Tag Archives: W.C. Fields

Clang Consciousness – Part I

Here’s a perfect slapstick linguist paradigm: sound as a physical gag. And here’s a clip from W.C. Fields’ Never Give A Sucker An Even Break to demonstrate the point:

The clip treks far beyond the mere exemplar of a new category of mass produced silliness. Yes, sound is being used as a gag, for what’s stopping sound’s elemental physicality from being adopted into the fold of slapstick? But moreover, the scene is a strong critical manifestation of class consciousness, that pesky Marxist tract that rings truer the longer you live. The whole funny business is mired in an entrenched pitting of working-class sound against the sound of the bourgeoisie (catch the younger kid’s daze?), and ambiguously proceeds with no clear winners.

It’s also an aesthetic drawing-a-line-in-the-sand as well. Mid-thirties Hollywood saw an influx of singing-and-dancing idiots into otherwise purist slapstick routines, including the very best of the Marx Brothers, Chaplin, and W. C. Fields. Thank God the whole mess got under the skin of at least Fields who laments its inclusion in the slapstick feature format on more than one occasion than the clip above.

More on this to come. Is that alright with you, Mr. Pangborn?

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Character or Action?: Egri, Langdon, and the Comedy of Unnecessary Struggles

Currently in the middle of Lajos Egri’s sole work, where the Hungarian tailor-turned-theater-director first describes the existence of three-dimensionality to fully realized dramatic characters, an observation the slapstick genre successfully subverts. More on this point later.

First, there’s a crux in the book (the middle, right, where else?) where the author really digs it to Aristotle for claiming character is subordinate to action. Now, to be fair, Ergi’s whole work is really the first substantial study to emphasize the role of psychology (the third dimension to basics, physicality and sociology) as well as the internal dialectics of character that work in the creative makings of a memorable play. And to be fair, too, Egri’s point on Aristotle is instructive.

But it’s also totally confused. Egri faults Aristotle based on this confusion: Aristotle wasn’t a playwright, he was a philosopher. So when the ancient Greek writes in his Poetics about drama and catharsis and all that good stuff he does so as a witness to theatrical drama. Aristotle is discussing the appearance of drama unfolding before the crowds, an essential component of what dramatic theater is. So, if you remember this then it absolutely is true that, as Aristotle put it, action precedes character: it is through a character’s motions that an observer derives their motives and begins to compile a picture of character.

This is full blown within the complexities of cinematic slapstick. Take the case of Harry Langdon’s “The Odd Fellow” in his masterpiece Three’s A Crowd. It’s one of the most psychologically insightful comedies ever made, but also the film that  best explores the passive nature of Langdon’s comic persona, a concept Egri deplores and considers poor drama.

The riddle is how can passivity be three-dimensional? Three’s A Crowd (1927) is radically dream-like and structurally experimental (second perhaps only to Field’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break of 1941) and especially so considering it’s a piece by a silent clown of the twenties.

The logic of the story is full of odd jokes: washing dishes with a clothes washing board (but Odd Fellow never realizes his mistake); an absurdly long staircase separating characters to and from points of action (an architectural quirk never explained); and an inanimate rag-doll – Odd fellow’s equally passive doppelganger – bumming around through the harsh seasons, city streets, and unconscious nightmares. The joke are half punch lines, half humdrum. They are abstractions – and featured in the background setting rather that in the decisions of our anti-hero – of all the small things in life that people put up with without thinking about at all.

[NOTE: Memorably, Langon rarely makes use of cops, which is extremely rare for the genre. The abstraction of official persecution is common, something people irrationally think about terribly often (in my own case, at least three times a week). It’s this sort of exacting detail – the absence of cop scenarios – that raises questions as to what logic is propelling Langdon’s story-lines and why he remains such an enigmatic figure in slapstick cinema.]

So, it’s these features of the external world that reflect the inner workings of the passive character. Woody Allen has confirmed this idea in interviews, presumably grasped during his post-Annie Hall work with Gordon Willis, saying that for a filmmaker visuals in the outside should reflect the inside emotions (which is Jacque Lacan’s idea of “ex-timacy” for those interested in psychoanalysis).

