Friday, July 08, 2005

W.C. Fields: Six Short Films

Dir: Various

Criterion compilation of six early Fields shorts. I am a big fan, and seeing them in this order shows the ingenuity of the 30's Fields as a comedian. The Marx Brothers and him (and no one else from the period) are in the same conversation comedically. But the MB's were a comedy of precision and careful construction, having perfected routines for months on stage before they filmed them. Fields' stuff, I think, is more surreal and off the cuff. Not that it is haphazard, but WC likes to throw ideas at the wall, use non sequitors and play around with conventions more than the MB's. Fields is to my mind a precursor of Monty Python or The Young Ones, British in that sense of you never know what is going to happen, where one purposely subverts our expectations in a way that demarcates the hip from the square.

'The Pool Sharks": 1915 Silent feature. Shows off Fields' physical comedy (which is brilliant), but suffers from the same faults as all silent comedies in my opinion. Very broad, incredibly dated; there are only so many times I can watch someone fall down and think its funny. Actually, zero times. Some camera tricks that no doubt were cool way back when.

"The Golf Specialist": One of his best with a tremendous sequence on the 1st tee. Very Marx Brother's-esque, a lesson is well coreographed physical comedy. But only showing flashes of his unique style yet to come.

"The Fatal Glass of Beer": Here it is, the masterpiece. Self refential as a film in ways that I have not seen before this piece, there is an uncertainty about what is going to happen than builds comedic tension unlike almost anything else. Commitment to the joke through repetition all over the place. It is difficult to find jokes even today that rythymically go beyond three iterations, and this short goes into the teens on several.

"The Dentist", "The Pharmacist", "The Barber Shop": Fields in his element, each exhibits the essentials of the Fields persona (selfish, cruel, cavalier, egotistical) and some truly bizarre moments. See especially the once censored part of "The Dentist" with some sexually suggestive physical comedy that would have a hard time being on television even today (well, at noon at least).

Essential viewing for students of comedy. But even the wizards at Criterion could not completely restore the audio on several of the pieces.