Christmas Day 2016 will be the 70th anniversary of W.C. Fields‘ death, and to mark the occasion Metrograph will present a screening of one of his best films, the 1935 Man on the Flying Trapeze, on Thursday, December 29, at 7.00pm (with special guests to be announced; it’s a part of the FieldsFest that’s been going on for the past few months, spearheaded by popular entertainment expert Trav S.D.). Trapeze, according to Metrograph, is “a pure poem of domestic desperation,” as are two other films that Fields made around the same period, You’re Telling Me and It’s a Gift. (We’ll take the plot details of Trapeze as read.) The latter has come to be regarded as one of Fields’ greatest films, but all three together form an informal trilogy of satires about small-town American life that must be considered Fields’ greatest achievement.
It’s hard to imagine Albert Brooks, Fawlty Towers, or Curb Your Enthusiasm without Fields’ influence and example. He seems to have single-handedly established the Comedy of Discomfort: a combination of muttered complaints and insults, cynicism and general misanthropy, and embarrassing physical situations turned often enough against the comedian himself as well as the world. In contrast to those others, though, there’s a vein of melancholy that also runs through Fields’ work. The domestic comedies present Fields’ characters as trapped in small-town mediocrity, with unhappy personal and professional lives; every attempt that Sam Bisbee, Ambrose Wolfinger, or Harold Bissonette makes to break free of this mediocrity, even (as in Trapeze) just to play hooky from work to attend the fights one afternoon or (as in It’s a Gift) to catch just a little extra sleep before the day begins, ends in comic chaos.
There’s also a touch of tragedy associated with each of these characters. In the aftermath of a professional disaster, You’re Telling Me‘s Bisbee seriously considers suicide; Trapeze‘s Wolfinger is on his second marriage, his first having ended with his wife’s early death, leaving him with a daughter to raise on his own; and, in the penultimate scene of It’s a Gift, Bissonette is left in a landscape of astonishing devastation, abandoned by his entire family except for his dog, bereft of comfort or even a future, his dreams destroyed. After the raucous comedy of the previous 60 minutes, the scene is still something of a shock. These being comedies, there’s always a deus ex machina (in the form of a princess, a real estate speculator, or a job offer) to save the character at the end, and more often then not Fields’ failed father figures are redeemed by the love of a daughter. But in real life, deus ex machinas are all too rare, a realization that occurs only a few minutes after the credits roll.
Fields came to the movies rather late in his career, appearing in his first major film, D.W. Griffith’s Sally of the Sawdust, in 1925 at the age of 45; it wasn’t until his mid-50s, with the three films I mentioned above, that he hit his cinematic stride. Before that he had risen from vaudeville’s backwaters as a comic juggler to some considerable fame on Broadway, reaching the top of his profession as a stage comedian in 1923’s Poppy, which ran for over a year at the Apollo Theatre and provided the basis for Griffith’s film. After that, the movies came calling, and Fields appeared in a variety of silent features before his sound debut in the short The Golf Specialist, an adaptation of a sketch Fields created for the stage Follies, which was released in 1930. The rest, as they say, is history.
Fields’ films can be grouped into three different categories: the middle-class domestic comedies; the period pieces (like Poppy, remade in 1936, often set in the late 19th-century or turn-of-the-century) such as The Old Fashioned Way — the best of these, in which Fields plays the leader of a theatre troupe travelling through the small towns of middle America, performing the melodrama The Drunkard; and here and there a few absurdist essays, from 1932’s Million Dollar Legs and 1941’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. It was in the first two groups, though, that Fields really shone. While the absurdist films have their moments (and nearly all of Fields’ films have an absurdist moment or two), his comic studies of Americana retain the most interest for us now.
After 1936, Fields began to suffer from a variety of physical ailments, some of which were exacerbated by his heavy drinking, and though he returned to the Paramount studio in 1938 he was never the same. While 1940’s The Bank Dick, made for Universal, is often cited as the quintessential Fields movie, I find his performance and the comedy there somewhat forced; compared to his appearance in Trapeze, Fields looks physically bloated and slow, and the deft grace of his movements in those earlier films has deteriorated.
I’m not sure whether the work of the great comedians like Fields, Chaplin, and Laurel and Hardy still appeals. While it may be thought that we live in a more cynical age, seeing Man on the Flying Trapeze may prove to you that, on the contrary, our age might not be cynical enough. You’ll have the chance to find out for yourself at Metrograph on December 29. (The film — along with most of Fields’ other work — is also available on this DVD set from Universal.)
The standard biography these days is W.C. Fields: A Biography by James Curtis. This can be supplemented by W.C. Fields by Himself, a substantial collection of Fields’ letters, scripts, and other writings, recently republished by Taylor Trade Publishing, and the still essential 1967 study of his films by William K. Everson, The Art of W.C. Fields.