Odd Fellow is the prism for all sorts of miscommunications and hallucinations that move along in an exacting yet illogical way. Anonymous letters falling from the sky, neighbor’s distrusting and ridiculing his every move, floors giving out, abandoned women being extracted from his home just as improbably as they had entered. Harry’s “The Odd Fellow”  – unlike a schlemeil, them that can literally do no right –  is instead confronted with a host of unnecessary struggles, literally and figuratively, and in a way whose explication evokes comedy rather than Sisyphean tragedy. For that reason Three’s A Crowd should be entered alongside the work of Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien and W.C. Fields.

This is that point that is a blow to Egri: the external world can, indeed needs to, reflect the character within the language of film. Egri’s specialty was theatrical in nature so we can’t fault him for ignoring the visible reflections of all that he has to offer: character, conflict and progression through dialectics. However, it is in film, and especially evident in slapstick, that passivity in character can be counterbalanced by authorial (later to be identified as Hitchcockian) attention to detail in the background, in the setting, in the universe of the story. So the facility of psychology in Langdon’s work is relegated to the margins; his internality – especially in this film which was his first to write and direct –  is reflected in the world outside.

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Slapstick with Bullets – Part 1

Are gangster films slapstick or not?

It’s not as far-fetched as one might think, especially when considering the slippery slope of connotation in three closely related terms: “gangster”, “crookster” and “huckster”. This provides a spectrum of silliness. On one end, “gangster” designates a dramatic (not quite tragic) criminality where various illegal activities are organized in such a way that produces not only material wealth but also a compromised level of political clout in the everyday operations of city life. At the opposite end, a “huckster” implies a petty man who thinks he can outsmart everyone despite obvious evidence they’re not smart enough not to be in their situation of needing to habitually con other people to scrape by. So a “crookster” is simply the mid-ground and as such never appears as a central protagonist but only as henchmen, black sheep, bullies, jerks, or they just litter the background for a little color and edge. Here’s a typical “crookster”:

Crooksters are all the different character variants that exist somewhere between the gangster’s dramatic struggle not to be predetermined by existing social forces of legitimacy and power from which they are excluded, and the huckster, whose painfully comic existence makes everyone around them enraged, confused or appalled thus reinforcing the former’s fantasy of being intellectually superior to everyone around them.

But what if the archetypal “gangster” identity, just like the crookster above (and both made iconic in the 1930’s at Warner Brother’s studio), never really extracted itself from the dominant slapstick era that preceded its own popularity? What if Cagney and Robinson are nothing more than Chaplin and Fields stuck in a world full of flying bullets, loose women, bare knuckles and speakeasies?

Take as a for-instance these two clips of the same gag:


The top clip is from Roy Del Ruth’s Taxi! (1932) and, while hardly seen in the context of great Warner gangster films, is nevertheless completely typical of the formula: racketeering, corruption, murder, chips on shoulders driving traditional neighborhood allegiances to contest with a main character’s extra-neighborly ambitions, a street brawl or three and finally some less-than-deep philosophical fadoodling on the nature of right and wrong. In the scene, one of the film’s openers, Cagney’s character is caged in by two rival taxis and moments later cleans their clocks in a impromptu fist match, all of it egged on by onlookers and passersby. [Note: Roy Del Ruth, like another WB mainstay, Lloyd Bacon (discussed below), was brought up in slapstick and directed films staring Harry Langdon, Mack Sennett and Ben Turpin.] This scene from Taxi! is violent, quick as a newspaper catching fire, and depicts clear adversarial interests.

The second clip, from The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935), W.C. Fields is caged in by two cars and and this slowly instigates a mob-like sapping of the old man’s simplest, stupidest, most private wishes from his tired, ever-shrinking soul. The scene is not explicitly violent, but it is absolutely brutal and painful insofar as public humiliation and arbitrary bullying is a kind of bloodletting even doctor’s can’t stop. But the scene is not quick at all; it’s slow as molasses, agonizing, cruelly drawing in the audience to watch a man with a raincloud over his head get yelled at for being wet by people with the sun on their shoulders.

It’s the same story told through two different aesthetics, a through-the-looking-glass moment.

