Is W.C. Fields Still Funny?

It would be really, really easy for me to offer my opinion about whether or not the Marx Brothers are still funny. In fact, here’s that opinion: Oh, yeah.

While I was a latecomer to Marxism, and hadn’t really watched any of their features in full until I was just edging into adulthood, I can tell you the exact moment I became a devout Marx fan: when Harpo opens his coat in Duck Soup and the dog comes out of his stomach and barks. Slack-jawed with amazement at how bizarre the joke was, I laughed out loud uncontrollably. Before that gag, certainly the snappy patter had me grinning and chuckling, but it was exactly at that moment I realized the Brothers had lost none of their pioneering pizzazz (at least for me) all these decades later.

I grew up much more knowledgeable about Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, and I continue to enjoy their films—but today their work inspires more gentle smiles and admiration for their craftsmanship (and, in Chaplin’s case, his tenderness and daring) than outright laughter. But then, I’ve seen their films many times already, so I may not be the best judge.

That’s why I chose W.C. Fields and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break to see if an “old-timer” could still deliver the juice. Because I not only Never Saw That Classic Movie (click on this link to see other greats I have shamefully missed), I really was not familiar with Fields. At all.

Well, I suppose that’s not entirely true. I knew he was one of those “tall and fat” stars (Is 5’8” considered tall? Shorter than me, but I just checked out some charts and it would seem to be so, and I like the reference to Rodney Dangerfield and Back to School, so there it stays); I knew his shtick involved alcoholism and being nasty to children; and I own an old edition of his “intended” autobiography—which, as you may deduce from the previous paragraph, I haven’t read yet. Maybe one day it’ll become one of my Favorite Movie Books. Or not, depending on how this screening turns out.

I picked Never Give a Sucker an Even Break because it’s been described as the star’s last great masterpiece, and the film over which he had the most control as writer of the original story (though he did not credit himself onscreen, instead using the pseudonym Otis Criblecoblis) and informal casting director, choosing most of the supporting players himself. The film is described as heavy on the absurd and surreal, traits I’m particularly interested in at the moment; and, I now read that Fields plays “himself” in the story, and what little I note of the plot synopsis (I don’t want to give away so much to myself before watching the film) makes it sound a bit like Stardust Memories, with Fields perhaps making some sort of oddball “commentary” on his fame and/or past career.

Now, it’s time for me to step away from the blog and watch the movie. See you in 71 minutes. Here, take this poll while you’re waiting:

Who’s Funniest?

View Results


Wow, it’s like time travel, isn’t it? 71 minutes passed for me, but you’re back this very instant. Guess I’d better get to it:

You know how they say comedy is really subjective? The old “you either laugh, or you don’t” rule? That old saw about one man’s hilarity is another man’s…

Aw, forget it. Let’s just open with this: I did not laugh a single time. Not once.

Maybe I’ve started with the wrong movie. Passion projects can be trouble, less disciplined than when a major talent’s every whim is kept in check by the mastery of a fine director. I’m thinking here (as I often do) of Klaus Kinski, whose Paganini biopic was a project long dear to his heart—but that didn’t stop it from being a nearly unwatchable bore. And that doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s pure genius in many other movies, so you would never want to judge his career based solely on that picture.

I went into this film from its initial moments with high hopes, believing I was about to be exposed to a screen legend I’d wrongfully ignored for so very long. The opening seconds set my expectations high with that cartoon depiction of Fields during the credits, his stomach ballooning outward to reveal the title. It was his bombastic and telling statement right out of the gate: this movie is bursting out of me. That first image promised, to me, that what was to follow would be a riotous farce of Rabelaisian proportions, a sharp (if perhaps affectionate) attack on the madness of showbiz blending vaudevillian routines into lunacy worthy of Alfred Jarry.

 

Quickly, I was deflated, and never recovered.

There’s not much more to the story than I got from checking out that brief plot summary online. I found it to be more a forerunner to Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation than a precursor to Stardust Memories (as I’d first suspected), dealing with Fields (again, playing a version of himself) pitching his surreal comedy script to the head of Esoteric Studios. The project is meant to serve as a vehicle for him—fresh off his success with The Bank Dick—and his niece (Gloria Jean, not a real-life relation), a budding actress also working on the lot.

Never-Give-a-Sucker-an-Even-Break-WC-Fields-Susan-Miller-Margaret-DumontAs the cranky producer (Franklin Pangborn) begins reading scenes from the script, we cut away and see them dramatized, and it’s here that Fields works just about all of the film’s reality-bending bits. At about the halfway mark, it departs from rationality entirely when “Uncle Bill” leaps out of an airplane (sans parachute) to catch his falling whiskey flask only to land unscathed in a magical location resembling a giant bird’s nest, where he meets a beautiful young woman (Susan Miller) who has “never seen a man” and her witch-like mother (Margaret Dumont).

Fields coaxes the pretty girl into playing a game of “squidgilum” (I’m not sure this is how it would be spelled, but that’s how it sounded), which of course, ends up with him kissing her while her eyes are closed. When she actually likes it, and asks him to share the game with Dumont, Fields gets squirmy and jumps off the nest into a gondola basket that falls thousands of feet down (again, leaving him unharmed). Then, from inside a sort-of-Russian/Mexican colony, two other men he meets (played by Leon Errol and Charles Lang) return to the nest. Errol attempts to marry Dumont once Miller woos the handsome Lang with the kissing game, only to have Fields do an inexplicable turnaround into jealousy, pushing Errol off the nearest cliff to his demise.

Producer Pangborn has heard enough of this nonsense (and frankly, so had I) and calls a halt to the pitch, kicking Fields out of his office and trying to persuade his niece for forget about him and embrace her future singing chirpy and banal songs in the movies. She punches him in the face and rejoins her Uncle Bill, who has been drowning his sorrows in a soda shop. A mixup ends the film with a wacky car chase to a hospital maternity ward, where Gloria Jean declares her love for the sour inebriate as he crawls out of his wrecked automobile.

The difficulties I had enjoying the movie were all-encompassing, but I’ll detail a few. First and foremost, I had trouble engaging Fields as a protagonist. Chaplin rightfully observed that audiences love to see a simple man give a good kick in the backside to rich people and authority figures. This story is like taking the object of Chaplin’s frequent ridicule and making him the hero.

And we do see him taken down many pegs (children throw rocks at him, he gets slugged in the kisser after making an unwise flirtation) during the course of the movie, and I can see why in theory I’m meant to side with him as an antihero as he dishes out well-aimed barbs at those not as gifted nor as, uhm, glamorous as “The Great One” (as he’s billed in the film), but Fields himself lacks charisma in this outing, and we’re given no decent or clear reasons to get on his side. The episodic story he pitches is simply not that funny in incident nor performance, and in the “real world” segments, he doesn’t have the go-getting attitude of, say, an Ed Wood—or even the happy enthusiasm of a Dangerfield when he delivers the joke about his wife driving him to drink, “…the one thing I’m indebted to her for.”

I’d hoped it would go so much farther with the reality-fantasy angle, but the truth is, as a “surreal” comedy, the picture contains its outlandish situations fairly well within the confines of the story-within-the-story. Yes, Fields goes all Keystone Kops and Hal Needham at the end with an out-of-nowhere car chase, but it would have been so much more entertaining to see the script carry over the surrealism into the world of the regular story, especially after Fields’ crazy screenplay is rejected and he is unceremoniously booted out by Pangborn.

The mug-to-the-camera bit where Fields is in the soda shop and complains the censors wouldn’t allow a saloon? The script could well have cemented its avant-garde bragging rights then and there, maybe instead having Fields walk up to the exterior of a bar, only to walk in and find a soda shop. Double take, out the door—it’s a saloon; back in, soda shop! The film could have followed this Duck Amuck conceit (with Fields bemoaning these comic, universe-altering shakeups as the work of the idiot Pangborn) until any semblance of internal logic exploded apart and rattled the rafters of movie houses.

But, you know as a viewer you’re in trouble when you’re spending more time second-guessing how you felt it should have gone than being held captive by whatever invention is actually being presented onscreen.

At various points throughout, I found myself thinking:

Hmm, an early scene where the protagonist encounters a rotten waitress who won’t give him what he wants? This sure is a hell of a lot funnier in Five Easy Pieces.

