Remembering the Great Man

Redeemed by the love of a daughter: Mary Brian as Hope and W.C. Fields as her father Ambrose in “Man on the Flying Trapeze.”

In 2016, Metrograph, my local repertory theater, offered two of W.C. Fields’ best films on their big screen — It’s a Gift and Man on the Flying Trapeze. In part, this was a celebration of the 70th anniversary of Fields’ death. As part of my own little efforts to keep Fields in the public eye, I republish the below, which originally appeared here in December 2016.

For more about Fields, I recommend James Curtis’ biography, which is likely to be the standard for some time to come; William Everson’s study of his films is still worth a read; and Fields’ grandson Ronald Fields also put together W.C. Fields by Himself and W.C. Fields: A Life on Film. Universal Pictures released this five DVD set containing 18 of Fields’ feature films (including most of the films mentioned below) in 2015. Three of his silent features are available — two of which had been presumed lost for decades — from Kino Lorber.

Christmas Day 2016 marks 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). 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. 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. He seems to have single-handedly established the Comedy of Discomfort: a combination of muttered complaints and insults, 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, and Fields was a much better actor than he’s been given credit for, as director George Cukor realized when he cast Fields as Micawber in the 1935 David Copperfield for MGM (Fields himself, who was very well-read, was something of a Charles Dickens scholar). 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 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 may 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.)

Forward into the past

R. Crumb’s “A Short History of America,” a glicee print of which hangs on the wall of my apartment.

Later this week I’ll be resuming my guitar lessons, about which I first wrote here. I seem to be heading forward into the past as I get older, and not my own past either, but much further back. My enthusiasm for ragtime and Piedmont blues as well as other early American music appears to tie together with my newfound enthusiasm for Mark Twain and even that archaic writing instrument the pencil. I suppose I can be faulted for being out of touch with my times. “They say Wilder is out of touch with his times,” director Billy Wilder once said of himself. “Frankly, I regard it as a compliment. Who the hell wants to be in touch with these times?”

You can read more about Piedmont blues in Samuel Charters’ classic study of this music, The Country Blues. A few years back, PBS aired the below documentary about the style.

Mark Twain in 2019

The Orchard House in Concord, MA.

Last year, the good people at W.W. Norton released Anne Boyd Rioux’s Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters. Among the contents are a few essays about why I — as a 57-year-old middle class white man living on the Lower East Side in the early 21st century  and certainly not the target demographic for Louisa May Alcott’s novel — should spend a few hours in the company of the March sisters. (Well, not specifically me, but you get the idea.) As it happens, I visited the Orchard House, Alcott’s home, on a recent visit to Concord, MA, and I doubt that anybody of the dozens of visitors there really need any reason to read Little Women; they’d already done so, and enthusiastically enough to seek out the rooms where Alcott wrote the book.

A few days before I’d taken a tour of Mark Twain’s home in Hartford, CT, enthusiasm for Twain’s writing having drawn me there as well. And it led me to muse about Huckleberry Finn and why that novel, along with the rest of Twain’s work, still matters. Of course, those like myself who visited the Twain house needed little rationale for either their visit or their enthusiasm for the book. We were the converted and had already heard the evangel. But it did pose the question: Where was everybody else? What did Twain have to offer those who hadn’t read a word of him since high school, if at all? For such people do exist.

Admittedly, I’ve had qualms myself, and recently. To read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 2019 — with its dead cats, its adventures on Mississippi River islands, the role-playing of its characters as pirates or Robin Hood, and its complete and total lack of iPhones, television sets, and electricity — is to wonder what it would have to offer even today’s boys, to whom the book was originally addressed in part. Set in the antebellum South, it was somewhat anachronistic even when it was first published in 1876. These days it reads like science fiction. What could that world offer today’s ten- and eleven-year-olds, who prefer to spend their time on YouTube and Fortnite? (Not to mention that any Department of Child Services worthy of the name would have run the adults of the entire town of St. Petersburg into jail for parental neglect with nary a thought.) The appeal of the book for adults is clearer. All of them were children once, and the book recalls a general nostalgia for the independence, the imagination, and the innocence associated with childhood, before they were assimilated into mature, adult society.

