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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

W.C.Fields Afternoon at the Somerville Theatre

For fans of this great comedian it was a dream come true this past Sunday afternoon: two silent features screened in 35 mm, along with a silent and talking short, with live music from keyboardist Jeff Rapsis and tales from Fields' granddaughter Dr. Harriet Fields.  It was a good crowd at the Somerville, and considering it was a drizzly and cool day, it made perfect sense to stay inside and take part in this 4+ hour event.

W.C. Fields (1880 - 1946) is a film comedian whose films I haven't approached much before this, only having seen one short and one feature. His career was not unlike many turn of the century comedians who first made their mark on the stage and in Vaudeville in particular.  Fields here perfected his tricks and physical comedic timing that translated so effectively on the screen.  In fact, throughout most of his career he alternated between stage and screen projects. His first-ever film was the silent short POOL SHARKS (1915), which was one of the films screened between the two features.  It struck me as an undistinguished early silent comedy, with the frantic energy of Fields and his cronies circumnavigating a pool table and conjuring all kinds of tricks with the shots and ball movements to wow audiences.  I learned that this very pool table from the film is now on exhibit at the Magic Castle hotel and museum in Hollywood, where I stayed for the Turner Classic Film Festival.  If I go back next year I need to check it out!
That's Fields in the center with his clip-on mustache he used in all his silent films.
This program at the Somerville, part of their 'Silents, Please' series, was rather a continuation of last year's 100th anniversary celebration of Fields' first appearance on the screen.  The  feature silent films were restored by the Library of Congress and now are listed on the National Film Registry.  Both were fun, but I especially liked 'SO'S YOUR OLD MAN (1926).  In this one, Fields plays a 'glazier' in a lower class home who invents a special unbreakable car windshield.  He incurs the wrath of the local society matron whose son has fallen for Fields' daughter, because his lower class manners are insulting to her.  In an extended rant, the society matron dresses him down, with him listening patiently; he has the last word at the end when he comes back at her (unnamed) insults with "so's your old man!"

After a series of mishaps he finds his reputation saved by a Spanish princess he meets on a train, and ultimately becomes a rich business owner and everyone lives happily ever after.  It's a really fun romp, with many sight gags--special mention should be made of  the terrific comic turns of Marcia Harris as Fields' wife, and Julia Ralph as the society matron.  Interestingly Gregory La Cava, perhaps best known as the director of the screwball classic MY MAN GODFREY, was the director of this and likely had a lot to do with its success.  The film was apparently remade as YOU'RE TELLING ME (1934), and featured Fields' hilarious golf course routine.

Louise Brooks and Fields
The second feature of the day was IT'S THE OLD ARMY GAME (1926).  This one was also produced at the Astoria Studios in Queens, and featured a lovely Louise Brooks along with Fields.  Fields, here as Mr. Prettywillie (!), is a drug store owner in Florida who is trying to make it big by selling questionable real estate deals from New York.  In the meantime he and his family go for an extended picnic on the lawn of a local mansion uninvited, and there is a romantic sub-plot between Brooks, one of his shop workers, and another character, and all sorts of assorted gags and misadventures.  I found this one not quite as enjoyable as the first, and a bit hard to follow, but it did have some hilarious moments, and I found myself appreciating Fields' particular brand of acerbic and athletic visual humor.

Dr. Harriet Fields (from Linked In)
Dr. Harriet Fields, Vice-President of W.C. Fields Productions and advocate for her grandfather's memory, spoke multiple times during the program, before and between films, and taking questions from the audience. While Dr. Fields is a prominent health-care activist in Africa, she clearly relishes her part-time mission of enabling the best possible current appreciation of Fields' talent.  She shared with us her view of him as a person, especially as a loyal friend. Among his good friends were Louise Brooks, humorist Will Rogers, and actor Grady Sutton.  Dr. Fields told one funny story about when W.C. was invited to Louise Brooks' home in Hollywood after she became a star--he horrified her by picking up expensive pieces of china and crystal and juggling them high in the air.  Luckily, Fields was a first-rate juggler and all survived intact.

Another interesting story she told story is the 'canary incident' in which Fields was apparently hauled before a judge charged with 'torturing a canary' during a stage act.  The 'torture' mainly consisted of the bird being placed in his pocket.  The story is recounted here.  The actual court transcripts are public record and have been turned into live entertainment by way of a dramatic public reading!

Jeff Rapsis addresses the crowd
About the man personally, Dr. Fields described him as much friendlier to animals and children than his reputation suggests, and someone who loved to read and learn.  One of his hobbies was reading the dictionary at night, and there got ideas for some of his wacky character names, including "Prettywillie", his name in IT'S THE OLD ARMY GAME.

Not a bad way to spend a rainy Sunday--in the company of other classic film enthusiasts enjoying rare films on the big screen.  A special mention must go to Somerville staff, and also keyboardist and silent film music expert Jeff Rapsis, who added a tremendous live improvised soundtrack to all of the silents, and who also served as partial M.C. to the event.

For your summer reading lists, here are two books to consider adding:
The reissue of Fields' book first published  in 1940, 
new forward by Dick Cavett
New 'autobiography' of Fields from his personal papers,
compiled by grandson Ronald J. Fields.  Forward by Conan O'Brien.

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