This stuff involving the behind-the-scenes action? A lot richer in Singin’ in the Rain, where you actually learn things about Hollywood history while you’re laughing at how the film is busy ingeniously skewering it. And the moronic, uncreative producer stifling creative expression? Robert Altman has it all over this movie in The Player.

His mug to the camera about the censors? Groucho achieved this sort of thing much better (and much earlier) in Horse Feathers when he stomped towards the audience to declare “I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason why you folks shouldn’t go out into the lobby until this thing blows over,” let alone the unforgettable scene in Annie Hall when Marshall McLuhan is marched out onscreen.

Horse-Feathers-Groucho-Marx-Annie-Hall-Marshall-McCluhan

And speaking of the Marxes, some of their films suffer a bit now from that once-fashionable device of the musical interlude that stops a film dead in its tracks, but at least you can occasionally revel in the performance itself, especially when Chico is at the piano, say, or Harpo is working the strings. The songs in this film contain no such novelty. And there are Just. Too. Many. Of. Them.

Fields’ relationship with his niece? Not nearly as rewarding and affecting as Rodney’s bond with Keith Gordon in Back to School.

Call them unfair comparisons if you will, but that’s the whole point of the title question. It’s not the movie’s fault (nor the star’s) that some who will come to it will have already seen everything it may have “inspired” decades down the road, but to the extent that older films fail to maintain their own singular identity or content that uniquely resonates somehow, they become increasingly likely to be regarded as historical artifacts rather than movies that continue to live and breathe on their own. And as much as they may (thankfully) be preserved for home video, they are also likely to get less and less “play” for succeeding generations. They may not (and should not) be forgotten, but they will begin to be ignored.

As disappointed as I was by the movie, I nevertheless cracked open my Fields book—titled W.C. Fields By Himself: His Intended Autobiography—to look over it a bit before sitting down to write this review.

The book has an amazing selection of art and photos from Fields’ vaudeville past as a juggler, and many photographs of Fields and his children, made especially moving inasmuch as they strongly contrast with his scabrous onscreen persona. I skipped ahead to the final pages to glance over the details about his decline and death, which are indeed sad. His alcoholism was not just a cinematic device (something I already knew), and looking more deeply into how it affected the latter part of his life and decline cannot help but complicate how funny that element of his iconic performances might remain.

Woody Allen said Fields was one of only six comic geniuses—along with Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Groucho and Harpo Marx, and Peter Sellers. That is rarefied company, and based on my experience with this film alone, I’m in no position to challenge that estimation.

In fact, I could watch every single one of Fields’ movies, and I’d still be in no real position to actually challenge Woody’s praise. If you laugh, you laugh. And while Fields was around, he offered that gift to admiring millions. So, all I can say is, I went in hoping for the best—and got what felt like the worst.

Sorry, Uncle Bill.

never-give-a-sucker-wc-fields-car-wreck

  • Bill Pentland

    I think Fields’ humor has to be taken in context. What made me laugh when I was 12 might not bring a smile on me now. For example, the 3 Stooges. I loved them dearly, still do, but they don’t make me laugh hysterically as they once did. While I believe you could have picked a better film, I think The Bank Dick was his funniest, with It’s a Gift right after that. I think, sight gags not withstanding, Field’s humor rests in his delivery and his voice. He loved words – “fogid sunshine”, what the hell is “fogid”? “Ogg Ogleby? Sounds like a bubble in a bathtub.” Great stuff – his low-keyed asides were great. Now, I haven’t watched him in a while, and I may very well say the same thing but I will pay credit where it is due. W.C. Fields was a forerunner of the darker more ascerbic humor that is popular today.

  • MarxLover

    I think you started with the wrong movie. “Sucker” is something of a mess and I’ve never understood it. The one that is funny from start to finish is “It’s a Gift.” Not only is Fields henpecked by his wife, everything else in life seems to pick on him or go wrong for him. Things that make me laugh — the blind man in the store, Baby Leroy hitting W.C. in the elbow with a can, W.C.’s attempts to get some sleep outside his apartment, the man inquiring about Carl LaFong. I recently gave this movie to a young nephew who wanted an introduction to a W.C. Fields movie. He loved it! On the other hand, his dad (my brother) never found any humor in it. Well, we all have different tastes in comedy. But for my money, “Gift” is where you should have started.

  • Grand Old Movies

    Thanks for your thoughtful review. You made a good point, about seeing Fields’ films in context. While I am a devout Fields fan, I can see how his humor (and persona) might not appeal to everyone. I tend to like his henpecked-everyman films (It’s A Gift, Man on the Flying Trapeze), whose skewering of certain sacred cows about family values is hilarious; and if it’s surreal comedy you like, you might want to check out an early sound short, The Fatal Glass of Beer, which is (to me) heavenly nonsense for its full length of 20 minutes. If you’re interested in pursuing Fields further, a good intro is the Simon Louvish biography, “Man on the Flying Trapeze,” which gives both a complete overview of Fields’ vaudeville background and an astute analysis of his films.

  • MarxLover

    I agree with Bill Pentland’s comment that “Bank Dick” is also very funny. That wouldn’t have been a bad start for a first-time viewer of Fields. However, my second favorite after “It’s a Gift” would have to be “The Man on the Flying Trapeze.” W.C. has the same henpecking wife in this one. He also has a job as a “memory expert” for a company. The plot revolves around his scheming and lying to get a day off to go to the wrestling matches. The gags are very funny — on par with those of “It’s a Gift.” What makes for a good Fields movie is that he is frequently the victim, frustrated by people, situations or by life in general.

  • Jim

    I don’t quite know what to say to someone who prefers Rodney Dangerfield to W.C. Fields. It’s just a matter of personal taste, I suppose… but if I preferred, say, Lady Gaga to Beethoven, I might be better off keeping it to myself.

  • Mike

    As you mentioned comedy is very subjective and it depends on each individual but I am surprised that your list did not include Mel Brooks who I think is one of the funniest people ever. My children and I have in most cases completely different senses of humor and what they find hysterical does not even raise a smile on me.
    Regarding W.C. neither you or any other commenter has made mention of what I think is one of his best and funniest films “My Little Chickadee” with Mae West, where the two of them virtually adlibbed the entire movie. Watching their interaction and sly remarks to each other is a pure delight. Here you have two masters of early movies and comedy keeping the laughs coming.

  • http://davesclassicfilms.blogspot.com/ Dave

    Try watching “You’re Telling Me!” (1934). It’s one of my favorite W.C. Fields films. Funny storyline, and a lot of his best gags …
    I did a quick review of the film in my blog a few weeks ago if anyone wants a quick overview …

    http://davesclassicfilms.blogspot.com/

  • Allen Hefner

    While I appreciate The Bank Dick, it and Never Give a Sucker are his last two films, in 1940 and 1941. Fields was too popular by then, and his control of these films have driven them into fantasy.

    My two favorites are It’s a Gift and Man on the Flying Trapeze, made in the mid 1930s. They both have a story line that you can follow, and Fields is in top form.

    Watch these two films and come back for another report. I’ll wait…

  • Dr. Harriet A. Fields

    Do visit, enjoy, and share the Official W.C. Fields Web site http://www.wcfields.com.

    You will see the tributes and opinions of others about our grandfather, W.C. Fields, our father, W.C. Fields, Jr., father.

    Most recently there was the W.C. Fields Festival at the Film Forum, New York. Last year the W.C. Fields Exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center – tribute of love and family. We, my brothers and I inherited all of our grandfather’s artifacts and memorabilia, which chronicle the world’s modern entertainment heritage. We placed our inheritance with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick Library, the W.C. Fields Collection is now accessible and available to the world.

    Best wishes to all,
    Dr. Harriet A. Fields
    granddaughter
    http://www.wcfields.com

  • William Sommerwerck

    In my view, satire — particularly satire directed at sacred cows, and the pompous and wealthy — holds up the longest (qv, G&S). In this respect, Fields is still funny. One has to admire a comedian with the guts to say “I love little children — especially when they’re properly cooked.” — and probably means it. Like most comedians, Fields is at his best when he’s making life bad for someone else.