All great writers have the ability to find the universal in the particular, and I think this gives us a clue as to what Mark Twain can offer us today. For even during his own time, one of Twain’s central concerns was the ability of men and women to govern themselves and others, the central issue of democracy itself. Though Twain was an American writer, ultimately that concern cuts to the universal qualities of human nature.

What our treatment of other races says about those qualities can only lead to bitter conclusions. It’s a fool’s game to determine what Mark Twain might say about this or that in our own time, but I’ll play the fool and imagine that Twain would have lauded the New York Times‘ recent “1619 Project,” which posits slavery as America’s original sin. “It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are,” the Times says in an introductory paragraph, and the controversy that the project has generated, especially on the right, indicates that the issue remains sensitive. Backdating American identity from 1776 to 1619 is, I believe, just the kind of subversive irreverence that Twain would have welcomed.

A central question about next year’s election will be what America itself means — the duties and obligations of a citizen in an imperfect republic. Here, too, history has demonstrated that the distance between our ideals and our behavior, as well as those of our politicians, is so gapingly wide as to be open to ridicule, and ridicule was Twain’s stock in trade. So far as Donald Trump goes, you needn’t ask what Twain would say about the man; he’s already said it in depicting such characters as the Duke and the Dauphin. Indeed, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, is a witty, comic encyclopedia of human iniquity; anybody reading those three books will be ready for the upcoming election season; nothing will be surprising then. You can’t say that about Little Women. And as to whether technology can ameliorate some of these iniquities — well, Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court has already had the last word on that as well.

Do human beings have the ability to govern themselves to their best, most compassionate advantage? Do human beings have the ability to govern each other, for that matter? Optimists will say that it’s an open question, and the jury’s still out. But in 2019, Mark Twain’s closing argument, laid out in all his books, may be impossible to refute. There is comfort in misanthropy and pessimism after all; not the comfort of optimism, but the comfort of being right. “The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it, he knows too little,” said the man itself. And, as Mark Twain also proves, there can be undeniable, liberating joy in knowing it.

A toast to … two American artists

This week I considered my responses to a recent visit to the home of Mark Twain and looked forward to an October event celebrating Weirdo, the 1980s comics magazine founded by R. Crumb.

I raise my glass to these two gentlemen today, and in closing the week observe that the work of both of these artists has been reviled and censored in the past — Huckleberry Finn since the time of its publication in 1884/5, R. Crumb’s comics rather more recently. I don’t here want to equate the differing achievements of these two individuals, but offer up a few recent defenses of their work.

Toni Morrison, who left us only recently, examined Huckleberry Finn for the Oxford Mark Twain edition edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin in 1996. “In the early eighties I read Huckleberry Finn again, provoked, I believe, by demands to remove the novel from the libraries and required reading lists of public schools,” she wrote. “These efforts were based, it seemed to me, on a narrow notion of how to handle the offense Mark Twain’s use of the term ‘nigger’ would occasion for black students and the corrosive effect it would have on white ones. It struck me as a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children. Amputate the problem, band-aid the solution.”

Along with T.S. Eliot’s essay about the book, Morrison’s essay is one of the most sensitive readings of Huck Finn since the novel’s publication; you can read the entire essay here. It concludes:

The source of my unease reading this amazing, troubling book now seems clear: an imperfect coming to terms with three matters Twain addresses — Huck Finn’s estrangement, soleness and morbidity as an outcast child; the disproportionate sadness at the center of Jim’s and his relationship; and the secrecy in which Huck’s engagement with (rather than escape from) a racist society is necessarily conducted. It is also clear that the rewards of my effort to come to terms have been abundant. My alarm, aroused by Twain’s precise rendering of childhood’s fear of death and abandonment, remains — as it should. It has been extremely worthwhile slogging through Jim’s shame and humiliation to recognize the sadness, the tragic implications at the center of his relationship with Huck. My fury at the maze of deceit, the risk of personal harm that a white child is forced to negotiate in a race-inflected society, is dissipated by the exquisite uses to which Twain puts that maze, that risk.

