"Greg La Cava is, to my mind, the No. 1 director of these great and grand and glorious United States of ours. I have many friends, Directors, and I hate to have to expose my hand like this." —William Claude Dukenfield.
W.C. Fields, celebrated this month at the Film Forum in New York, might possibly be the greatest of the talking clowns, eclipsing even the Marx Bros, even Laurel & Hardy. It's easy to forget he had a substantial silent career before talkies, so crucial does that distracted drawl seem to his star identity. While Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd seemed somewhat diminished when audible words emerged from their lips, like Stan and Ollie, Fields blossomed in talkies. But, though they truly excel when offered the gift of speech, their silents are nothing to be sneezed at either.
Although Fields' talkies often had gifted comedy directors at the helm, notably former Keaton collaborator Clyde Bruckman, in his silents he worked with D.W. Griffith (on Sally of the Sawdust) and twice with Gregory La Cava, more substantial figures by far.
La Cava, a former animator (his 1919 toon The Breath of a Nation spoofs Griffith's most notorious title) who would later give us Bed of Roses, My Man Godfrey and Stage Door, was a drinking crony of Fields: possibly they were never paired together in talkies because by then La Cava had to be kept off the sauce in order to function. So's Your Old Man (1926) and Running Wild (1927) both feature Fields in mustache mode: unlike the clowns of Keystone, who celebrated the comedic potential of the face-fungus, Fields really seems to have been trying to look as grotesque as possible, with an upper lip growth which looks like either a smudge of soot or a revoltingly precocious sprouting of nasal hair.
If mutism hampers Fields' ability to get his personality across to the audience, he's fortunate to have as skilled a director as La Cava on hand, for both these films are elegantly staged and serve as rough sketches for his later work. So's Your Old Man casts him as "Sam Bisbee," small-town drunk and inventor, kind of a Homer Simpson study in hapless self-degradation. 1934's You're Telling Me! is a virtual remake of this picture, with puncture-proof tyres in place of unbreakable windscreens, and Buster Crabbe subsititutes for Buddy Rogers as the daughter's blue-blooded beau, to no noticeable effect. Even the golf caddy is the same in both films. Fields' golf routine probably finds its greatest iteration in the short The Golf Specialist, and robbed of the distracted whine of Field's incessant monologue, it's not quite so great in the silent, but what this film adds is a hilarious life-saving scene where Fields rescues a man from drowning purely for the million-dollar contract in his jacket pocket. As the poor victim lies beached and comatose, Fields snatches the document from his unconscious hand, rings the excess moisture from it, and signs it right there, using the fellow's torso as writing-desk. The callousness and venality displayed are jaw-dropping, but Fields has taken care to get us on his side, the better to indulge his throwaway misanthropy.
Perhaps La Cava's influence can be seen in the more sympathetic treatment of Mrs. Bisbee: La Cava worked well with actresses, whereas women are only acceptable to Fields when sugar-sweet and pretty. But the real attraction is the combined talents of two degenerate alcoholics of immense talent, which gives us one of Fields' most memorable on-screen debauches: drunk on roach exterminator, he dazedly buys a pony as a gift for his wife, then seeks to avoid detection by the authorities by grazing alongside it.
Running Wild anticipates the henpecked Fields of Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935). La Cava, who scripted this, receives no credit amid the plethora of scribes on the later version. Fields, as "Elmer Finch" is mercilessly put upon by his second wife, step-son and dog. The delightful Mary Brian plays his daughter by an earlier marriage, prototype for all the sweet daughters, grand-daughters and nieces of his later work (she reprises the role in Trapeze). Alas, there's no Grady Sutton to play the vile stepson, but Barnett Raskin, an authentic juvenile, makes a beastly good substitute.
In a plot twist that anticipates Office Space, hypnosis alters Bisbee's personality, enabling him to establish himself as domestic tyrant in place of his shrewish wife. It all ends up as a tale of self-improvement, which seems quite an un-Fieldsian moral: most of his later happy endings fall more readily under the heading of "shit happens." Still, I can't be the only person tickled by the sight of Fields, wearing boxing gloves, driving unsafely while roaring "I'm a lion!" (by the grace of intertitles) out the side of his mouth.
So's Your Old Man screens in New York on April 28; Running Wild screens May 1.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.