    Your “Who’s funniest?” list has a major error — you can’t directly compare silent and sound comedians. As much as I love Groucho, he was (in the movies) largely reading other people’s lines. I went with Buster Keaton, who created all his own material. He also lacks the sentiment(ality) that occasionally marred Chaplin.

    And where’s Harold Lloyd, for heaven’s sake?

  • Ernst Steinert

    You definitely picked the wrong movie to start your study of WC. I agree with the previous posts about his earlier films from the 30′s, but by all means seek out some of his shorts. There is one where he is a dentist, and another where he is playing golf. PURE GENIUS. Watch how WC juggles with his golf club, hat, and paper debris blown by the wind. You will not only laugh your socks off, you will be astounded by WC’s physical coordination… a ballet, if you will. Also worth mentioning are some of his supporting roles in big movies, such as in David Copperfield.

    Please give him another try and get back to us.

  • Richard Dicks

    I am a huge W. C. Fields fan, but I was not a fan of Sucker, either. You just picked the wrong movie. He had many that are more entertaining and funny than the one you chose. The Bank Dick and You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man are both much funnier and much more entertaining. Over all, Field’s various characters are based more on a poor good hearted average dope,stuck in a depression trying his best to survive and improve his life and the life of his family. Sometimes the way he goes about it is more than a little over the top, but he means well. The result is some of the funniest time you can spend in a theater or watching a movie. Give Uncle Bill another look with one of those movies and I think you will be more than satisfied.

  • Fred B.

    You did indeed pick the wrong film. “The Bank Dick” is pure genius, “You Can’t Cheat a Honest Man” is classic Fields.”It’s A Gift” is right up there with his gift of humor and pathos. >But “Sucker” always left me cold…Try again

  • version

    I am a big fan of all them – Fields is certainly still relevant and funny. Harold Lloyd should go up there; Peter Sellers; Danny Kaye, Jackie Gleason; Jacques Tati.

  • Gord Jackson

    I became a WC fan in the late sixties when there was a mini-revival of interest in Fields on college campuses throughtout North America. Universal released four of his films that usually played on midnight shows; “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break”, “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man”, “My Little Chickadee” and “The Bank Dick.” “Sucker was on the only in which I was disappointed in spite of the presence of Leon Errol, one of the comedians left off of our lists. He was brilliant! “I thoroughly enjoyed Fileds and Mae West in “Chickadee”, the quick thrusts of repartee working to perfection. But my personal favourite was and still is “The Bank Dick”, the hilarious scene in which the Fields character is responsible for dealing with the auditor/inspector being one for the books. I was ready to fall down laughing at the indignities he visited on that poor guy.

  • Danny Daniels

    You must be kidding! Reminds me of a friend of mine who got to view the Mona Lisa and came back and said he wasn’t that impressed! Only the most revolutionary piece of art EVER and he wasn’t that impressed. Perhaps if DaVinci had made her sexier and done it on black velvet! NGASAEB is HILARIOUS (but also very weird). Like most humor though you need to know the character to understand the humor
    (ie Jack Benny and “your money or your life). One of Pangborn’s best bits also! I love this flick and all it’s sureal strangeness. :)

  • Jack Hawkins

    I find it difficult to understand your negative comparisons of WC with later comedians, Had it not been for him, would they even exist? Fields was an art form unto himself. For goodness sake, go watch “My Little Chickadee” with Mae West. If, “Poker? Isn’t that a game of chance? No No. Not the way I play it”. doesn’t make you a WC fan, you are comedy wise, brain dead!

  • Ron

    No question about it: The Three Stooges! Even the younger generation thinks they’re funny. Although, I once heard that their humor is a “male” thing, and women aren’t as immpressed as men.

  • Mrs. Hemogloben

    I think we can safely say you chose the wrong Fields film with which to begin your study of the great man. For my money his best efforts are It’s a Gift, Man on the Flying Trapeze, and The Bank Dick, followed closely by You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, You’re Telling Me, The Old Fashioned Way, International House, Mississippi and Poppy. Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is an unholy mess, like My Little Chickadee, but some of his funniest bits are embedded in that mess and if there were any chance you might learn to appreciate Fields you would’ve laughed at least a few times.

    Some people are color blind. Others are tone deaf. A few are missing the antennae needed find the humor in W.C. Fields. You should be aware that John Cleese of Monty Python discovered Fields later in life and considered him the greatest of the golden age comedians, an opinion I happen to share. Cleese was so taken with him, in fact, that he consciously modeled his Fawlty Towers character on Fields. Mencken, probably the greatest prose stylist of his time and a huge influence on S.J. Perelman who co-wrote some of your favorite Marx Brothers films, had Fields as a guest in his home. The average Hollywood airhead was not welcome there. Mencken recognized Fields’ genius. As Fields’ own grandson and biographer Ronald J. Fields has noted, W.C. has an on-screen vocabulary unrivaled by any other comedian. It takes a certain amount of learning just to appreciate all of the subtleties and references in his language.

    At the same time his years as a silent juggler in vaudeville enabled him to be physically funny in ways that few comedians then and almost no comedians now could manage (Rowan Atkinson is the lone contender).

    Yes, comedy is very subjective. You either laugh or you don’t. But if you are unable to find the humor in W.C. Fields, the lack may be in yourself, not in the great man. I am this way with much classical music. I love J.S. Bach but Mozart and Beethoven mostly leave me cold. I recognize that this is a shortcoming on my part, not theirs. You’ll never catch saying Ludwig Van didn’t know how to write a symphony.

    Incidentally, on a side note, if Laurel and Hardy can evoke only mild smiles for you now, the fault may NOT be in you. It may be that you are watching the inferior American releases of their work put out by Hallmark. These have been butchered by reediting and also have the wrong music. The original versions approved by Stan Laurel are available only in British and German DVD box sets. I strongly urge you to check them out and reintroduce yourself to Stan and Ollie as they should be seen.

  • GUNNY KOON USMC Ret

    W.C.FIELDES WILL ALWAYS BE ONE OF THE ALL TIME BEST.

  • TR6

    Everyone who has commented that you started your W.C. Fields experience with the wrong film are exactly correct. NGASAEB was Fields pushing the envelope a bit and couldn’t match his earlier work. It would be like someone who had never seen a Dustin Hoffman movie starting with Ishtar (ugh)!

  • mickey

    Like other folks have said…wrong one to start with. He’s absolutely hysterical in the Bank Dick and It’s a Gift. And check out some of the Shorts. He does the pool room scene in a movie with George and Gracie Burns (Going West?… or something like that). It’s classic W.C. and always makes me laugh. I always thought the scene stole that movie.

  • David Ecklein

    “Who’s funniest?” Too bad George Formby films are not better known or more readily available in the US. Formby was the classic 30s-40s British film “everyman” comedian. You just had to see him to laugh. He looked like a cross between one of the Royals and a horse – wrote his own words and music for those interludes in his films when he sang accompanied by his own invented instrument – another cross – between a banjo and a uke. Both plotting and dialog in Formby’s films were often fairly sophisticated.

  • Joseph Imhoff

    I would prefer ‘David Copperfield’ or ‘My Little Chichadee’ for the underplayed humor. These movies gave him a chance to to act comedy rather than be a comedian, a subtle difference.

  • JH West

    Funny is a matter of taste and there is no right or wrong. I have never found WC Fields to be funny. My tastes go with Peter Sellers, Mel Brooks, and the late, great, Leslie Nielson.

  • Gwen

    i really liked him in a 4or 5 segment movie (depending on the tv station for length). his segment had something to do with his driving a car wildly & my brother & i were hysterical over it. it’s been years obviously & i don’t know the name of it. the couple of others of fields’ i’ve seen–not so much.
    the more the merrier still makes me laugh in places.

  • eddie moscone

    buster keaton for sight and silent comedy, laural hardy too but fields for sound is tops

  • John

    Humor changes quickly-it’s hard for a young person to find the laughs in “Laugh-In” or early SNL.I tried to watch “Annie Hall” with my teen-aged daughters and they couldn’t stand Woody Allen-perhaps why Owen Wilson plays the Allen part in his most recent movie. As for Mel Brooks,he is a very funny fellow but,let’s face it ,his films were better with Wilder in the lead.

