You mustn't make fun of the gentleman, Clifford. You'd
like to have a nose like that full of nickels, wouldn't you?
-- Mother to son about Egbert Sousé
C. Fields is the most improbable star in the first century of the movies, a man
widely (and accurately) thought to be drunk during most of his adult life, who
created a screen character that hated women, children and dogs and could not be
redeemed even by the requirements of the Hollywood censors. During Fields'
career, industry standards required good to be rewarded and evildoing punished,
but in "The Bank Dick" Fields plays an alcoholic misanthrope who
lies, cheats and steals and is rewarded with wealth and fame.
Bank Dick" (1940) is probably Fields' best film, but his career resides
not so much in individual films as in scenes and moments scattered here and
there between his first short subject, in 1915, and his last films in the
mid-1940s. He recycled material tirelessly. Bits from his vaudeville act were
being dusted off 40 years later, and he always played more or less the same
character. Even as Mr. Micawber in "David Copperfield" (1935), his
most disciplined and polished performance, he was recognizably himself in
costume (or, it could be argued, Micawber was simply an earlier fictional
version of Fields).
Fields (1880-1946) is not as well known as he once was. Even his revival in the
1960s has been forgotten. No doubt the wheel of memory will revolve to bring
him back into fashion, because his appeal is timeless: It is the appeal of the
man who cheerfully embraces a life of antisocial hedonism, basking in serene
contentment with his own flaws. He is self-contained.
was an accomplished juggler as a youth on the vaudeville stage, and seems to
have come into his screen persona gradually, helped by the introduction of
sound, which permitted audiences to hear his peculiar nasal twang. As a
comedian, he had unusual timing: His dialogue does not end in punch lines that
invite laughter, but trails off into implications and insinuations of things
better left unsaid. Audiences suspected he was sneaking double meanings past
the censors, and they were right.
has it he wanted his tombstone to read"On
the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."During his lifetime, on the whole,
he'd rather be in a bar. He was a serious drinker who was often under a
doctor's care, checked into sanitariums between movies and died a horrible
alcoholic's death. David Thomson has written of "the mottling of his sad
he nevertheless brought exquisite timing to his performances and joy to his
audiences exhibits a species of courage, and of course on the days when the
booze was working he could be playful and entertaining; his Hollywood parties
were eagerly attended even if the host was seldom conscious at their
knew Fields well," Groucho Marx told me in 1972. "He used to sit in
the bushes in front of his house with a BB gun and shoot at people. Today he'd
probably be arrested. He invited me over to his house. He had a girlfriend
there. I think her name was Carlotta Monti.Car-lot-ta
MON-ti!That's the kind of a
name a girl of Fields would have. He had a ladder leading up to his attic.
Without exaggeration, there was $50,000 in liquor up there. Crated up like a
wharf. I'm standing there and Fields is standing there, and nobody says
anything. The silence is oppressive. Finally he speaks:This will carry me 25 years."
like that were well known to Fields' fans, and contributed to the legend that
drew crowds to his movies. He also became famous for a long-running feud with
Charlie McCarthy, the dummy of the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and for onscreen
hostility to small children, who were hostile right back at him. "Shall I
bounce a rock off his head?" asks Elsie, his daughter in "The Bank
Dick," and her mother tells her, "Respect your father, darling. What
kind of a rock?"
was paid $125,000 a picture in his later years, a good salary, and insisted on
another $15,000 for his "screenplays," which consisted of mental
notes and scrawlings on the backs of envelopes. The synopsis of any of his
films is hallucinatory. My source is his biographer, Robert Lewis Taylor, who
writes that "My Little Chickadee" (1940) and "Never Give a
Sucker an Even Break" (1941), two of his best-known films, "will
probably stand up among the worst movies ever made," but tellingly adds:
"This scarcely detracts from their overall worth."
didn't go for a good movie. You went for Fields, and for the surrealism of his
plots. Consider "The Bank Dick," which in he plays a man named Egbert
Sousé ("accent grave upon the e") -- an unhappily married drunk who
accidentally catches a thief, is rewarded with a job at the bank and falls in
with a con man.
one point he wanders into his favorite bar, the Black Pussy Cat (bartender:
Shemp Howard), and meets a movie producer who hires him on the spot to fill in
for A. Pismo Clam, the director of a movie being made in town. Fields arrives
on the set, announces that the story will switch from an English drawing room
drama to a circus picture, and begins to instruct the actors for a football
scrimmage. The male lead is very tall, the female lead very short ("Is she
standing in a hole?") and after several funny minutes Fields simply walks
off the set, and the directing job is never referred to again until a chase
scene at the end of the film.
kind of abrupt disconnect is common in Fields movies. Even a Marx Brothers plot
was a masterpiece of construction by comparison. One sketch segues into another
one, not seamlessly, and no effort is made at realism. (In his famous short
"The Fatal Glass of Beer," he repeatedly looks out a cabin door,
intones "It's not a fit night out for man nor beast," and is hit in
the face with what is obviously a handful of soap flakes hurled from just out
the unique fact of W.C. Fields is a lifelong occupation for any filmgoer,
conducted from time to time according to no particular plan. There is not a
single Fields film that "must" be seen in order to qualify as a
literate movie lover, and yet if you are not eventually familiar with Fields
you are not a movie lover at all. What is amazing about him is that he exists
at all. He is not lovely, and although he is graceful it is a lugubrious grace,
a kind of balance in a high psychic wind. All of his scenes depend, in one way
or another, on sharing his private state: He is unloved, he detests life, he is
hung over, he wants a drink, he is startled by sudden movements and loud
noises, he has no patience for fools, everyone is a fool, and middle-class
morality is a conspiracy against the man who wants to find surcease in
alcoholic bliss. These are not the feelings of his characters; they are his own
met his match in "My Little Chickadee" when he co-starred with Mae
West, another Hollywood force of nature. They wrote their scenes separately, we
learn. She could not stand his drinking, Taylor reports, and although Fields at
60 was far from West's usual muscle builder type, he grew boozily enamored of
her, at one point fondly referring to her off-camera as "my little
broodmare." Pauline Kael finds "Chickadee" "a classic among
bad movies," observing that it never really gets off the ground, "but
the ground is such an honest mixture of dirt, manure and corn that at times it
is fairly aromatic." Only Fields would compliment a woman, after kissing
her hand, by observing, "What symmetrical digits!" Only West would
have been able to look complimented.