W. C. Fields, repeats, and VoodooPad

November 8, 2008 § Leave a comment

I’m in trying-out software mode these days. Voodoopad uses the simple power of wikis to link thoughts and bits of information and allows for a web-like growth of your reflections.

My first use is the W.C. Fields repeat project, which you can read about here. Note that this is a work in progress and will be updated as I have time to work on it…

Indeed you may find other web notes and thoughts in progress wiki-like under the “My web notes” page on this site. 

That same page has also links with updated info on film conferences, film festivals, and bits of information collected reading the web, all related to silent films…

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)…)

Pordenone diary – day two

October 15, 2008 § Leave a comment

There’s a small conversation going on over at The Bioscope on how good, or how bad, Sally of the Sawdust was. Let me add one detail that’s a problem for the film: the now infamous Griffith titles.

a rich young man – a homeless waif – the eternal land of youth

is indeed bad enough, but

if the grandmother only knew that the judge was torturing their baby’s baby

is beyond caricature. And I’m afraid silent films have suffered from the perception that they engage in such schmaltzy over-the-top overt narration all the time, when they’re actually rather rarely this maudling. Here’s what the ever perceptive Robert Sherwood thought of the titles, back in August 1925:

There is [in the film] a fine collection of ham sub-titles, all bearing Mr. Griffith’s trade-mark, in several of which he comes out boldly for Mother Love.

Snap !

Those titles rather should be considered tell-tale signs that something’s going wrong with the narration: and indeed, there’s plenty of evidence here that Fields and Griffith don’t go together as Hazel and Bay Rum do in another Fields film screened later during the week. Take the lack of pay-off to important set ups, such as the court-room scene, or the Ford chase, or Dempster’s drop-dead gorgeous nightgown: it doesn’t mesh either with the rhythm of the film. It points to a later Griffith (the still to come Battle of the Sexes), and to an older (Isn’t Life Wonderful? or Broken Blossoms) Griffith. The incoherence was clear to Sherwood:

“Sally of the Sawdust” is inexcusable. It is absolutely incoherent as to story; its attempts at pathos are illegitimate; its characters-with one exception-are artificial. it is the work of a man who has become so completely soaked with theatrical trumpery that he wouldn’t recognize reality if it stepped up and slapped his face.

The one exception in “Sally of the Sawdust” is provided by W.C. Fields, who manages to inject some of his own matchless comedy, and some of his own human warmth, into this otherwise bloodless story.

I think this contemporary opinion sums up nicely the drift of the conversation going on over at the Bioscope. I’d add only this: Dempster, whose body language oscillates between “a very unconvincing counterfeit of Lillian Gish” (zinger! Sherwood!) and a sexed-out pre-Garbo (just as unconvincing, although more surprising), is the incarnation of this hesitation in the film. (This being said, Carl Sandburg had a much more favorable opinion of the film)

So what has the Bioscope not seen on day 2 of the Giornate film-fest? Well, charitably enough, it has left out a forgettable Renoir, Tire au flanc (1928), built in episodic fashion around the farcical–but not very funny, IMHO– figure of the ill-fitting poet serving in the military. Take that premise, think about 30 seconds about jokes built from that, and…they’re all in there. Contrast Fields’ Golf Specialist who piles up reason after reason for not hitting one simple golf ball (from the banal paper sticking to one’s fingers, to the absolutely irrelevant woman looking for her horse), to the girl every soldier wants to paw. Hmm…

Not that the film doesn’t have its moments of brilliance: the opening scene, with a Michel Simon possessed by an irrepressible urge to kiss his girlfriend as they’re setting up the table, the naughty camera movements, or, later, the march with gaz masks that becomes a huge collin-maillard party are good…but they’re only moments. The lack of a narrative arch is clearly a problem. While the first scene works because its main stated goal (the woman of the house wants to impress the invited Colonel) is smashed to bits, another scene such as the barrack scene has no clear narrative goal, and asks for our nostalgia for barrack life to function (along the line of “do you remember how droll army life was?”). And, let me tell you, that’s a non-starter: take it from one who’s been-there-done-that.

Next day: a lot of folks come to visit: Satan, Pickford, and American tourists — in that order.

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