City and winds up landing on top of the hotel's rooftop nightclub, right in the middle of the most bizarre musical act ever (which features a gaggle of gorgeous girls dressed in cellophane cups, plates, and saucers—and Sterling Holloway). Professor Quail runs rampant through the hotel, driving the poor hotel manager (Franklin Pangborn) mad with his antics. Meanwhile, as the doctor demonstrates his invention, we are treated to performances by Cab Calloway (who burns the house down with his rendition of "Reefer Man"), 10-year-old Baby Rose Marie (doing a disturbingly sultry version of "My Bluebird's Singing the Blues"), and a comedy bit by Colonel Stoopnagle and Budd.
This movie is spectacularly funny. Peggy Hopkins Joyce is…wow. George Burns and Gracie Allen are at the top of their game, and one particularly side-splitting routine has George tag-teaming Gracie with Frank Pangborn. Even Bela Lugosi has some moments of sheer comedy gold. But W.C. Fields completely steals the show (and Peggy Hopkins Joyce), wandering drunkenly through scene after scene with increasing insanity, culminating in a marvelous car chase that takes place inside the hotel. And did I mention that Peggy Hopkins Joyce? Now, that is the way a slinky evening gown is supposed to look!
I could argue that Universal had dropped the ball by not including some other classic W.C. Fields films here, but I won't; while classics like Never Give a Sucker an Even Break and Million Dollar Legs are conspicuous by their absence, perhaps the studio will grace us with another Fields collection in the near future. Hopefully, in the next set, they'll also grace us with something more in the way of special features: radio shows, interviews, futurities, maybe even commentaries. Hopefully. I'll certainly drink to that!
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