  • Lynn Walker

    I laugh every time I see Bill Cosby, especially his older routines. Does anyone remember his “Why is there air?” I also love Buddy Hackett, he was hilarious.

  • Sam Tomaino

    Like many other are saying, watch “It’s a Gift.” It’s funny from start to finish. If you don’t find that funny, well, Fields just is not your cup of tea.

  • Ted E. Limpert

    William Sommerwerck’s recollection of W. C. Fields’ classic quip about children is different from my memory. I thought Mae West asked him, “Don’t you like children?” With a straight face, Fields said, “It depends on how they’re cooked.” By the way, the list of great comedians should have included Red Skelton and Danny Kaye.

  • Gary Stelter

    Start with “It’s a Gift” and go from there on. It’s one of the greatest,funniest, most uplifting films ever done.”Sucker” shows Fields in decline and the first time I saw it I was disappointed, but repeated viewing has allowed me to pick up on jokes I didn’t know were there. I have been watching Fields comedy for 50 years and it ALWAYS makes me laugh. Also, if you happen to run into Carl LaFong, tell him to look me up!

  • Gloee Valens

    For myself, I know when I need a good laugh I pull out “The Bank Dick” dvd & I never fail to see something new that cracks me up..then “The Gift” & also have some of his short films on videotape.(yes I have two VCR’s) I think one is “the Dentist”?…so funny..& naughty not gross..I’d give it another go..but you never know comparison to newer comedies may ruin it for you..newer comedies (the Hangover) are just sooo stupid to me..jmo…& ruin wanting to go see any for me…relying on how gross can you get..

  • Curtis

    Look at “The Bank Dick”. I dare you not to laugh at the very opening scenes, his family around the dinner table, choking down dinner and disparaging him. And it has Shemp? What else can you ask for in a comedy?

  • tim

    man on a flying trapeze, you’re telling me and it’s a gift, are his three best films but also like mississippi, tillie and gus, and his small part with allison skipworth in if i had a million, was great i still laugh my head off and fits today you road hogs (get em rollo)

  • Elizabeth

    Comedy sure is subjective. The Marx Bros. have never failed to bore me. The Three Stooges are just plain mean and nasty, not funny. To me, the old silents by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton together–such as “Night, Nurse” and “Backstage”–are unbeatable. I never found “Seinfeld” funny, but I loved “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, of course, are great. For a real treat, try to find the sketches by Ian McKellan on Sat. Night Live; I thought they were a scream. And of course Lucille Ball: the one with Wm. Holden and the fake nose and the Vitameatavegamin commercial make me laugh myself silly every time.

  • John Stanton

    You lost me at the beginning of your review when you kissed off Laurel and Hardy for eliciting nothing more than “gentle smiles and admiration for their craftsmanship.” “Gentle smiles”? Have you never seen their classic silent films “Two Tars” or “Big Business”? Those are roll-in-the-aisles-laughing movies.And you didn’t even list L&H in your “Who’s Funniest?” poll. They’re funnier than any of those comedians you did list.You can catch both of the classic L&H silent classics in “The First Kings of Comedy Collection,” which includes both “The Golden Age of Comedy” and “When Comedy Was King.”

  • Tom Sanchez

    You did watch the wrong Fields film :-). By far his funniest and it’s not been mentioned alone is the film, “The Man on the Flying Trapeze”. It is hysterical and is an even darker comedy skewering the platitudes about American home life in the early 20th Century. What a marvelous idea, cast, and staging of scenes. All this and a funny and politically incorrect (even in 1935, when the film was made) satire on ethnic stereotyping in America.

    Though not in the same league as “The Man on the Flying Trapeze”, “The Big Broadcast of 1938″ offers a great comparison with Fields, Bob Hope, and Martha Raye, in the way he interacts with them. Can you imagine W. C. Fields and Martha Raye as father and daughter? That only is hysterically funny. Check those films out, as well as his turn in “Million Dollar Legs” and “David Copperfield”, where he shows what a good dramatic actor he was. Have a Fields day!
    :-)

  • Jerry

    For sheer diversity, watch “You’re Telling Me”. So many different scenes,which are actually shorts within the film. So many lines which will astound you. “A man is lucky,if he can get out of this world alive”. My favorite W.C. film.

  • Randy Skretvedt

    You chose precisely the wrong movie to start with Fields. Watch “It’s a Gift,” “The Old-Fashioned Way” or “The Man on the Flying Trapeze.” Those are beautifully made, classically structured films. “Sucker” is just sort of a chaotic mess, funny but almost defiantly strange. (The same is true for “Million Dollar Legs,” “International House” and “The Big Broadcast of 1938.”) The all-time comedy champs, however, are not in your list: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Start with “Way Out West,” then “Block-Heads,” and see the sound shorts “Helpmates,” “Hog Wild,” “The Live Ghost,” “Them Thar Hills,” “Tit for Tat,” “Perfect Day,” “Towed in a Hole,” and the silents “You’re Darn Tootin’,” “Two Tars” and “Liberty.” Buster Keaton himself professed that Stan and Babe were the greatest of greats, and since I think that Buster is just a tiny bit less wonderful than L&H, that’s a good enough endorsement for me.

  • Steve Free

    Yup. Wrong movie. If you’re already a Fields fan “Never Give a Sucker” includes bits that are sidesplitting (“What kind of milk, Uncle Bill?” “Uhh, nanny goats’ milk–It’s very sweet…”) Also, the cabin attendant on the airplane is Carlotta Monti, Fields’s great good friend of many years, in (I think) her only screen appearance. I think “The Bank Dick” is Fields’s most finished product, and perhaps the best to start with, but some of his best bits of all are in “It’s A Gift.” (There used to be a street band in San Francisco that called itself “Carl LaFong.”)

  • Alana

    I’d never seen any of W.C. Fields’ work until I bought Tales of Manhattan, in which he has a segment. I never knew just how funny he was!!! I’m embarrased to say I don’t own The Bank Dick, and it was filmed here in the town I live in. Having read everyone else’s comments, I’m dedicated to purchasing at least that one! thanx to all…Alana

    • diacad

      The W. C. Fields temperance lecture segment was inexplicably dropped from some releases of Tales Of Manhattan, but not the VHS version. I hope that when the powers that be get around to reissuing this magnificent classic on DVD, they will include the segment. It is some of Fields’ best work, and complements the other five stories. Strange that the last segment was not dropped instead, since it presents (especially by today’s standards) a demeaning stereotype of African-Americans. Paul Robeson, who did the best he could here with his magnificent voice, was very upset and tried to have it excised.

  • Jeffrey Shimmin

    Fields was a great comedic actor. “Man on the Flying Trapeze” is brilliant. And don’t forget to check out the Mac Sennett shorts. They are hilarious.

  • hiker6zzz

    None of the above. The Three Stooges are funnier than all these others combined!

  • John Stanaway

    One of the most important qualities of great comedy is the ability to let us laugh about ourselves. Fields, Marx, L&H, even Amos and Andy adapted a series of attributes both obvious and subtle that perhaps let the viewer see his or her own foibles and gently laugh about them. It is like the Freudian scream or laugh that lets out the tension of repressed angst. The Fields and Marx use of evocative names, for example, like Egbert Souse (accent grave on the “e”) or Rufus J. Flywheel sets our mood in order for hilarious anarchy. Long live the funniest of them – including the subtle Carol Lombard.

  • Geraldine Hawkins

    What pretentious nonsense. Your taste is as bad as your grammar.

  • Bruce

    The Bank Dick and Poppy are be far his greatest films. Both of these had a cohesive plot and a satisfactory ending.
    W.C. is still funny today, although some may take offense at his racial slurs.

  • kathy

    its a gift is so funny,my absolute favorite. i also like one of his lines that goes like this “what a cute little boy”. the kid then said “give me some money” w.c. said “oh its a girl.” good stuff!

  • StevenWells

    Agree with most other comments here, both about starting with the wrong film and with their recommendations (my personal favorite for pure, undiluted Fields is “It’s A Gift,” but I think “You’re Telling Me” has moments – particularly the golf sequence – that made me laugh harder).

    I’ll just add a couple additional notes, then. The movie Gwen didn’t know the title of is “If I Had A Million” (an anthology of stories about what various people do with a million dollars given to them by a millionaire who picks their names from the phone book; Fields and Allison Skipworth, with whom he had great chemistry, decide to take their revenge on every “road hog” they encounter).

    For all of Fields reputed dislike of children, there is the story of Anthony Quinn’s young son wandering onto Fields’ Los Feliz property and drowning in an ornamental fountain. Fields was so upset, he immediately ordered the fountain removed, and shut himself away in his home for days, unable to speak to anyone.

  • Stephanie

    What about Jonathan Winters? Or Bob Newhart? Both may be better known for their comedy albums than movies, but no one is more hilarious.

  • Celia

    “David Copperfield” and “My Little Chickodee” recommended. Great stuff.

  • Doug Ford

    Yeah, you watched the wrong flick. Of all the choices, you picked the worst. Try “Gift” with an open mind.

  • Beth

    Three words: It’s A Gift. Who would not marvel at the comic genius of the back porch sleeping scene?!

  • Mr. C

    I think that WC’s pointed humor was due, at least in part, to the adversity he experienced in his early life. In a later, more affluent, time he would frequently have his driver stop the auto, get out and go sit down with his back against a sun-bathed, wooden fence that they would be passing. The warmth he got from the fence was a pleasant, nostalgic reminder of the times when he was a homeless, early teen and had discovered that this was a way he could shake the cold of sleeping outdoors. When I read of this, I think I had a better understanding of why that man could be so hilarious about such innocuous things. It reveals how he could script the scene where Baby Leroy points to his face an says, “Look at the funny nose!” and his mother replies, “Yes – wouldn’t you love to have that filled with nickles?” I crack-up just writing about it! …. and names he came up with, like Rufus J. Flywheel. Can anyone top that?!

  • RebekahM

    This is pretty simple. …You started with the wrong film. ..You need (needed) to see ‘It’s a Gift’ first. That’s one of the best films W.C. Fields ever made. Even some of the shorts; ‘The Dentist’(especially good), ‘The Golf Specialist’, ‘The Barber Shop’, or ‘ The Fatal Glass of Beer’ would have gotten you going. Plus W.C. was naughty ..and tried to get around the censors at every turn. …Give him another shot. Watch ‘It’s a Gift’ (with Baby Leroy). You will not only ‘laugh’..but ‘crack completely up’ periodically. And ‘The Dentist’ ..come on-n!

  • Ryan

    Yes, it was the wrong movie with which to start. Bank Dick is probably my favorite full length, but the others are quite enjoyable too. I think it is interesting that all of the modern movies you’ve listed as better examples actually began with the seeds WC so irreverently planted in our comic psyche. I think the most unfortunate turn in his career was not accepting the role of the Great Oz in The Wizard of Oz (he wanted more money than MGM would pay). Although I love Frank Morgan as Oz and know he did an outstanding job (one of the finest character actors ever), I think the original casting of WC in that role would have cemented his legacy, not to mention added a deeper level of comedy and pathos to an all-time classic movie. I simply cannot watch it without thinking how it would have been even better if WC had been Oz.

  • Walt83

    Fields seems to be an acquired taste. I saw him in a more or less supporting role first, in a real dumb movie when I was a teen and was greatly disappointed. It was many years before I saw him again (and again I don’t remember the movie) and realized I was simply “too young” to appreciate his peculiar genius in that first movie. Have een him only a few times since, but could enjoy his quirky humor.

  • Gregg

    Although many of Field’s films are truly fun. “It’s a Gift” is one of greatest comedy’s of all time. So ironic, the henpecked husband to the max. Everytime I watch it, some nuance I missed before comes to light. A+++

  • http://www.moviesunlimited.com George D. Allen

    Fields fans (and relations!), thanks for the many insights & recommendations. I’d have been more involved in the back and forth but sometimes, as the saying goes, life gets in the way. Seems like a near-tie between “The Bank Dick” and “It’s a Gift” for the best WC flick to check out next…so I’ll just have to eventually get around to both.

  • JAUNTY HUMPHREYS

    Hello ……..What say we all pitch in and put a new Bio-Pic together for this Genius? This great Comic deserves a better film on his life than the Rod Steiger debauchel …. Thanks, Jaunty

  • JAUNTY HUMPHREYS

    PS …. They say that i do a Rightous Imitation of Fields … Email me at (address edited out) and i will send you an mp3 Audition…. John T

  • http://www.moviesunlimited.com George D. Allen

    Jaunty, a fine idea, though I doubt the Fields biopic will raise its finances by way of Kickstarter :) You could get your wish if the upcoming Three Stooges flick does decent business.

  • Babs

    ” It’s A Gift “, please watch the porch scene…I dare you not to laugh !!!

  • Rufnek

    Fields didn’t have to say a word to be funny. Just give him a pool cue and let him hold the handle with one hand while trying to place the small end between the fingers of the other hand, and you’ve got at least 30 minutes of hilarity.

    Some of Fields’ funniest –or at least most outrageous bits–weren’t in the movies. Like the time he and Ed Wynn were starring in The Follies and Wynn came on stage behind Fields while Fields was doing his bit about shooting pool on an uneven table with a crooked cue. Fields determined something was wrong when the audience started laughing in the wrong places. Turning, he spots Wynn mugging behind him, and in one move breaks a cue across Wynn’s head, leaving him unconcious and bleeding on the stage while Fields finishes his act. The audience thought it was part of the act; the rest of the Follies crew were afraid to go out and haul Wynn to the emergency room until Fields left the stage.

    I also like the stories of how Fields would hole up in his trailer which he would bring on the set, playing poker with his cronies until the front office finally gave him the bonus or other benefits he was demanding. Story goes his young secretary fielded a call from the studio head demanding to speak with Fields. “What shall I tell him?” she asked. Without missing a beat in dealing cards, Fields said, “Be evasive. Tell him go f**k himself.”

  • Mike Hricik

    He is still extremely funny. The comedians of the 30′s and 40′s are much better than the bozos that try to be funny today. With the exception of Larry the Cable Guy and Jeff Foxworthy, none of the comedians today (using the term loosely) are worth a crap! THey scream alot and try to be politically savy but still they come across as twits!

  • http://www.moviesunlimited.com George D. Allen

    Whoa…did I just read a favorable comparison between W.C. Fields and Larry the Cable Guy? Mike, you may have to elaborate upon that! Look, I wasn’t crazy about “Never Give a Sucker…” but something tells me most of Fields’ work is probably in a different league than, well, “Delta Farce.”

  • TomJohn

    It’s hard to laugh or feel affinity for a comic who plays so much off of being an alcoholic. It’s sorta like watching a screwball comedy about cancer.

  • http://www.moviesunlimited.com George D. Allen

    We’ll see that theory of how well “cancer comedy” works, I suppose, when “50/50″ (with Seth Rogen) comes out in September. As for the whole “how funny is alcoholism” thing, I wonder if some of this is harder to deal with as far as Fields is concerned because we are well aware that for him, it wasn’t entirely fictional, whereas William Powell, whose “Thin Man” movies were constantly poking fun at Nick’s drinking habit, apparently never had to deal with that affliction.

  • masterofoneinchpunch

    This is a post I’ve been pondering for quite awhile debating whether I should write an essay (put my response in Word instead of this tiny little box) or how I should respond.

    First, I would recommend watching Field’s shorts first. Criterion has a nice little release with his most well known released as W.C. Fields — Six Short Films (and it has one of the most bizarre easter eggs; which I can tell you about if you are interested). Since It’s A Gift and The Bank Dick are on many lists they are films you should eventually get to.

    I think until you actually get to more of Fields output it is ultimately unfair to comment on him as a comedian/actor. There are reasons comedians consider him a top comedian and his influence is quite legendary.

    Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is a strange first pick to watch from Fields oeuvre mainly because it works better with having knowledge of Fields in many of the gags. I rewatched it a few weeks ago because of this post and still found it a hilarious farce but problematic a bit in it’s pace (not uncommon).

