Wednesday, July 13, 2016
Godfrey Daniels—W.C. Fields a humanitarian?
But that's what we found out last Sunday
More than a century after his first appearance on film, W.C. Fields still packs 'em in. And he still sends 'em home happy!
That's one thing I learned from our show this past Sunday at the Somerville Theatre: a double bill of two Fields silent features, plus some rare clips and short films.
A big turnout of nearly 200 fans, some wearing Fields hats, roared at the films, which are rarely screened and have been overshadowed by his later work in talkies.
I also learned a lot from Dr. Harriet Fields, the comedian's granddaughter and our guest for the weekend. (Harriet, who has her own career in health care and education, serves as Vice President of W.C. Fields Productions, Inc., which maintains a Web site at www.wcfields.com.)
All along, I assumed Fields' popularity rested on his acerbic response to life: the retorts, the cynicism, the kicking of children, and—later in his career—threatening the wooden ventriloquist's dummy Charlie McCarthy with bodily harm during their prolonged radio feud.
I had lumped Fields into the same category as, say, Groucho Marx. W.C. was an outrageous figure who did and said stuff we'd all like to do.
But Harriet opened my eyes to a crucial facet of Fields that underpins the way we respond to what he does. It's the warmth and humanity that lies just below the surface.
This is what really drives the comedy in most of his roles.
And you know, she's right.
In most of his roles, Fields is at heart a good man faced with a giant-sized helping of the obstacles all of us face, then and now.
And a big part of the comedy that ensues comes from the empathy this generates. We've all been there. And we know what he's thinking, because we've thought those thoughts ourselves.
So the comedy of Fields transcends insult and cynicism, and is actually rooted in character. It's his desire to achieve respect of those around him, or to not lose it, that make the comedy timeless.
This was certainly the case with the two rarely screened silent features we ran on Sunday, July 10 at the Somerville.
In 'So's Your Old Man' (1926) Fields plays a small town inventor whose unbreakable auto glass proves an epic flop, exposing him to scorn and ridicule of his friends and neighbors.
In 'It's the Old Army Game' (1926), he's a pharmacist (again in a small town) who gets caught up in a real estate scam that threatens to bankrupt the entire community.
(Both films were shown via beautiful 35mm prints on loan from the Library of Congress. I can't say enough about what a difference this makes in recreating the silent film experience.)
And yes—as Dr. Fields pointed out, in both films a daughter who believes in him and supports him despite all that happens.
The dynamic is especially strong in another silent, 'Running Wild' (1927), in which Fields lacks the respect of his shrewish second wife, but has a daughter from his first wife who worships him.
In each of these stories, Fields shows he's capable of inspiring loyalty in at least someone. So you want him to triumph, if only to validate the faith of his loyal daughters.
When screened as intended (in a theater, with live music), these comedies produce gales of laughter. And after our screenings on Sunday, people told me they were surprised at how good they were.
Well, I think that's in part because the laughter is related to the universal human condition. It's a close relative of the work of Laurel & Hardy. There's a warmth present that drives the comedy, and also makes it timeless.
It's also capable of crossing cultural boundaries. Harriet is fond of recounting how she recently screened vintage Fields comedies to audiences in the African nation of Rwanda, where she's done a lot of professional work in the field of health care education.
Despite the complete lack of a shared culture, people loved the movies.
Why? Because the comedy of Fields, at its heart, is derived from things that transcend cultural differences, and qualities that unite us as humans: family, friendship, loyalty, perseverance.
In the medium of silent film, the way Fields handles these issues seem even more universal. And that was one reason that Sunday's program was such a delight.
And it was loooong! We started at 2 p.m., and didn't finish until about 6:30 p.m.!
In addition to the two features, we ran rare 35mm prints of some Fields sound films: 'The Pharmacist' (1932), an excerpt from 'Tales of Manhattan' (1942) (which featured Phil Silvers with hair), and a curious educational film from 1933, 'How to Break 90 #3, Hip Action' in which golf pro Bobby Jones explains how improper hip motion adversely affects the backswing.
In 'Hip Action,' Fields is seen wandering a golf course, and at one point juggles golf balls. But most of the film was devoted to detailed advice on improving one's golf swing, so I'm glad it came near the end of the program.
Many thanks to Harriet for being such a wonderful guest, and such an eloquent advocate for her grandfather's work.
In case you missed the Somerville show, Harriet is scheduled to be a guest at the next Kansas Silent Film Festival, slated for late February, 2017. And yes, at least one (and maybe more) of the Fields silent features will be on the program. I'll be there, and I hope you'll make it, too.
Or if you're in Rwanda, check your local listings. Either way, mark your calendars!
(P.S. For another perspective, check out this blog post by an attendee.)