Among the first LPs I purchased for my new turntable were the first few albums by the folksinger Patrick Sky, who left us just a few weeks ago at the age of 80. The New York Times obituary is here.
Back in 1979, John Pfeiffer strolled into my Bard College dorm room bearing a copy of Songs That Made America Famous — maybe the most scurrilous folk album of the era. Said Rolling Stone upon the album’s belated release in 1973:
Sometimes a record comes along that so affronts common decency, so offends public morality, and so insults established canons of taste that its very appearance understandably prompts cries of outrage, shock and indignation. Veteran folk minstrel Patrick Sky’s latest opus is just such a record. … Such a record belongs in every American home; enjoy it while you still can.
Sky’s album was a series of songs not atypical of the black humor of the era, the expression of an impatience with sanctimony that we could still use today. Some of them, like “Our Baby [Died Last Night],” were just offensively silly. But two of the cuts — “Child Molesting Blues” and “Bake Dat Chicken Pie,” Sky’s cover of a 1907 song by blackface performers Collins and Harlan — suggested that folk and roots music weren’t entirely a gentle traipse down Nostalgia Lane, but were potentially minefields. The “folk” weren’t entirely innocent nor bucolic; you could get your leg blown off that way.
Before 1973 Sky was one of the more popular and talented of the musicians to come out of the New York City folk revival (praised particularly by Dave Van Ronk, who wrote the album notes for his first few releases), and in later years he devoted himself to the preservation of the uilleann pipes, an Irish instrument not unlike the Scottish bagpipes. You can see him perform one of his signature songs, “Many a Mile,” at a 2013 concert here. (Don’t miss his comic reference to Oscar Wilde’s comments on bagpipes at the top of the song.)
Sky, like yours truly, was a great fan of W.C. Fields, with whom he shared a sardonic nasal twang. In a 1964 concert he covered W.C. Fields’ “song,” “The Fatal Glass of Beer,” which first appeared in Fields’ 1933 short subject of the same name. You can hear it below.
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.
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.)