    I have a huge issue with: “Chaplin rightfully observed that audiences love to see a simple man give a good kick in the backside to rich people and authority figures. This story is like taking the object of Chaplin’s frequent ridicule and making him the hero.” because W.C. Fields is not an authority figure nor is he analogous to Chaplin’s antagonist bourgeoisie. The key to Fields is to know he is a curmudgeon (he is this and/or a henpecked husband in his films). But you cannot know this without watching more of his films and ultimately this hurts any discussion.

    But I do sympathize with not always understanding tastes. I’m currently going over the work of Harry Langdon who is quite an interesting silent movie figure and a unique personality, but I’m wondering how much I like the output. Though on a side note I’ve gone over almost all of the available Roscoe Arbuckle material and I feel him and Charley Chase are two of the most underrated silent comedians (I’m a huge Harold Lloyd fan, but at least many know who he is).

    On a side note both Woody Allen and Groucho Marx were highly fond of Jacques Tati as well.

  • http://www.moviesunlimited.com George D. Allen

    MasterOIIP, enlightening as always & thanks for the input! I like your style. Now then…

    As I mentioned a few times to others, I definitely wouldn’t mind getting to other Fields material (and do intend to simply because I recognize and point out that one shouldn’t leap to conclusions about an entire output based on one film, much less one that may not be well representative of the whole). You will also note of course I don’t deny his influence and was quite careful to construct my remarks in response to this experience with this film. As to that —

    I think I can still defend my remark about him being less like a Chaplinesque protagonist, and thus getting less of our automatic sympathy:

    Fields is playing a version of himself in the movie — a rich, powerful man. As I say, he’s taken down a few pegs by others, and Pangborn obviously has the power to deny him the greenlight for his genius movie idea (and who in the working world couldn’t identify at some time, somewhere, with this dynamic in any other professional field?), but he seemed, to me at least, to spend an equal amount of time being an antagonist–which is to say, we spend a good bit of time watching a richer, more powerful, more privileged man looking down on/attacking/mocking those occupying stations humbler than his own, or working mischief on people who never “struck” him first. In that, he absolutely shares something more in common with the classic Chaplin antagonist, doesn’t he? (Not ALL of Chaplin, of course, when he was more aggressively impish earlier on — I mean what we think of as the more classic Tramp persona)

    I know Fields isn’t written as a member of the bourgeoisie in this picture — I’m not talking about matching class for class — it’s his function that’s the same, his relationship to other characters. Chaplin spent the better part of his movies outsmarting and humiliating those in positions of greater power, not lesser nor equal power. That’s not what’s going on in this film.

    I definitively part company with your opinion that it “hurts the discussion” for me to have not seen other Fields movies to effectively talk about this one. It’s fine to bring, how would the hoity-toity say it, extra-textual concerns into one’s critique, but it should never, ever be necessary, nor a cause for some assertion of superiority. And there’s also nothing here that betrays a lack of knowledge about what Fields’ personality or his shtick was like in his other works. I hadn’t read so very much in detail about him, but the fact that he’s generally henpecked and a curmudgeon in his films isn’t anything I (or anyone else, for that matter) wouldn’t already know from the broadest of generalizations about his function/place in film comedy.

    I picked “Never Give a Sucker…” first mainly because I found it interesting that this is the film he had the most personal influence upon, and I was particularly interested in looking at what I thought might have been a surrealist comedy on the order of “Duck Soup” (for reasons of my own too irrelevant to recount here). And I came out disappointed, for the reasons I give.

    Lastly, I smell the opportunity for a fine guest blog once you’ve completed your journey through Langdon. Think about it! :)

  • masterofoneinchpunch

    Of course he is antagonist which is why I mentioned his is a “curmudgeon.” His character is going to be surly no matter who the character is. I’m not quite understanding the class politics you are putting into it. My objection was not with “him being less like a Chaplinesque protagonist” which is correct, he is not, but the antagonist “This story is like taking the object of Chaplin’s frequent ridicule and making him the hero.”” I just do not agree with this summation because Fields personality is too unique, too surly to all and in the end rarely outsmarts anyone.

    I glad you mentioned the early Chaplin persona (I have mentioned this before) because in the Keystone, Essanay days he was not the Tramp many would know to love. It’s funny because some like Keaton would still think of him as the Tramp personality from his earlier performances.

    I will stick with the opinion that not watching other films from Field’s does hurt the watching of THIS film mentioned because of the idea of expectations and because it was a personal project. I did NOT say it was a necessity and I am not writing about other Fields films either, I am writing specifically about THIS one. Some films really do work better after watching previous ones.

    I think Arbuckle needs a good write up :). Langdon is difficult, but does have an interesting rise and somewhat fall in his popularity (normally attributed to him taking more control over his projects). Langdon’s character is interesting and unique like Fields (they are not similar :D) and both have their fans and detractors more so than say Keaton and Chaplin. Some attribute Langdon’s success to Capra, though ultimately that is unfair though Capra’s strengths certainly helped helm one of the most popular silent movie comedies in The Strong Man (saw it twice this week).

    In my opinion the highs and lows of Roscoe are higher (though both Langdon and Roscoe were vying with Chaplin for popularity, both at different times though) and lower (much lower) though his career was not destroyed like many stated (he would continue to direct under a fake name and eventually would get an official contract well right before his heart attack) and his importance was greater in terms of influence, direction, and films. But I still have more Langdon to go and he certainly is growing on me (this usually happens when going over much material, or else you hate the person :D) and his pantomime skills are excellent.

  • http://www.moviesunlimited.com George D. Allen

    So, maybe that’s the key, maybe when the protagonist is also an antagonist (!) it really becomes more a matter of taste. I can definitely enjoy heroes (comic or dramatic) who occupy more of that kind of role, but in this initial go-round, Fields’ whole vibe just didn’t put me on his side, so to speak. I’ll just have to see if that’s any different w/the other films.

    I imagine you are looking at the “Harry Langdon…The Forgotton Clown” release from Kino for “The Strong Man”? I wouldn’t mind seeing that…although I am now trying to wind my way through that “Little Rascals” Complete Collection whenever I get a moment, and those are positively hypnotic, especially the very early ones There are so many I think I”d never seen (Railroadin’ and Moan & Groan Inc. were jaw-droppers).

  • masterofoneinchpunch

    Fields is certainly a character, but he’s not a pleasant man :D (and I do understand not liking him, I’m just trying to stick up for him :D and of course trying to start some conversations).

    Quite bizarre is when you get to see him do his juggling/balancing act in The Old Fashioned Way (in many of his films he does do adroit things with his hands, but in that film part of his old vaudeville routine is recreated), I mean bizarre because it is quite good and I never quite pictured him doing that even though I knew it from biographies.

    I need to get the “Our Gang” and “Little Rascals” shorts. I just went through the first volume of Stan Laurel and then the Oliver Hardy set from Kino (through Lobster; too bad there has some been some issues between the two resulting in the latest BD/DVD Keaton shorts from missing some footage in the recent Keaton Shorts release). There is a new R1 release of ALL the sound features of Laurel and Hardy that I’m really looking forward to (I really wish the silents of those two would rereleased). I would love to get the silent Our Gang shorts. Reading through the rights issues of those makes it seem a bit complicated.

    Have you seen any of the Stan Laurel solo efforts? He is the lead unlike Oliver Hardy who was always in a secondary or tertiary position. I am completely surprised by how many lead performances he has before he teamed up with Hardy. Those three Kino sets are great because you get to see many “other” comedic actors that were either popular for a little while, didn’t quite make it or just time forgot.

    “Harry Langdon…The Forgotton Clown” is the release I’ve been watching. I’m going to have to get Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection and then Three’s a Crowd (1927) / The Chaser (1928) in the near future. Though I think next in silents will be some more Murnau and Lang I haven’t yet watched.