Let’s not leave out all of the slapstick elements in the first Taxi! clip. The fight is a wide shot, not a chopped up P.O.V. Like a prat fall, the audience is invited into the fun of the fight, rather than any of the hurt or desperation. Also, we have stock characters: the loose cannon, the blockhead, the confused immigrant, and a couple of jerk-faced crooksters. These are all comical archetypes of physicality and sociology, but they all lack the aspect of psychology necessary for a fully-formed dramatic character. They are flat, which means they are better served in sight gags. Not to say that there aren’t humorless gangster films like Public Enemy or The Roaring Twenties, only that a clip like this bridges a gap between gangster films and slapstick in meaningful ways:

So speed is a feature of the gangster film. Warner’s two-week-wonder-tron, Lloyd Bacon, was given his first job in the teens (not his teens but the century’s) by then Human Resource Director at Mutual Films, Charlie Chaplin. They worked together often, for instance here as the Tramp’s double in 1916’s The Floorwalker:

But when is this speed not used to comedic effect in WB gangster flicks? When they want to be dramatic, they simply stop the break-neck speed and pace scenes differently. Speed – and this goes for a lot of entertaining 75 min features of the Pre-Code era – is a lingering effect of the breathtakingly quick gag work happening in slapstick pre and post sound. Here’s a prefect example of speed having a punch-line effect in the reform-angled gangster piece, Picture Snatcher (1933), directed by Chaplin’s protege-of-sorts, Bacon:

More on this questionable parallel in the coming weeks.

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Srehtorb Xram Eht

"Monkey Business" as seen in "12 Monkeys"

This is strange – a silent Marx Brothers film. It’s backwards, or inverse, or both.

The Marx Brothers, like W.C. Fields, Preston Sturges and, to a more argumentative degree, Harry Langdon sound pictures, are explicitly about language.

The very make up of the trio (if you remember, the brothers were four and then they realized that the straight man Zeppo was utterly unnecessary and so threw him to the fishes) is based on speaking to others: The first so full of himself that he needs a cigar to stop his nonsense; the second straight off the boat and struggling to explain his heavy accent; the other, like the film medium that preceded his, without sound.

This clip is from the often confused and occasionally brilliant filmmaker Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. Put this clip in the former category since it uses Marx Brothers clippings not for their linguist horseplay but for their visual tomfoolery. Why?

Ironically enough, it’s a simple word correlation. The script mentions “No more monkey business” and no doubt the director recognized the line as being the title of a Marx Brothers film (directed by Norman Z. McLeod). So, we have a visual correlation without hearing the verbal musings of the original, only aimless running. It’s a simple and virtually meaningless homage , except they can hide it within a montage of other trundles.

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Slapstick Signage #3

From "Good Night Nurse"

A Fatty Arbuckle short involving the literal mailing of a drunk socialite (right).

Viewing all these shorts for wordplay, a theme is emerging. Advertisements are shown as one or more of the following:

1) Harmful lies (see W.C. Fields, etc.)

2) Ineffective promises

3) Everywhere

So in the first example, ads are pernicious tricksters destined to befoul the proverbial sucker . In the second, they advocate hopeless wastes of one’s time. The third, ads are implied as innocuous at best and meaningless at worst; their very existence one to which we are always-already ignoring.

Our backs are turned:

Fatty lighting a cigarette in the rain in "Good Night Nurse"


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Slapstick Signage #2

A crate in the back of The Last Gasp Saloon in Edward F. Cline’s My Little Chickadee, written by W.C. Fields and starring Mae West and Fields. On the box is written the words “Last Gasp” – a reference to the literal denouement of the film as well as the nurturing nature of the bar  – and, underneath, “Greesewood” – the name of the western town the film takes place. (Cline also directed most of the best Buster Keaton’s shorts, including the infamous Balloonatic, and was the best of all Field’s directors with the possible exception of Norman Z. McLeod)

Fields, like Groucho Marx, was known for his insinuating names for things and characters, and though not this film, often penned scripts using pseudonyms. His favorite pen-name, or at least the one hi chose most often, was Charles Bogle. He also used Mahatma Kane Jeeves and Otis Criblecoblis, the former in another of Cline’s directions: The Bank Dick.

The most frustrating element surrounding My Little Chickadee is that it’s not considered a screwball. This is a gross error even though the reasoning is simple: the characters are not in any way wholesome.

