W.C. Fields Collection
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W.C. Fields Comedy Collection

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It was tough going for most people for those years just after the Great Depression and into World War II. People needed a laugh; they needed to feel better about themselves. One man took these difficult times and created film characters so bitter that you could forget your own troubles for a little while. This man was W.C. Fields, a comic actor that took the seven deadly sins and used them as a road map for life, he as a curmudgeon, a drunk, a womanizer and hated children and animals. While this may seem like an unlikely set of qualities for humor, considering the hard lives of the audience, it worked. Fields was known for his quick wit and was always ready with a come back line that sliced through his verbal opponent. With his trademark tall hat and bulbous nose he brought laugher to a nation that dearly needed a break from life. While such somewhat off color humor is fairly commonplace now this was a different social environment, an era where most of the men where off to war and the women had to take up a new position in the workforce. While social interactions where changing Fields treated women as sexualized objects placed on earth for his amusement. Not politically correct but the audiences roared with laughter.

International House, released in 1933 was a somewhat minor film for its time. Still, it contains some incredible performances from classic comedy and musical stars. There is a great bit by the late George Burns and his ditsy wife and partner Gracie Allen. Some of the older ones out there will remember their television show; this is partner comedy at its best. There are also musical numbers from Cab Calloway, Rudy Valle and Baby Rose Marie (who in her adult life stared in the Dick Van Dyke show). Maybe these performances are not what you are used to but they are timeless. In this film Fields takes on the hotel business with always humorous results. This film presented old vaudeville acts almost untouched from their original live presentations, filmed before the infamous crack down of the Hayes Commission the content is bawdy and wild.

It’s a Gift (1934) is often sited as the best that Fields had to offer. While less known than some of his later works, in this flick he really hones his common man persona. He plays the manager of a general store, a man put upon by life in general. The film is set in four distinct parts, Home, The Store, The Back Porch and The Move. Each vignette allows Fields to display his comic genius, the working man being pushed to the limit of polite society and ready to take it out on any misfortunate soul that he encounters. The comedy here comes from the exaggeration of everyday events, a man trying to share a bathroom mirror with his wife or putting up with the weirdness of his customers. We’ve all been there and that is why we laugh. Fields reacts like we secretly would like to.

In ‘You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man’ the vehicle for the comedy is Fields managing a circus troupe of eccentric performers. Among them is the famous ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his smart mouth dummy Charlie McCarthy. Their interaction is dated but holds up nicely if you only give it a chance. Then there is Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson, best known as the butler foil on the old Jack Benny show. Here he demonstrates his innate comic timing. Fields is his usual acerbic self, playing off the best the time had to offer.

My Little Chickadee (1940) is the film most people remember Fields for. Here two comedy giants meet on the big screen, W.C. Fields and Mae West. With West Fields finally meets his match in a woman. While most female parts in his films serve only as the source of his aggravation or the objects of his lust, West is as strong a personality as he his. West and Fields co wrote this film, a meeting of comedy minds that will endure as timeless, sexually charged humor. Considering how famous each was in their own right back then part of the fun of the movie is watching them constantly trying to overshadow the other.

The Bank Dick (1940) represents the last film in this offering and one of the last films of his career; he would go on to make only two minor films after this. At this point in Field’s life his life style was catching up on him, the alcohol had done its worst. While a bit rambling at times it actually works here since after all this is the character he is playing. Fields is a bank guard that accidentally is credited with foiling a bank robbery. This propels him into his fifteen minutes of fame. Also part of the flimsy plot is a stand in director of a bad film and the typical Fields antics ensue. By the time you view this film you will notice that Fields was not above re-presenting slight variation of his routines. Perhaps his alcoholism was getting to him but he remains a comedian that those today owe a lot.

When a young, modern audience watches films such as this they should consider it for what it is, a section of a time long gone. This is film history. True, the material is dated and the co-stars that where popular then are barely known but these films are the foundation that modern comedians own their living. People always like to laugh at those whose situation is worse than their own. These films were made in a very difficult time and the humor reflects this political and social environment.

Universal did their best with this box set. The audio shows signs of age and the video, while usual clear is marred at times. Concentrate on the classic qualities of the comedy, humor from a time long before politically correct was even dreamt of. To this end Universal provides a historical featurette about Fields and original trailers. Get this and watch what your grand parents used to go to the movies to see.

Posted 11/12/04

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