Review by Doug Gibson
Genre author James L. Neibaur has done his usual, solid, well-researched, enjoyable recap of a film great with "The W.C. Fields Films," (here) recently published by McFarland, http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/ (800-253-2187).
Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton are among performers whom Neibaur has assessed. As with the others, the Fields book covers his films, chapter by chapter. Serving as bookends are an opening chapter on Fields' early life and work in vaudeville, and the final chapter covers his last years.
Neibaur is a talented enough researcher and writer to have the film chapters also provide a chronology of Fields' life. The plots, filmmaking intrigues, reviews, box office fates, cast reminiscing, also includes snippets of Fields' personal life, including his frequent health problems as he aged.
If you are a casual fan of Fields, like myself prior to reading this volume, you'll learn that he was a major vaudeville star who dipped his toes into films a little and then several years later, made the full leap, astutely realizing that was where the future, and money was. Some of the early silent films were remade in the sound era. A couple, both remade, that are on my list to see are "Running Wild" and "Sally of the Sawdust." (Remade as "Man on the Flying Trapeze" and "Poppy.")
Neibaur also notes that Fields struggled at times with silent films. Regretfully, some are lost, including all three of an ill-fated attempt to team Fields with comedian Chester Conklin. Ultimately, it was sound that moved Fields to higher stardom. Neibaur correctly points out that Fields' understated delivery of his lines became very popular with audiences. In fact, aside lines like Fields (in "The Bank Dick") muttering that he loves daughters, particularly those between 16 and 18, is dialogue that I don't think censors would have allowed less subtle actors to utter.
Fields' glory days were with Paramount, his shorts, including 'The Dentist" and films such as "It's' a Gift" and "Man on the Flying Trapeze," are classic gems. He had the ability to play a put-upon father, a conniving boozer father, a con man father and guardian, and still provide sympathy with audiences. Also, pairing Fields with a loud, overbearing spouse prone to overly loud proclamations was usually comic gold. Neibaur also notes Fields's care in determining the plots and dialogues of his films; a demand that perceptive directors usually followed.
Fields' is also an actor whose health deterioration one can track through his two decades of stardom. In "The Dentist," he's still relatively trim. By his last film, the offbeat, eccentric, original "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break," he's a bloated, obese man with a large, alcoholic red nose. His Paramount and Universal tenures were cut short by bad health and poor health practices. Tragedy always affected his health adversely, from friends' deaths to a toddler drowning in a pond on his property.
In his book, Neibaur includes Fields successful comeback with Universal, with films such as "My Little Chickadee," a must-see with Mae West (The two egos survived peacefully long enough to make a great film), "The Bank Dick," and "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break," a brilliant satire that Universal failed to understand, and played as a second-feature.
Prior to reading this book, I'd only seen Fields in "International House," which I bought to see Bela Lugosi," "The Dentist," "My Little Chickadee," and "It's a Gift," a film I've seen at least 20 times. The "W.C. Fields Films" has a lot of company with other great books about Fields. It serves however as a great source to learn more about the unique vintage comedy star, one of the few silent veterans to prosper in the sound era.
Since I read this book, I've seen several more films with Fields. Some of my favorites include "It's a Gift," "Man on the Flying Trapeze," "The Bank Dick" and "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break."
The prolific Mr. Neibaur, by the way, will soon have a book out on the Universal monster films.