Thursday, April 4, 2013

Happy 100th, Mr. Morganfield

Mr. Muckle or Happy Birthday, Bill Fields!

From "My Little Chickadee": Mae West and W. C. Fields
Whenever I read something biographical about W. C. Fields, he is always referred to as Bill. I can imagine him at a card table with his pals like Gene Fowler and Dave Chasen, mumbling into his deck and all his pals calling him Bill. Like only the most inside of the insiders would call him Bill. The same people who called Gary Cooper "Coop" or Hitchcock "Hitch".

But then, I've heard him called Bill on radio shows from the '40's, where he shared the microphone with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Don Ameche calls him Bill. As do all the others. (Wait- what others- it's just Edgar Bergen. But such was the power of radio in the 1940's.)  After awhile, it's jarring when someone calls him W. C. Too slick, too agent-y.

Bill Fields, a remarkably gifted man, was born January 29th 1880 and died on Xmas Day, 1946. He drank to excess, to the point where it not only threatened his ability to do his job,  but also to the brink of death and beyond.

Towards the end, clearly showing the effects of alcohol.
He had a remarkable relationship with alcohol and was very high- functioning. But he was pretty much drunk during most of his waking hours. Considering that he authored most of his films, under ridiculous pseudonyms, this is quite an achievement.

He was born into abject poverty, much like Chaplin, whom Fields admired but distrusted ("He's a goddamn ballet dancer!"). The story of his childhood was so painful that he seldom told it.

By the time he was in his mid- twenties, he was arguably the best juggler in the world. He was a star of the Zeigfeld Follies, an international headliner, second only to Will Rogers. In those days, performers could use the same act over and over, seldom changing it at all from night to night. Fields was different. He was constantly perfecting techniques, juggling difficult objects with seeming indifference.

In the movies when he juggles, the audiences feign indifference or even disgust. This is the cruel beauty of the W. C. Fields world: nothing, not even the world's greatest juggler is extraordinary to this bunch.

Here he recreates his Zeigfeld's routine in this clip from "The Old Fashioned Way."

He worked out a pool table act with a crooked cue stick that he controlled perfectly. Eventually he started making films.  "Pool Sharks", from 1915, shows a lean, mustachioed Fields, the vaudevillian in the process of transforming into the movie comedian.

Bill Fields probably got away with more "outside" stuff than any comedian/ writer/ director of the times, and those times, in particular, were full of c/w/d's, from Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel, to lesser knowns like Charlie Chase and Harry Langdon.  Certainly he had the more bizarre sense of humor.

There is this scene, this amazing scene- no- the most amazing scene in all his films- no- the comic tour de force of all his movies that features Mr. Muckle the blind man, from the comic masterpiece "It's a Gift":

Such was W. C. Fields' gift. To me, Mr. Muckle the blind man has an invincibility second only to Superman. The intensity of his destruction is equalled only by Fields' utter helplessness in the face of the unstoppable force of Mr. Muckle the blind man.

This is an incredible comic premise, ahead of its time, whatever that means, in that we are urged to suspend our sympathies toward the handicapped, the innocent, the meek that will inherit, etc. and guard ourselves against the apparently unstoppable forces of a blind coot with a cane and an ineffectual hearing aid. Can I even say blind coot without engendering offense?

It doesn't matter, because I don't have to say anything. W. C. Fields already said it.

Originally I had hoped to have this ready by January 29th, Bill Fields' birthday in 1880, but events overtook me and I wasn't able to finish it in time. Thus the discrepancy.

I went to my very first W. C. Fields movie with my grandfather, a man so serious that his own daughter could describe him as dour.  But he wasn't, not really, because he roared throughout the movie. Maybe I didn't appreciate the nuanced, jaundiced view of life in the way that he did, or that I do now, but I remember laughing along with him at all the same places, so I must have gotten some of it. 

The gift of genius, Bill Fields. Thanks.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Photographs of Moments I Wish I had Witnessed, pt. 1

These are from Retronaut:

This is a picture of a man dressed as a fly.

Evidently the Hippo was very docile and enjoyed towing the cart. 

I've always had a weakness for women who could make a letter "S" with their bodies.
This is "LaSylphe".

Courtesy LA Chamber of Congress, of course.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Shorpy Collection: Movie Theaters of Washington, DC

These pictures made me think that maybe, one foggy night, driving home from some gig, I could take a wrong turn and there I'd be... ah, well... you know the rest.

Thanks to Shorpy. What a website!