Books: Cultural Amnesia — W C Fields |
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William Claude Dukenfield (1879–1946) was known to the world as W. C. Fields. He began as a carnival juggler. As the magicians Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett discovered in a later era, the accompanying patter was more in demand than the act, although Fields, until the end of his career, was still able to do some of the most difficult conjuring tricks in the book. But there were other conjurers who could do them too. Nobody could equal him for his patter. He was a success in silent movies from his debut in Pool Sharks (1915) until sound movies arrived, but when they did, he was one of the few silent stars who actually gained from the change. It was because he could both write his own material and speak it inimitably: a winning combination. The Bank Dick (1940) is the movie that his admirers know line by line. In real life he was a self-destructive drinker, but he would have been the first to discourage any large theories about his essentially subversive talent having suffered in the context of Hollywood conformity. He had a drinks trolley at the side of his tennis court.

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Is Mr. Michael Finn in residence?

WOODY ALLEN AND Steve Martin have a common ancestor, and his name is W. C. Fields. A greater prodigy of comedy even than Chaplin, Fields could create dialogue for himself that was as funny as his physical presence. (Chaplin’s abiding limitation was that he couldn’t: the real reason that he wanted to stay silent forever.) In The Bank Dick, the question about “Mr. Michael Finn” is Fields’s way of advising the barman in the Black Pussycat Saloon that a Mickey Finn should be slipped to the visiting bank inspector, Pinkerton Snoopington. The pesky Snoopington having been duly rendered incapable, Fields helps him through the foyer of Lompoc’s leading and only hotel, The New Old Lompoc House. (Once having established the name of this hostelry, Fields abbreviates it to “the New Old”—a typically bizarre stroke of verbal economy.) From the right of frame, Fields ushers the barely mobile Snoopington across the foyer and up the stairs on the left, which lead to the room where Snoopington will be safely stashed. The camera doesn’t move. Nothing happens. Then Fields, alone, rushes across the frame from left to right. After a pause, he once again slowly propels Snoopington across the frame from right to left, heading for the stairs. We in the audience deduce that Snoopington must have fallen out of the window of his room once Fields had got him up there. Without having seen it happen, the audience is convulsed at the phantom spectacle of the paralytic Snoopington plunging into the street.

The scene is all action with almost no dialogue, but Fields could write wordless physical comedy the way he wrote words: with unequalled compactness and suggestiveness. The direction is already there in the script, and there is every reason to think of Fields as one of the great directors of comic films, even if he seldom took a formal credit. He certainly knew more than the producers: one of them wanted to cut the moment in The Bank Dick when Fields shows his minion Og Ogilvy the warning signal he will use if Snoopington threatens to queer the pitch. If that preparatory moment had been cut, Fields’s later use of the signal would have lost half of its effect. (A sure sign of a director who should not be fooling with comedy is when he gets the urge to cut the preparation so as to increase the pace.) Fields knew everything there was to know about comic construction: an important point to remember. Even his appreciators tend to think that because his life was an inspired chaos his work was too. In fact he was disciplined to the roots. The same effort he had put into his vaudeville juggling routines—he would practise until his hands bled, hence the kid gloves—he put into his inventions for the cinema. The most portable of those inventions was his way with the single subversive line. Every Fields fan can recite at least half a dozen of them, and make a fair show of imitating the master’s drawling delivery, which could make even an abstract fragment of surrealist delirium as funny as a crutch. (“Rivers of beer flowing over your grandmother’s paisley shawl.”) It is easy to think that the lines came to him in a dream, but the awkward truth is that they were poetically crafted. When the top hat that fell off Fields’s head ended up standing on the edge of its brim on the point of his shoe, it didn’t happen by magic, and neither did a line like “What do you mean, speak louder? If I could speak louder, I wouldn’t need a telephone.” Just think of all the ways that idea could be written down differently, and not be funny. Magicians do not use magic. “Thou know’st we work by wit and not by witchcraft,” says Iago, “and wit depends on dilatory time.” Iago’s business was duplicity, but one of his weapons was straight sense.

Everyone knows that censorship closed off the future for Mae West. Less well-known is that it did the same for Fields. It wasn’t alcohol or old age that ensured his decline, but a sudden, fatal limitation on what he was allowed to say. (Nevertheless alcohol helped: one of his best throwaway lines in My Little Chickadee was written from the heart. “During a trip through Afghanistan we lost our corkscrew and were compelled to live on food and water.”) The Bank Dick is a great movie, but it might have been greater still if the censors hadn’t read the script first; and there would almost certainly have been more Fields movies to equal it. When a poet is denied one word, it casts a pall for him on all the others; and Fields was a poet—a poet of innuendo. In private life, nobody cared if he said “Filthy stuff, water: fish fuck in it.” But in the movies he was not allowed to go on getting away with advising little girls against playing “squat-tag in the asparagus patch.” Nor could he any longer say to his Little Chickadee, “I have a number of pear-shaped ideas I would like to discuss with you.” Restricted by the new regulatory codes, the Hollywood film-makers did not necessarily abandon their intelligence. Some of the screwball comedies, made when studio censorship was in full force, remain among the most intelligent films ever. The terse eloquence of films like My Man Godfrey and His Girl Friday has been matched since the lapse of censorship but not exceeded. There was, however, a certain range of verbal playfulness that went disastrously into abeyance. It became impossible to be suggestive about sex. One could be amusingly evasive about the broad fact of it, but never suggestive about its detail. For Fields, especially in his later years, being suggestive about sex was at the heart of speech, because the discrepancy between his raddled body and his intact lusts was the secret of his screen personality. All his best dialogue came from a mental underworld of sensual indulgence. Hence we have to live with the cruel paradox that sound movies silenced him. What we see of him on screen is just the beginning of what he might have done: a daunting thought if you are one of those people who find his every audible moment even funnier than the way he looked when struggling with a wilful hat, or walking upstairs on the wrong side of a banister. Though he exaggerated his early deprivations when he told tales of his upbringing, Fields was certainly the man out of place: one of those people who are born exiles even if they never leave home. For some reason such misfits seem to favour the notion of verbal economy, as if turning ordinary language into the kind of compressed code that unfolds into a wealth of meaning when you have the key.