Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are with little argument probably the two most influential and “important” personalities from an era that was overflowing with some of the most enduring screen comics in history; and the reason being because of their contributions in the entire filmmaking process and not just memorable performances and iconic characters. They’re not just two of the most talented physical performers of their time, they’re also two of cinema’s first auteurs putting them in an incredibly elite group of individuals that wrote, directed, edited (to some extent), recorded music (to some extent), and performed the lead role in a number of pictures – and each’s most significant films are films where these accomplishments applied.
However, for as much as these two did to help progress film and screen comedy they both, without question, lost a bit of appeal once sound was introduced to motion pictures. Chaplin was much less affected by the advancement releasing a few great films in the sound era with sound (Modern Times was his final silent picture, but was made many years into the almost universally adapted using of sound), but both along with Harold Lloyd left their best for first back in the days of silence. With the introduction of sound came the need for a new kind of comic performer – one with a voice to communicate humor over sight gags.
In the transition from silent to sound a very small number of popular screen comedians were able to not only retain their popularity, but also broaden their fan base due to their new-found ability to speak – thus expanding their repertoire to include wisecracks, witty one-liners, clever observations, and more wisecracks. One of the actors who benefited largely from the technological advancement was W.C. Fields, who as a seasoned stage and vaudeville performer was finally able to unsheathe some of his sharpest cutlery.
At the time when all of the famous screen comics were breaking in to Hollywood, around the mid 1910′s, all of them were really rather young – somewhere in their early to mid-twenties. Fields hit the screen around the same time appearing in a couple of short films in 1915, but was already 35 years old by that point. After those first two short films he wouldn’t appear in a picture again for almost another 10 years, now into his mid-forties.
By that point in his life Fields had already established his habits as a heavy drinker, which continued near to the end of his career. All throughout the later 1920s and 1930s he had built his on screen persona to be that of an endearingly egotistical, yet lovable lush. He was pretty much mean to everyone, especially children, and had a much higher opinion of himself than any of the other characters towards him. Yet, somehow, with quick wit and clever lines that seemed mistakenly funny within character he was able to achieve deep audience sympathy. It’s as if because his characters were always oblivious to what made them likable that they were able to be liked when they were doing the things purposefully to try and be liked and failing at it.
It always helps a little when you sound like you’ve been drinking since the birth of Christ and have just never stopped celebrating (even though he was an atheist), as is the case with his Egbert Souse (grave accent over the e, and actually translates to getting intoxicated) character from The Bank Dick – his second-to-last picture and only six years before his eventual death on December 25th, 1946 which was a very uninteresting day to die on.
In The Bank Dick Fields plays his famed professional alcoholic (much like Chaplin’s famed professional hobo) who somehow gets hooked up to direct a film despite not really having any kind of skill or know-how other than knowing how to make it sound as if he knows everything. Yet, despite not knowing anything about directing he gets mistaken for someone that stopped a bank robbery – because film directors played by W.C. Fields will do that – which lands him a job as the bank’s new security guard. As the security guard he convinces his soon-to-be son-in-law to take a deposit from the bank and invest in some phony stocks that he is convinced will take off – because security guards played by W.C. Fields know that kind of stuff – at which point the bank examiner shows up and Fields has only a few days to make up the lost cash resulting in a very extended chase sequence for the end of the picture – because films with W.C. Fields end in chase sequences.
No, you’re not drunk. All of those things happen as unexpectedly as they sound, making for a pretty stimulating viewing experience. You never really know what’s going to transpire next, because Fields just kind of inserts himself into anything as he feels like he deserves to be there and can know nothing about everything and make people think the opposite just as easily – and it really does look effortless.
Fields only made one other picture before he died, which was also another well thought-of comedy from the same filmmaker (Edward F. