Sunday, September 26, 2010

#79: W.C. Fields - Six Short Films

(Monte Brice, Clyde Bruckman, Edwin Middleton and Leslie Pearce, 1915-1933)

Comedy isn't easy. Great dramas are almost inevitably timeless, because they speak to the human condition in a consistently identifiable way. Love, for example, is love, no matter where you live or when you were born. Comedy can be much more topical, obviously, but it can also be tied to the times in more subtle ways, like playing to the audience's sensibilities and taste. A good drama need not be original, but comedy requires a certain element of surprise in order to succeed. This can date humor much easier than drama or even action (the latter being a matter of technology).

There is also, of course, the matter of taste, and if you think something isn't funny, well, there's not much you can do to improve your experience viewing a film. This comes into play much more often with older films, I've found, because many of the great masters of comedy from the early years of cinema represent a certain base branch of comedy, so if you find one more appealing than the other, you may gravitate towards one performer or another. Personally, I have a hard time with Charlie Chaplin, but love Buster Keaton. I find Laurel and Hardy to be hit or miss, but I can't stand the three stooges. The Marx brothers are probably my favorite, however, partially because they specialized in highbrow silliness, a soft spot in my comedic heart, but also because they represent a precursor to much of the great cinematic humor I love from the last 50 years, bridging the gap between those performers (Woody Allen, Steve Martin, the Zuckers) and the earlier Jewish vaudeville comedy of the turn of the century.

But then there is W.C. Fields. Known primarily for The Bank Dick - which is to say he's not really known at all by the average moviegoer - Fields is the comedian who may be most tied to modern humor, yet least appreciated by modern film lovers. He pioneered a dry, almost vindictive style of humor that is unmatched by any of his more contemporary malcontents such as Bill Murray and Bob Newhart. These shorts are a great introduction to that style, even if they are a bit hit or miss.

The first short in the series is Pool Sharks, Fields's first film. It's silent, and therefore mostly useless as an introduction to what makes Fields great. In fact, the actor seems to be channeling Chaplin here more than forging a new comedic voice. The Golf Specialist is better, but still seems a little gimmicky. It's not until the outright hilarious The Dentist that Fields comes into his own. Bordering on the ridiculously unlikable, Fields bumbles his way through a golf scene that's much funnier than anything in the previous golf film and into a scene at his office that is absurd and hilarious. None of the other films afterward are quite as strong, but each has a moment of comedic bliss, and each lets its star shine in a way that is truly unique and original. Fields may be too much of his time to rank with Groucho or Buster, but he's one of the great voices in film comedy, and this collection is a great example of the best (and edgiest) he could do.

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