Sunday, 27 January 2013


If you follow Simon Louvish's essay carefully, you can see that It's A Gift is an important film for W.C. Fields, marking in a sense the end of his reliance on patching together vaudeville sketches. His later films would be more complete, if no more coherent, screen stories, in which he did the lion's share of the screenwriting himself. But as Louvish makes plain, the essence of Fields' films was Fields himself, and to some extent the character we associate with him was as much a product of vaudeville as the routines he left us on film.

This was one of the early entries in the excellent BFI Film Classics series, when it was at its best edited by Edward Buscombe. Louvish's massive and detailed biography of Fields, Man On The Flying Trapeze, would be published three years later, but this slim volume provides just enough information about the man to leave the decision whether to pursue his inner genius and inner demons further to you. Here, Louvish takes apart It's A Gift, analysing the set-pieces in terms of Field's stage acts, ending with the apotheosis, the back porch scene, which culminates in the brilliant exchanges with T. Roy Barnes' insurance salesman. This is Fields at his best, and Louvish not only draws out the background, but also allows the scene to play.

Dealing with the period leading up to It's A Gift, Louvish notes Fields' short, The Fatal Glass Of Beer, was his only box-office failure in the early 30s, calling it 'the most surreal movie ever made by a major studio'. But he's also just mentioned, in passing, International House, a surreal variety film in which Fields' presence alongside Bela Lugosi and Peggy Hopkins Joyce is almost literally surreal, but also in which he gets virtually all the good lines (apart from those reserved for George Burns & Gracie Allen, which come out of their routines). There are also very loaded double-entendres, usually at the expense of Joyce, who started in vaudeville too before moving on to a career as an international playgirl. I love International House, and Louvish makes the point that Fields didn't go off into 'never-never land' again until Never Give A Sucker An Even Break.But for me it also reinforces the most telling bit of Louvish's essay, in which he compares Fields to Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.

Louvish mentions Beckett's self-acknowledged debt to vaudeville, but what is worth noting is both the quality of the delivery—compare Bert Lahr in Waiting For Godot to Fields, the forced nature of even the most off-hand comment, the timid drifting off of sharp irony, and you'll see how true that is. No Theatre Of The Absurd without Fields is an exaggeration, but it does lead one to consider the basic psychological malfunction which Fields' characters find, primarily when faced with 'modern' American life.

Which was true of Fields himself. His companion of many years Carlotta Monti, once claimed Fields relative lack of stardom was down to, as director Eddie Sutherland told her, his not being liked by women. There is a misogyny to his character which influenced American sitcoms starting with Life Of Riley and The Honeymooners. Yet he was a brilliant Mr. Micawber, a role Dickens might have created for him.

He was an alcoholic, and Louvish's brief account of his facing the DTs in the period just after It's A Gift was made is particularly touching. His grandson Ronald produced a warts-and-all biography which made much of Fields' worries, about his eczema, his unattractiveness to women, and he may have had a huge fear of VD, which may have originated in his seeing a presentation about the dangers of promiscuity in the 1920s. At any rate, when asked by an interviewer if he'd ever been put at great risk he did answer, 'Yes, sitting on a toilet seat after Greg LaCava just got off.' Fields' was estranged from his wife and son, and had probably suffered a rough upbringing from his own father. In such things often lie the roots of humour, and of the neuroses which power the Theatre of the Absurd. And they certainly powered Bill Fields.

It's A Gift by Simon Louvish
BFI Film Classics (1994), no price listed, ISBN 0851704727

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