W. C. Fields was a unique and amazing man. He lived a very active and full life, and embellished (or out and out lied about) so many of the things that he did that no two biographies tell the same story. Though just about every aspect of his life is contradicted some place or other, it's generally accepted that Fields had a rough childhood. Born in 1880, though many sources claim 1879, Fields grew up in Philadelphia. As a young lad he fought frequently with his father and left home at the age of 11. He lived by stealing, panhandling, and by becoming a pool shark. The deep poverty he experience during his youth would haunt him for the rest of his life.
He started juggling around this age, and became quite adept. He was so good that he went professional, juggling at an amusement park. Within a few months he created a comic juggling act and went on the road touring vaudeville houses. In the off season, he would work Atlantic City and even claimed to have been a professional drowner. Every hour he would swim out to sea and pretend to drown. A large crowd would gather to watch the life guards rush out to save him. The theory was some of the spectators would stick around and patronize the nearby businesses.
He continued on the vaudeville circuits for a number of years, generally earning good reviews and making more and more money. In 1899 he signed with a New York burlesque operator for $35/week (a good sum in those days) and in 1900 he was hired to play the Orpheum vaudeville circuit at $125/week, and in 1915 he signed on with Ziegfeld's Follies at $600/week.
Over the years Field's act changed. In addition to juggling, he added a comic pool skit, as well as routines built around tennis and golf. Most of which he would later preform in movies.
Fields rose to the top of the stage world, headlining in a hit Broadway show, Poppy, in 1924. As with many Broadway stars, Hollywood beaconed. In 1925 he made a film version of Poppy, retitled Sally of the Sawdust which was directed by D. W. Griffith. Soon after Fields signed a contract with Paramount and made eight film with the studio between 1926 and 1928. None of them were very popular, and his contract was not renewed.
He returned to Broadway and stepped into a $5,000/week contract in Earl Carroll's Vanities. Fields was still at the top of the heap in New York, but that wouldn't last. When the stock market crashed, shows started closing left and right and Fields soon found himself unemployed and unable to find work. So he took a risk. He moved to Hollywood, without a contract, and tried to break into the movies again. After making The Golf Specialist for RKO in 1930, Fields teamed up with Mack Sennet to make four shorts that showcased his comedic ability. These films solidified his character and brought him to the attention of the big studios again. He went to work for Paramount, making a series of pedestrian all-star comedies. The best of these, International House, was a hit, and based on its success, Fields was able to negotiate a $100,000/year contract for three years with Paramount.
The W.C. Fields Comedy Collection gathers together the cream of Fields' talking feature films in one attractive set. The set includes International House, It's a Gift, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, My Little Chickadee, and The Bank Dick. A wonderful set of comedy classics.
International House (1933): This is an ensemble piece with Bela Lugosi, Burns and Allen, Cab Calloway, and Rudy Vallee among others. More of a variety show than a movie with the plot being very minimal and the narrative getting frequently interrupted by song and dance numbers. The plot, such as it is, had several unique characters congregating at a hotel in Wu-Hu, China to bid on a scientists new invention: Television.
This movie isn't a classic by any means, but it is light fun entertainment. Burns and Allen, as a doctor and his harebrained nurse, do a lot of the shtick that made them famous, and they are at the top of their act here. Fields doesn't really enter the film until the film is about 1/3 of the way over, but he steals the show from that point on. Fields plays a rich traveler who's gets lost piloting his plane. He isn't the grouch that he played in his shorts and later films, but his comic timing and mumbled jokes are still hilarious. This movie was released before the Hays Commission started censoring films, and Fields gets away with some great risque jokes. When he takes Peggy Hopkins Joyce for a ride in his car, for example:
Hopkins: I'm sitting on something.
Fields: I lost mine in the stock market.
It's a Gift (1934): Fields' movies don't really have plots per se, they are more like a collections of comic situations strung together. This is a classic example. Fields plays Harold Bissonette, a hen-pecked everyman who runs a small store, but dreams of buying an orange farm in California. When a relative dies and leaves him a modest sum of money, but sell his store, much to the dismay of his wife, and travels across the country to get his dream.
This is one of Fields best movies, an absolute classic. Fields trying to shave with a straight razor while looking in a jostling mirror suspended from a string is funny, but the scene where he tries to get some sleep on the porch is hilarious. One of the great comedy scenes in all of film. Fields under the breath jabs at his family and neighbors are great. A must see film.
You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939): Fields moved to Universal, and this was his first film at his new studio. In this film Larson E. Whipsnade (Fields) owns the Circus Giganticus, a seedy run down affair that is constantly in debt. He has trouble staying ahead of the sherif and with his performers, most notably Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen give him constant grief.
