Monday, January 28, 2008

A Bigger Box o' Fields

As frequenters of this blog and readers of my magazine should be well aware by now, there are literally hundreds of good reasons why every DVD devotée ought to invest in a region-free player. Pictured here is one of the latest, a beautifully designed British import from Universal that collects no less than 17 films starring early sound era comedian W.C. Fields.

I suspect that Fields is not well-known to young people today, but when I was a young, rebellious longhair of the original Woodstock era, fond of playing my Blue Cheer and Electric Prunes albums so that the poor people without stereos in Indiana could hear them, Fields was a hero of mine -- even at a time when I had seen none of his films, even though he would have been the first grown-up on the block to tell me to turn that goddam racket down. I can't recall where or how I first became aware of Fields, but impressionists like Rich Little probably had something to do with it; twenty (and twenty-five) years after his death in 1946, Fields' distinctive carnival-barker speaking voice remained prime fodder for voice men. (Richard Dawson and Ed McMahon were also, and remain, devout Fields devotées.) But I do remember that one of my four bedroom walls was dominated by a poster of his likeness, from MY LITTLE CHICKADEE (1940 -- though I did not know its origin then), peering scurrilously over a tightly clutched fistful of playing cards. The phrase "close to the vest" incarnate. I don't know why this image spoke to me so directly at that age and that time, but it did -- and I was not alone.

My investigation into Fields properly began with a book by Richard J. Anobile (I think it was DRAT!) and an entertaining record album of sound bytes from Fields' movies, narrated by Gary Owens of LAUGH-IN fame. I listened to that album till I wore it out, at which point I no longer needed it because Fields' unabashedly baroque way of speaking had thoroughly infected my gray matter. I got my first-ever A+ on an English paper when my class was assigned to conduct an imaginary interview with someone from history. I chose Fields and not only wrote a longer paper than was needed (because the old so-and-so just wouldn't shut up), but I couldn't stop laughing as I wrote it.

Q: Mr. Fields, you have had a long career and now stand at the very pinnacle of your...
A: Pinochle, yes pinochle! A delightful game, I do not mind telling you, at which I have had the good fortune to be Tri-state Champion. Why, it's taken me all over the world! I'm reminded of a time when I was but a hardy towhead in a woolskin cap, romping through the hinterlands of Afghanistan. It was just me and Jake, my trusty yak. He could sniff out truffles in half a tick..

And so on and so forth (how easily it all comes back). Evidently my English teacher, Mrs. Rose, had taken my little paper so deeply into the cockles of her heart that she not only accorded it with the aforementioned nonpariel gradation, but she impressed its shining example upon her fellow instructors, several of whom sought me out that day in the groves of academe to tender their heartiest congratulations. I thank you.

There is a streak of the Rabelaisian in Fields' carny-speak and, in retrospect, I can see how my infection with it may have played a role in my becoming a writer. Fields was a writer himself and took a hand in most of his film scripts.

During those early months of my Fields obsession, my attentions were rewarded -- sort of -- by TV GUIDE's announcement that Channel 16 would be hosting a week of W.C. Fields movies in their late night slot. Unfortunately, I was in Cincinnati and Channel 16 was in Dayton, Ohio; close enough to have their listings in our TV GUIDE but not always close enough to receive. Even on the clearest nights, the picture could be faint and snowy, unless I wrapped my calves and forearms in aluminium foil and stood to the right of my little television in the attitude of a flamingo. Even though I often couldn't see what was going on, I tuned in to every single broadcast -- just to hear the soundtracks in their complete and uninterrupted form, which had been edited down on the Gary Owens album to just the bon mots, so to speak. My perseverance was rewarded: the clearest night's reception I had that week was for IT'S A GIFT (1934), commonly acknowledged as Fields' masterpiece, which allowed me to see not only the classic "Carl LaFong" routine -- a highlight of the album -- but the even greater build-up to it, as Fields (unable to sleep in the same room with yappy wife Kathleen Howard) absconds to the outdoor swing for the peaceful repose that never comes.

Within the same year, my local theater hosted AN EVENING WITH W.C. FIELDS, which turned out to be THE BANK DICK (1940) and a selection of his early short films. A friend, whom I had also managed to infect with my record album, and I were there for the first showing with sleighbells on. The highlight of the show, for me, was THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER, which I proceeded to quote thereafter for weeks on end. That year, for my last Halloween as an active participant, I went about dressed as Fields -- in a bathrobe and plastic bowler hat, twirling a cane and sporting a fake nose artfully contrived of Silly Putty. As people gave me candy, I looked in my bag with "Godfrey Daniels" recoil and asked them entreatingly, "Haven't you anything stronger?"

