April 28th, 2007
|12:58 am - movie serendipity|
One of my purchases this weekend was a recently-released collection of W.C. Fields features. There's two volumes kicking around and I got the second, which features Poppy, the film version of the stage star that changed Fields from a vaudeville juggler to a full-fledged comedian; The Old-Fashioned Way, the only film of his that actually shows him juggling (he does his famous cigar box juggling routine) and Never Give A Sucker An Even Break, Fields' last film and an incredibly surreal, disjointed, bizarre comedy. Of course I popped in the last film first this afternoon and rather enjoyed its plunge into the realm of the impossible. The story, written by Fields under the pseudonym Otis Criblecotis, features W.C. Fields playing himself (character name "The Great Man".) Fields is trying to pitch a new movie idea to Esoteric Studios, which is the best studio name ever. The Great Man's film would star him and his neice Gloria Jean (played by... uh, Gloria Jean, a lovely young coloratura soprano who also starred in The Ghost Chasers with Olsen & Johnson, the lunatic vaudeville team responsible for Hellzapoppin.) Margaret Dumont shows up as well, playing a dowager (what else?) in Fields' film-within-a-film who's sequestered her beautiful blonde daughter in a mountaintop estate to keep her from ever meeting a man.
Well, the first man this girl meets is The Great Man, who plummets from an airplane to retrieve his bottle of booze, which he knocked out of the plane's "open-air observation lounge." Yes, that's right, an open-air observation lounge on an airplane. You can't just willingly suspend your disbelief for this movie, you have to hang it off the spire of the Chrysler Building. After managing to retrieve his bottle while in free-fall, Fields lands on an outdoor couch, bounces a few times, meets the pretty sequestered girl, teaches her a kissing game called Squidjulum, and then encounters Dumont and her guard dog, a mastiff with fake fangs ("Romulus and Remus!" he exclaims.)
The film gets weirder from there.
One of the interesting things I noticed was the relationship between Fields and his "neice." He plays the same kind of character he always plays -- a conniving codger, a mean mumbler, and a fellow who'll steal a hat if he feels like it. However, Gloria Jean plays the reassuring role; if Fields cracks wise when she's around, we always get a reaction shot of her giggling at him. Obviously he can't be all that mean a misanthrope if his neice adores him so. And he makes sure to take good care of her, too, in a sort of guardian role that softens up his edges and helps make him more of a sympathetic character. Irving Thalberg gave the Marx Brothers a similar treatment when they moved from Paramount to MGM.
Before MGM, the Marx Brothers played true discordians, characters who were pretty much only in it for themselves and for chaos. They're hilarious in Duck Soup but they're also quite mean, firing on their own troops during the final war scene and then chucking fruit at Margaret Dumont as she sings the Fredonian national anthem. In A Night at The Opera, however, Thalberg toned down the nihilism and changed their characters to guardian angels of sorts by having them help the romantic leads, Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle. They're still chaotic as ever, but now they're helping Jones get his operatic break, making sure the happy couple gets to stay together, and thus come off as more sympathetic. Good Guys. Chico may still be a flimflam artist, Groucho will still get a dig in at Margaret Dumont every chance he gets, and Harpo will still chase girls and, well, be Harpo, but they'll all lend a hand to give the "normal" protagonists a happy ending. This formula takes them through the rest of their films, such as A Day at the Races, At The Circus and Go West. Fields gets a similar treatment in Sucker and he's all the better for it (in his previous film, The Bank Dick, his family life is in shambles; his wife and children berate him constantly and nobody really likes him.)
Fields does fine by Gloria Jean and teaches her well. In one scene they're accosted by two mischievous boys, who clock Fields one in the noggin with a rock. Gloria Jean picks the rock up, fuming, and winds up to retaliate, but Fields interrupts her. "No, no, my dear!" he advises. "Take a deep breath and count to ten." Gloria Jean does just that, counting to ten and calming back down.
"Now throw," Fields then says. "You have better aim this way."
I also watched The Hustler this evening on Turner Classic Movies, which does not feature W.C. Fields or Gloria Jean. However, after the movie, TCM played a pool-related short; Fields' first film ever, the 1915 silent comedy "Pool Sharks." Looking a lot like Steve Martin with a hideous prop mustache, the young Fields fights with a rival over the same girl. They play a game of pool animated in crude but cute stop-motion, throw billiard balls at each other and end up breaking a hanging fishbowl (what) which was right over the head of their object of affection. The silent actress does a lovely comic take removing goldfish from her hair. Then there's business involving a rain barrel and people chasing each other around and whatnot. I didn't think I would be seeing Fields' first and last movie all in the same day today, but I have, and I really dig moments of movie serendipity like this.
Meanwhile, TCM is showing Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill! in fifteen minutes or so. Fast women! Fast cars! Catfights! Horrible dialogue! This is why we stay up late, kids.
I keep forgetting where Squidjulum comes from.