Another fun film. Though it isn't Fields' finest, he does have some great sections, and Bergen and McCarthy were in top form. Fields was appearing on Bergen's radio show at the time. (Yes, a ventriloquist had a radio show. Go figure. What's even more odd is that it was pretty good.) The writers of the radio show had started a 'feud' between the Fields and McCarthy, and it just spilled over into the movie. Bergen was never truly great at the craft of ventriloquism, but he was a great comedian and that shows through in this film. His bits are delightful, as are Fields scenes. The romantic subplot gets a little tiresome, but it isn't on screen enough to really drag the picture down.
My Little Chickadee (1940): This is the only dud in the set. Fields was teamed up with Mae West in hopes of boosting both of their sagging careers. There's not much of a plot in this film either. Flower Belle Lee (Mae West) gets booted out of the town of Little Bend for having an affair with The Masked Bandit. She meets Cuthbert J. Twillie (Fields) a conman on a train and the two agree to 'marry' so that they'll appear respectable. When they arrive in Greesewood City, Fields gets made sherif, and West has to tame a classroom full of rambunctious kids.
West and Fields had almost no chemistry on the screen together.
There were a few good moments, but overall this film doesn't work.
It was a very contentious shoot, with both stars competing to out do each
other and attempting to rewrite each other's lines. (They co-wrote
the screenplay.) This came through in the movie, and just wasn't
as funny or as interesting as you would think. By this time West
was 47 years old, and it's a little hard to imagine every male head being
turned her way. She's playing the character of Mae West more than
anything else. The occasional laughs weren't enough to save this
This is a wonderful movie, not only because of Fields' comic ablility, but because he ironically turns his louse of a character into someone that is endearing. When you see Sousé in one of his 'detective disguises' you can't help but like him.
Again, it's Field's muttered jabs that are the most hilarious. His comment on children for example: I'm very fond of children. Girl children, around eighteen and twenty." There is also a lot of Fields' love of language and the sound of words for comic effect in this film:
Egbert Sousé: The jockey was a very insulting fellow. He referred to my proboscis as an adscititious excrescence. I had to tweak his nose.
Egbert Sousé: Don't be a luddy-duddy! Don't be a mooncalf! Don't be a jabbernowl! You're not those, are you?
Or this exchange with his daughter's paramour:
Egbert Sousé: My uncle, a balloon ascensionist, Effingham Hoofnagle, took a chance. He was three miles and a half up in the air. He jumped out of the basket of the balloon and took a chance of landing on a load of hay.
Og Oggilby: Golly! Did he make it?
Egbert Sousé: Uh... no. He didn't. Had he been a younger man, he probably would have made it. That's the point. Don't wait too long in life.
A classic film, and one of Fields' last movies. He made one more film after that, 1941's Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, which did poorly at the box office and Universal dropped him. Over the next few years he would play small parts in a few more films, but his years of heavy drinking finally caught up with him. He was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and died of pneumonia on Christmas Day 1946. He is a true comic genius who is still admired to this day, and this set off his best features shows why.
This five disc set comes in a fold out disc holder that is encased in a very nice slipcase.
Each of these films has a two channel mono sound track with English, Spanish and French subtitles. The audio has been cleaned up and sounds very good. Of course, given the age of these films, there isn't a lot of dynamic range or explosive sounds. The music comes across fairly well though, and there isn't any hiss of other audio defects.
All of these movies have been restored, and the full frame black and white video look pretty good overall, but these movies weren't perfect. I was disappointed to notice that there is some edge enhancement applied to the image. While it's not too heavy handed, I think the picture would have looked better without it. They also went a little too far with the digital restoration. It has left a good amount of mosquito noise in the background, which was fairly noticeable. This caused walls and large patches of one shade of grey to appear to be vibrating or moving. Aside from these defects, the picture had very good detail and contrast. There was a very good range of grey tones and the image was very clear. Print defects were at a minimum, with very few spots and scratches. Even with the digital defects and edge enhancement these movies would have been outstanding, as it is they look very good.
This set has very few extras included, which is too bad. Besides a few trialers, the only bonus item was W. C. Fields: Behind the Laughter: an episode of the TV show Biography that looked at the famous comedian. This wasn't too indepth, but it was a good overview of the man's life.
This is a great set of fantastic movies. It's a Gift and The Bank Dick are classic films, and the others are very good, with the possible exception of My Little Chickadee. Though I wish that Universal, who released this set, has used a gentler hand while restoring the image, the films do look very good. A set that fans of classic comedy shouldn't be without. Highly Recommended.