So my love of Fields runs deep, but I had fallen out of touch with it. After ordering the 17-film import set, I found out that Universal had previously released two five-picture box sets, which had somehow escaped my notice -- good thing, too. The pair of them will set you back over $120 at Amazon.com, which is the sort of bitter pill that would discourage even the most stout-hearted Fieldsian from setting out to bag the bigger game.

When I heard about this import set (less than £55 from Amazon.co.uk), I knew I had to have it because, even after all these years, I had never managed to see most of Fields' early Paramounts in anything like watchable quality. Culled from Fields' stints at Paramount and Universal, the import box arranges its contents in non-chronologic, even higglety-pigglety order, most of them doubled-up on single discs while IT'S A GIFT and another title are stand-alones. ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1933) and MRS. WIGGS OF THE CABBAGE PATCH (1934), which would have filled those gaps ideally, were for some reason not included -- though they are listed as part of the contents on the Amazon.co.uk sales page for the set. Perhaps those pictures were omitted because Fields appears only briefly in them, but that wouldn't explain how FOLLOW THE BOYS (1944), in which he also appears only briefly, got included. Should this set ever surface in the USA, Universal really should reconsider and include ALICE and MRS. WIGGS for the simple reason that they're part of Fields' Paramount story.

The complete contents of the import set are: THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 (1938), THE BANK DICK (1940), YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN (1939), MY LITTLE CHICKADEE (1940), MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE (1935), THE OLD FASHIONED WAY (1934), YOU'RE TELLING ME! (1934), SIX OF A KIND (1934), INTERNATIONAL HOUSE (1933), MILLION DOLLAR LEGS (1932), IF I HAD A MILLION (1932), MISSISSIPPI (1935), POPPY (1936), NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941), IT'S A GIFT (1934), TILLIE AND GUS (1933) and FOLLOW THE BOYS (1944). The titles in orange are included in Universal's R1 W.C. FIELDS COMEDY COLLECTION VOLUME 1, the titles in blue are included in VOLUME 2. (THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 was released domestically by Universal as half of a "Bob Hope Tribute Collection" disc, paired with COLLEGE SWING.)

I dove right into the middle of the set with IT'S A GIFT for starters, then went back to the beginning and continued with Disc 1: THE OLD FASHIONED WAY (1934) and POPPY (1936). While IT'S A GIFT retains its wonder as a necklace of all-time-great Fields bits, and for former opera singer Kathleen Howard's near operatic, non-stop nagging, I had more appreciation for THE OLD FASHIONED WAY as a film and was delighted by Fields' underplayed emotion at the end of the picture. I am supplementing my viewing with James Curtis' 2003 biography of Fields, which informed me of how ill the Great Man was during the filming of POPPY and impressed me all the more with how much he was still able to contribute to it. All the stories are basically the same Depression-era fantasy about people, surviving on little more than their sly wit, who achieve wealth or at least safe harbor through extreme trial and error by the final reel -- and Fields isn't always likeable. Watching YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN (1939) last night, I was startled to hear Fields' Larson E. Whipsnade refer to Eddie "Rochester" Anderson as a "pickaninny", to his black carnival workers as "Ubangis," and to a black-faced Charlie McCarthy as an "eggplant." When something goes wrong, he yells about there being "a Ubangi in the fuel supply" -- a sort of "Godfrey Daniels" twist on the old expression "a nigger in a woodpile." It erred one too many times on the wrong side of propriety for my liking... but the lady with the snake allergy nearly made up for it.

This is a flat-out lovely set and I'm having a ball with it. Every transfer is lovely and silvery. Fields' juggling routine in THE OLD FASHIONED WAY, the only record on film of the skill upon which he built his theatrical reputation, is still awe-inspiring; I can easily imagine some young person seeing it today (if not on this import set, then on YouTube) and being inspired to innovate some kind of 21st century reinvention of the forgotten art.

Suffice to say, my little plum, if you have the wherewithal and can afford to get into the game, by all means go to Amazon.co.uk and have their croupier deal you these 17 cards... er, discs. I promise you will hold each and every one of them very tightly to your vest.

1 comment:

  1. David in Australia5:18 PM

    I agree - pure GOLD from the UK division of Universal.

    ReplyDelete

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