  • Publius

    Thank you Randy S. for mentioning my favorites, Laurel and Hardy. If you want a good laugh just see any one of their pictures. “Way Out West” is a masterpiece. As to W.C. When my grandfather died, I learned that fields was his favorite comic, and for a time, he was my favorite comedian. I studied his life like a scholar, and I got interested in him when the Fields Reinassance was at its hieight in the early ’70′s. However, the films that I wanted to see were only in book form so I couldn’t get a really critical appraisal of him except through the Dallas Texas television stations at the time. I have always considered “It’s A Gift” very funny and the re-make of the silent “It’s The Old Army Game.” from 1927. “Million Dollar Legs” seems to be funny, but Fields in this case is only playing a supporting role. I always thought “The Bank Dick” was overrated, while the car chase from “Sucker” always got me laughing. The worst thing I thought he ever did was “The Fatal Glass of Beer.” Even though I UNDERSTOOD the gag, it was boring, missed the timing, and was just plain awful. Even Fields shared the same opinion. His vaudeville background probably was the reason why his bits are funny for only 12-15 minutes, and then the movie goes to other places of comedy. Even his “Poppy” has hilarous moments and then goes back to seriousness in the blink of an eye. By the way, Edward Sutherland, who directed Fields in many pictures and was a drinking companion also directed Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Chaplin (sort of) and The Three Stooges.

  • Michelle

    I agree with many of the others – Watch “It’s a Gift,” and prepare to guffaw. Speaking for myself, I completely lost it during the sleeping on the porch scene.

  • Vann Morrison

    I remember on of W.C. Fields greatest qoutes:
    “Women are like elephants, you like to look at them but you wouldn’t want to have one”

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  • Thomas W. Wilson

    There were a lot of great comics in the “Golden Age” and I like most of them including Fields with my favorite of his being “It’s a Gift”. But my all time favorite is Laurel and Hardy.

  • Matthew Coniam

    You certainly did start with the wrong movie!
    I find, if I’m trying to get a sense of a big star presence with which I am unfamiliar, it really does help to watch their films in order, as original audiences did, even if the true classics come last (though in Fields’s case this really isn’t true – unless you’ve followed him all the way from the start.) Sucker is a masterpiece of sorts, but its appeal is understandably hard to grasp if you aren’t already a fan.
    I love all the old comics, but few could be described as truly unique. Fields really was, and his humour is certainly a matter of taste, but make it easy on yourself and start at the other end, with the Sennett shorts, It’s a Gift, The Man on the Flying Trapeze…
    Or with the documentary ‘Straight Up’, which cuts through a lot of the myth and irrelevance surrounding his work and reputation, and points you more clearly to what he really did, and how well he did it.
    I think I would say Fields was the most uniquely talented comedian in screen history, and if you love the Marx Brothers there’s simply no reason in the world why you wouldn’t like him.

  • http://www.moviesunlimited.com George D. Allen

    Matthew C, that does seem to be the consensus (wrong movie first) — normally I would go more in chronological order as you mention; my only excuse, really, for starting w/NGASAEB is that I had non-blog-related reasons for wanting to watch that particular style of movie at that moment. I’ll watch more Fields for sure (and stay tuned, I believe a guest blogger has another Fields film to appraise here soon).

    I’m not sure I buy that I’m unable to successfully “grasp” the appeal of the film because I don’t see it in the context of the rest of Fields’ work. I don’t imagine my opinion of “Sucker” is gonna change much should I wind up enjoying the rest of Fields’ films better — as in, the first Marx film I saw was “Duck Soup,” and I managed to grasp the appeal of that (similarly failed-at-the-time) movie instantly, even though I hadn’t previously laid eyes on any of the earlier Marxterpieces.

    For all that yammering on I just did, I do think we can still reduce how these sort of movies work or fail to work for one person or the other to a pretty simple test: You laugh, or you don’t. :)

  • Matthew Coniam

    As for ‘grasping’ the film, I can only speak from experience: I didn’t get much out of it first time either. What I meant was: when – and if – you love Fields, and know what you’re looking for with him, and what you’re likely to get – the film just sort of comes together. I found it bewildering first, and was kind of looking in the wrong places for the laughs. I can’t explain it any better than that, but that’s what I found. It wasn’t meant to be a criticism of your grasping capabilities.
    The Marxes – my favourite screen comedians of all time – are much more of a piece. Some films are better than others, but you get the hang of them wherever you start. Fields is very, very subtle at his best, and very, very broad at his worst, and nowhere does the latter obscure the former more than in Never Give a Sucker.
    But if you like that endlessly inventive absurdism that characterises the Marxes at their best, trust me, in Fields you have friend.

  • Matthew Coniam

    That should’ve been ‘a friend’, of course.

  • Michael Kelley

    I found the responses interesting and I wanted to add a few comments. I am a man in my early 40s who has been watching WC Fields films since I was 5 or 6 years old (along with Mae West and the Marx Brothers), and I have to say WC Fields was one of the best. I will agree, his humor isn’t suited for everyone. Some of his best material is very subtle. That said, “Never Give A Sucker” is not the best place to start to enjoy WC Fields. I personally do like a film a lot – but a lot of that enjoyment comes from “knowing” WC Fields on screen personalities. It should be noted that yes, Fields, had some freedom with the last film, but I have read that he himself was not happy with the way Universal cut and edited the film. Several important scenes needed for continuity were left out. Also, the studio picked the title, not Fields. He wanted to call the film he wanted to make, “The Great Man.” His comment about the studio’s choice of title was, “it’s too long – all that will end up on the marquee is ‘Fields – Sucker.’” A couple of scenes were lifted and reworked from his earlier Paramount films. I personally feel his Paramount films are where you need to start. I believe that “The Old Fashioned Way” is his masterpiece. Loaded with many recurring hand picked cast members including: Tammany Young; Nora Cecil; Baby LeRoy and the unbelieveable Jan Duggan, in her biggest and finest role with WC Fields. Fields character displays many nuances from being an opportunist to self sacrificing. The film includes some of the funniest scenes ever – the lunch with Baby LeRoy and Jan Duggan’s audition of the 1870s song “Gathering Shells From The Shore”. Hands down, his best film, plus you see his juggling routine at the end. WC Fields didn’t expect to live more than a couple more years, and it seemed to me that he was trying to put down on film (sound film) all that he created during vaudeville and during the silent years.

  • Notmyrealname73f100

    Not sure which movie its from but check out Fields “blind man with a cane” bit on youtube, its hilarious. The Bank Dick is great too. Its hard to judge Fields now, the lens is to blurred by the iconic character he created but then it was unique and fresh. Of course Dangerfield lifted the drinking joke directly from Field’s material and the waitress act was done first by Fields and best IMO. Fields is very subtle and original, I think he really is “the great man”

    • Robert Goldberg

      That scene is in “It’s a Gift”, which I challenge the author to view and tell me he didn’t find funny. It’s not just the blind man, but also the shaving scene, the porch scene, the picnic scene, the full grocery store scenes (including Mr. Muckle, the blind man), and so on.

  • Robert Goldberg

    “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break” was a surreal movie and way ahead of its time. It was a Fields movie about Fields’ experiences as a celebrity film maker. To understand and enjoy it, you need to know about Fields as a cultural phenomenon, which his followers did back then. It flips back and forth between reality as seen by Fields, including disagreements with the studios on his film scripts, and the surreal film script he is proposing as a film. While I enjoyed it as a child of 13 for its slapstick, I now see it as more of a Saturday Night Live parody of Fields’ life and experiences fighting with the studio heads.

    Watch “It’s a Gift” to get a better sense of Fields’ comedy.

  • Ambrose Wolfinger

    Alas, my celluloid savant, you started with the wrong film – and the one you reviewed was based on previous reviews. Tut tut. For the Great Man in his prime, you should endeavor to experience “It’s A Gift.” I’d call it a “classic,” but your impressionable belfry might pre-judge it. A stellar example of Fields in his later years is “The Bank Dick.” For the record, my little movie lover, it has nothing to do with anatomy but, rather, spotlights a rotund fellow with a pronounced proboscis who becomes a bank guard.

  • Tstatguy

    Come on your kidding.
    Have you’ve seen Carl LaFong Capital L small A Capital F Small o small n small g.
    Greatest joke in any movie.
    If you don’t laugh at that you must be dead!

  • Otto Mannix

    “It’s a Gift” and “The Old Fashioned Way” are truly among my favorite movies. I put Dukenfield above any comedian ever. But i have a taste for his peculiar style, and i can understand why some may not take to it.

