A presence who transcends his vehicles, squinty-eyed, bulbous-nosed W.C. Fields (1880–1946) is less a movie star than a figure in our national mythology.
As early as 1934, The New York Times invoked Fields’s “devoted cult”—a following that, 30-odd years later, encompassed the original devotees’ grandchildren, with Fields glowering out from the crowded cover of Sgt. Pepper. In 1967, the Times reported, “The avant-garde youth of Britain seem to have a new hero”; French critic Ado Kyrou had already declared Fields “surréaliste en tout.”
Fields, the subject of a 12-day Film Forum series (April 22–May 3), worked his way through vaudeville as a juggler to score on Broadway as a boozy carnival con man in the 1924 musical Poppy. It’s ironic that his screen debut in the silent Sally of the Sawdust (1925) was directed by humorless, moralizing D.W. Griffith. Whether playing a sucker-fleecing four-flusher or a henpecked paterfamilias, Fields was Griffith’s antithesis, the unreconciled foe of American gentility and flipside of Prohibition.
A gifted physical comedian whose spindly-fingered startle reflex is a thing of beauty, Fields achieved his apotheosis with the talkies. His voice, a drawling monotone compared by critic Raymond Durgnat to the scrape of “a rusty lavatory chain,” was his greatest creation (oft-imitated, an influence surely on the sarcastic bray of fellow misanthrope William Burroughs), used for sotto voce mutterings, mouse-squeaks of pain, and the atonal bellowing of chestnuts like “Along the Wabash.”
Kyrou’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, Fields appeared in only a few overtly surreal comedies—Million Dollar Legs (1932) and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941). His best sustained movies were shorts like The Dentist (1932) and The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933). Most of his talkies fall into two types. There are those in which he appears as a late-19th-century mountebank—The Old Fashioned Way (1934), Poppy (1936), and You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939). And then there are those, set in the brutal now of the Great Depression, in which, at once clumsy and conniving, he plays a hapless, shrew-beholden householder.
Film Forum’s Fields fest opens with a double bill of these, The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) and It’s a Gift (1934). The latter, which has a scene in which a nasty blind man destroys Fields’s grocery store, is a sacred-cow barbecue, unequaled in its mockery of death, disability, and domestic bliss.