Conversely, in a typical screwball otherwise “normal” human beings are made mad or abnormal by their desires for each other, desires that neither one can speak of in any straight-and-arrow way, hence the clever use of innuendo and comedy.

But in My Little Chicakdee you have two unabashed heathens – Flower Belle Lee and Cuthbert Twillie – speaking with virtual clarity about their mismatched desire for nasty indecencies: Flower Belle shakes her hips for everyone except Twillie; and inversely, Twillie pines only for the shapely Flower Belle.

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Spelling Lessons #3 and #4

Both are from 1934’s It’s A Gift starring W.C. Fields:


A kumquat is not an orange though it wants to be one, especially when they’re around other kumquats.

Next, later that same film …

Carl La Fong

Carl La Fong is a fictitious neighbor that salesmen cook up to confuse average Joes long enough to get their foot in the door.

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“Suds” Redux

The best female-lead slapstick ever made, 1920’s Suds, is based on a popular one act by Frederick Fenn and Richard Pryce called ‘Op O’ Me Thumb. It’s also a great example of both how obligatory happy endings can nearly ruin a picture and how the function of comedy, slapstick included, is the total embrace of failure, death and pain.

In the should-be final scene, the pseudo-Cinderella Amanda Afflick, derided as “Sudsie” and played by Tinseltown’s first self-made millionaire, Mary Pickford, delivers a profoundly funny line when answering her own question wondering whether anyone will ever fall in love with her:

A triple negative. Not only, either – a triple negative spoken by a penniless, heart-broken, sobbing young woman:

This is the epicenter of comedy.

Look at how the triply negative intertitle mirrors the comical structure of the scene. The levels of Sudsie’s misery are so thoroughly so that they begin to crumble and fall within their very articulation. This blend of pathos and comedy is typically called Chaplin-esque, but this is less tragicomic than it is using tragedy as the baseline for humor.

The scene is actually Fields-esque. James Curtis, quotes W.C. Fields in his biography: “I never saw anything funny that wasn’t terrible. If it causes pain, it’s funny; if it doesn’t, it isn’t.”

See? She’s done for. Get it?

Of course things are only half as bad / twice as worse as they seem.

First, the half-as-bad: Before Sudsie concludes that nobody never won’t love her, the man of here dreams – a man who wants nothing to do with her – reluctantly pecks her cheek and then high-tails it out of the laundromat where the film finds its title. But, the scene is intercut with action happening just outside the door of the laundromat, where a delivery man who’s grown attached to Susdie because of a horse they both care for holds flowers in his hands and peers inside to look for the woman of his fancy. Once he gets a whiff of the jerk – whom he doesn’t know to be jerk per se – he backs off, not quite as upset as Sudsie will be moments later but nevertheless upset.

So “Nobody never won’t” is unambiguously foreshadowing the eventual reconciliation of the failed pair, Sudsie and the delivery man. Connecting through a break, positing a positive in a triple negative.

Now for the twice as worse: This is not the last frame of the film, as it so hilariously, proudly and beautifully should be.

After some cliche proverb about bumps in the road comes an obligatory last scene:

This is an interesting mirroring of the sense of shock and betrayal felt upon seeing this final scene of the film, only by the characters in the scene itself.

A close reading of the outcomes, from right to left: Sudsie is literally not Sudsie but instead some confused poster child for bourgeois ideals; her horse, Lavender, that previously mirrored Sudsie and her deeply-held conviction that scrawny, worthless, runts deserved to be loved as though they were your own self, is now a fat, boring, majestic-looking thing – Yucklph!; Finally, she winds up with … THE DAMN JERK! and not the delivery man after all.

He looks as confused as anyone, doesn’t he?

The whole charade – as cliche of a Hollywood-forced happily-ever-after as any – is a far, far cry from Fenn and Pryce’s original play, which ends as such:

She crouches in a shabby little heap in the middle of the empty room as the CURTAIN FALLS

See? She’s done for. Get it?

The only – and only slightly because this is just apologizing for what’s shown – saving grace to the disaster is that the fantasy/delusion operates in the Lynchian structure of it-could-all-be-a-dream. Let’s not remember that before all this disastrous bump-in-the-road business, Sudsie was falling asleep on the step:

Ay, there’s the heap.

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Slapstick Signage #1

From It’s A Gift with W.C. Fields.

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