Yet the larger question, the danger that sifts from the novel’s last page, is whether Huck, minus Jim, will be able to stay those three monsters as he enters the “territory.” Will that undefined space, so falsely imagined as “open,” be free of social chaos, personal morbidity, and further moral complications embedded in adulthood and citizenship? Will it be free not only of nightmare fathers but of dream fathers too? …

For a hundred years, the argument that this novel is has been identified, reidentified, examined, waged and advanced. What it cannot be is dismissed. It is classic literature, which is to say it heaves, manifests and lasts.

The jury of course is still out on the endurance of Crumb’s art, but a few months ago Brian Doherty described and discussed in Reason magazine the increasing controversy in the alternative comics community around Crumb. To nobody’s surprise, his work has given rise to accusations of racism (like Twain’s) and sexism (also like Twain’s, but rather less vociferously). Doherty writes:

One of the many reasons humans have art is to understand, play with, portray, question, and explore the human condition. Which, as Crumb firmly believes, includes a lot of awful, unacceptable thoughts and behavior. …

Many people understand that art is for expressing and exploring the human mind and soul — and the human mind and soul contain darkness, sexual mania, racism, hostility, and any number of awful truths. To force those things out of the conversation is to unreasonably limit the whole project, they say. Art is a treasured aspect of the healthy human condition, even if what the art says is unhealthy on various dimensions. Many others consider that tradeoff worth it in the name of protecting the status and feelings of previously excluded or oppressed groups.

Crumb’s attempt to open comics to a vast range of human expression was victorious: Whether they want to acknowledge it or not, those working in the field today are his descendants. Like all children and grandchildren, they can choose whether or not to understand their patriarch, whether to emulate him or tell him to fuck off. Their choices may not always be kind or wise, but such is human freedom.

Remembering Weirdo

R. Crumb’s 1982 house ad for Weirdo magazine.

So long as we’re on the subject of disillusionment and satire, I bring to your attention an upcoming event at Columbia University: a celebration of the great comic book Weirdo, published by Last Gasp Comics from 1981 to 1993 and created by Robert Crumb. Crumb and his co-editors Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Peter Bagge, along with long-time Weirdo contributor Drew Friedman (who drew the book’s cover art and wrote its foreword), will join Jon B. Cooke, the editor of The Book of Weirdo, at Columbia’s Butler Library on Monday, October 28, at 6:00 p.m. for a panel discussion and reception. You can register for the event here.

Along with Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly’s more high-toned and expensive Raw (in which early chapters of Spiegelman’s Maus first appeared), Weirdo constituted something of a high point in alternative comics. Unlike Raw, however, which in many ways considered the magazine itself an art object, Weirdo was unashamedly outsider — a rougher, more scurrilous, grown-up version of MAD magazine in more ways than one. Drawing its contributor base from both long-established and new underground comics artists, Weirdo resembled neither Raw nor Crumb’s earlier Zap Comix comics publication as much as it did the MAD of the Harvey Kurtzman era. Its glossy covers featured the only color in the otherwise black-and-white and grayscale production, and even its trim size resembled MAD‘s more than Raw or Zap (slightly larger than the DC and Marvel comic books, not nearly as large as the tabloid-sized Raw). Weirdo was the scabrous, downtown punk to Raw‘s cooler, uptown MoMA gentility; Crumb was also responsible for disseminating the revolutionary comics work of women like Kominsky-Crumb, Dori Seda, and Julie Doucet, themselves outsiders from the outsider-comix scene.

Mark Twain and other Southwestern humorists like Petroleum V. Nasby subverted the popular culture vehicles of the newspaper column and the novel to their own satiric ends; Weirdo and MAD did the same for the popular culture vehicles of the comic book and comic strip. Most of the Weirdo artists expressed a seething Swiftian anger and contempt towards the America of the Reagan era, as Twain did for the America of the post-Civil War era, and the best of this work shades into a comic (in both senses of the word) misanthropy, the deliberate artfulness (and, in some cases, artlessness) of the work paradoxically exhibiting the joy of unbridled, uncensored personal expression.

I understand that the Columbia University event is currently overbooked, but a waiting list has been started. With luck (your luck, not mine; I’ve already confirmed), I’ll see you there. In the meantime, The Book of Weirdo is now available from Last Gasp Comics. Crumb’s own contributions to the magazine have been collected in a separate volume, The Weirdo Years: 1981-’93.