  • Daniel A

    IT’S A GIFT is Fields’ best movie, IMHO. His onscreen persona rubs me wrong sometimes and I could easily get way too much of it, but that film has so many great gags that it’s impossible for me to not enjoy it. His other films that I’ve seen, I can do without. But IT’S A GiFT is simply hilarious.

  • Sam Tomaino

    I’ll Just add my two cents that agrees with a lot of others. Watch “It’s a Gift.” Field’s had(mainly) two personnas that he used often, the con man and the henpecked husband. I like the later best and “It’s a Gift” is the best example of it. Also, It is pure Fields. There are no musical numbers and the “love interest” subplot with his daughter is almost non-existent. If you don’t like “It’s a Gift”, then Fields does not work for you. You also might try the short “The Fatal Glass of Beer.”

  • joescarp

    It’s a Gift is not only his funniest movie, it’s among my top 10 comedies of all time.

  • Bruce Beckwith

    I agree with many others that NGASAEB is not the first Fields movie to see. It’s like choosing “LeMans” as your first Steve McQueen movie to see. As for the author’s admiration of the scene from “Five Easy Pieces”, it’s more an exercise in rudeness than comedy. In the end it comes down to what we each find funny. Personally, with the exception of the Music Box”, I find L&H to tedious, and Chaplin boring. To each their own….

    • GeorgeDAllen

      Ha! Your “Le Mans” reference is great. I’m pretty sure one of the keys to the Fields comic style is rudeness, though (and not just in this film to be sure), so I will stick to my 5EP comparison as a valid one. And for me, the even funnier scene comes next when Nicholson is driven so crazy in the car by his hitchhiker’s incessant chatter (in an ever-more-maddening montage) that he kicks her out right back to the road.

  • David Wise

    To add to the growing chorus: Watch IT’S A GIFT. And for the love of god don’t go in with a lot of expectations and preconceived notions. That’s a guaranteed way to ruin even the best film!

  • jeff

    thanks for the thoughtful assessment. very interesting, although it suggests to me you may have approached the film with too many expectations and in too analytic a mind set to simply relax and enjoy it. that’s speculative on my part, but what i can tell you factually is a i watched The Bank Dick for the first time in many years last year, and i laughed outloud and whole-heartedly numerous times. some great running gags and random absurdity. given the other comments, i’m now inspired to try Its a Gift. for the person bored byChaplin, if you haven’t, try The Circus and City Lights! finally, one unfair aspect of judging old comedies, is many of their funny moments have often been copied so many times since, that they no longer seem fresh and unexpected, part of what made them funny. this is not the fault of the work itself. i felt this way on recent viewings of Animal House, The Producers, and Caddyshack, though parts of the latter two still get me.

    • GeorgeDAllen

      You’re most welcome; the Marxes, I’d say, are a great example of having been imitated but never, ever equaled. And remain as howlingly funny today as then.

  • Pat

    I loved Fields when I was a kid when my favorite was “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man” and even more so as an adult. “The Bank Dick” is genius and the scene in “It’s a Gift” (getting a lot of deserved kudos here) with Fields trying to sleep on the porch is among the funniest in any film. Even when his films don’t work as a whole there are always plenty of gem moments in them. They are all short, sweet and funny.

  • Henry Hoover

    Chaplin not in first place?!?! What idiots you lot are.

    • Antone

      Why would this result surprise or annoy you? The title of the survey is: “Is W C Fields Still Funny?”. Naturally a majority of people making the effort to respond will be fans of Fields. The exception to this would be if the survey subject is unpopular for other reasons [e g J Fonda or C Heston for political activism].

      I love both Fields & Chaplin and, if forced to name one, would choose Chaplin; but I wouldn’t put down the choice of anyone else [even if they took Pauly Shore] because I haven’t shared their life experiences.

  • Gord Jackson

    I have to agree with so many others, IT’S A GIFT and THE BANK DICK are it. Both have incredibly funny moments but the one that has always stuck with me is Fields’ interaction with the bank inspector in that latter one. It still breaks me up to this day.

    As some have also mentioned, Fields is indeed an acquired taste. I had never heard of him until that late sixties/early seventies revival of his works. I had just started out in theatre management and across the street at the ODEON, midnight screenings of Fields flicks was taking place. And they were very well attended with yours truly being immediately hooked from the get-go.

    Finally, two years ago Stephanie mentioned the names of Bob Newhart and Jonathan Winters, both of whom seem to me to be worthy succsessors to Fields. Newhart has the subtely whereas Winters gave us the more manic side to WC’s talent.

  • jeff

    George –you’re welcome and right about the Marx Brothers, but to be fair to W.C., you probably wouldn’t want them judged solely by Go West or The Big Store. as to no Chaplin voters being idiots, some people prefer verbal humor. i like the physical stuff, and think that Chaplin had no peer there. but sometimes the historically most important may not be most affecting.

  • dpiggins

    No doubt Fields is still funny what with plot and his perfect timing in all things. His “hen-pecked” ?role in “Bank Dick” is so precise plus his forging on in spite of it all to say nothing of the final scene of validation and respect (in spite of himself) which ties the film up nicely. Shorter films such as “The Fatal Glass of Beer” and “The Golf Swing” (right titles? — not sure) are great for their tightness in brevity. One of my favorites, however, is the silent film “Poppy” where he plies his craft “sans dialog”.

    Apocryphal or not, his dying words, “On the whole I’d rather be in Philadelphia” (sic) reveal his dryness to the very end.

    • Antone

      The golf short is “The Golf Specialist”.

  • HappyCamper

    If you don’t think W C Fields is funny, you have an immature sense of humour.

  • Hank Zangara

    When was the last time you were lierally rolling on the floor laughing? LAUREL AND HARDY were never even on your list?? Shame on you!

  • bonongo

    I haven’t seen all of his movies, but my favorite among the Fields movies I have seen is “The Man on the Flying Trapeze” — the combination of his ability to find things on that overstuffed rolltop desk, and then later giving his profession to the traffic cop as “Memory Expert” still makes me laugh out loud. Connoisseurs of Fields’ art, though, usually pick either “My Little Chickadee” (in which he and Mae West actually used each others’ most famous lines) and “It’s a Gift,” which has the hilarious “Carl LaFong” scene — not to mention the “Closed because of Molasses” sequence.

  • Skibum70

    Short answer. Hell Yes!

  • Skibum70

    By the way, am I the last person alive who loved, :My Little Chickadee”?

    • pizzmoe

      What symmetrical digits!

  • Fred55110

    Why not try again with “If I Had A Million”or “The Bank Dick” Mr. Fields is funny and inventive but, he was perhaps too funny and has been copied too many times

  • pizzmoe

    Yes, you started with a difficult one. As others have said, watch “The Bank Dick”

  • Antone

    Indubitably affirmative!

    What’s not to like. He had all the vices. He hated animals and children [except girl children 18-20]. He never used a one-syllable word when he could think of a five-syllable word, which sounded like it could mean the same thing. He never met an inanimate object with which he couldn’t have an epic battle to the death [the porch hammock in It's a Gift; the loops in the living room drapes in You're Telling Me; a golf ball in The Golf Specialist & You're Telling Me]. When I’m down I lean back, smile and think “It could be worse. I could be W.C. in Philly.”

    One caution to W.C. newbies. As with Chaplin & Keaton films, you have to pay attention at all times. Fields best lines are muttered under his breath and his hilarious physical schticks come out of nowhere.

  • The Old Shatterhand

    Good work on this article, Mr. Allen. I have never seen any W.C. Fields movies myself, but like you, felt that there is so much attention paid to him that I felt there must be something I’m missing. I’m glad that so many others wrote in to let you know that you inadvertently started with the wrong one. I’ll have to check out The Bank Dick and It’s A Gift, based on audience recommendations. The alcoholism schtick has lost its lustre because the cultural acceptance of it has changed so greatly since Fields’ time. Now it is recognized as a tragic disease that ruins lives, whereas in his time, the town drunk was perceived as more of a court jester-type of figure. It’s not funny anymore, just as degrading racist jokes that were the hilarity of the time are repugnant and awful now. Also, I was certainly glad to see that you included Richard Pryor in your poll of “Who’s Funniest?”; his standup is outrageously funny, adding to a marvelous repertoire of funny movies.