W. C. and repeats

October 30, 2008 § Leave a comment

During last Pordenone festival, it became obvious fairly quickly that W.C. Fields had a habit of using the same gags in several films. We had the following instances:

  • the golf routine of The Golf Specialist (1930) had been already filmed in So’s Your Old Man (1926) (the Lescarboura prince being the plot motivation for the gun shot that downs the bird that ends the skit in 1926, as opposed to the cops in 1930).
  • the whisky and water gag, where Fields fill a huge glass with whisky, and then adds just a drop or two of water, appeared in Janice Meredith (1924), and then again in So’s Your Old Man (1926) — where it is expanded with the realization that it is not whisky but roach exterminator that he just drank, and the further gag that when given actual home-brewn whisky, he prefers the roach exterminator.

And with Fields’ background in stage stand-up variety comedy, there is no reason why the gags he had perfected on the stage before his film career should not be used in films. 

But I wasn’t quite prepared for the shock of You’re Telling Me! (1934), a complete remake of So’s Your Old man (1926), and a plodding remake at that. It is telling that although the film is correctly identified on imdb.com as a remake of the Silent La Cava film, the trivia section still insists that the golf section is taken from the (sound) Golf Specialist. Time for film history to break from the industry’s practice of ignoring all film silents, to the point where remakes were made that do not even come close to the quality of the silent original (as in this case), and to recognize the continuity between 1927 and 1930.

A detailed study would be necessary to establish exactly how the 1934 version bombs where the 1926 version was jogging along at a clip pace. The early sound practice of motivating and explaining and justifying every plot element with some dialogue

as in when he makes it back to his town, and the women shun him like a social pariah. The sound version lets them comment audibly, and the gag becomes that much belaboured

, an unhappy delivery of lines from Fields himself who seems to suffer under the plot (where in the 1926 version he tries to guide the plot, but fails)

a good image of that would be the choice made to replace the fantastic poney he wants to offer his wife, in 1926, with an ostrich he barely can manage in 1934,

and you have the elements of a fiasco. In 1926, Bisbee had invented an unbreakable window-pane glass, the resistance of which he attempted to demonstrate by hurling bricks at cars parked in the street (under the delusion that one of those cars was his)–thereby promptly destroying several cars before high-tailing it.

Need I point out the childish delight of seeing such a childish thing to do as to hurl stones at windows ? See Bringing Up Baby with Ginger Rogers’ stone…or Sally of the Sawdust (1925) and its own stone-throwing incident

in case you missed it, this is the moment when Carole Dempster wants to throw a rock at a rich man’s house; her father, Fields himself, stops her, reproachful, and picks up a smaller stone for her to throw.

What do you think happen in 1934 ? Bisbee’s invented a flat-proof car tire

he does attempt to bring back the old childish flavor by rolling his tire home with a stick

but the demonstration consists in a more elaborate set-up: he uses a gun to shoot at the tires, just one car, and a police car to boot (which ties in too nicely with the plot).

(Fields also remade Sally of the Sawdust in Poppy (1936)…)

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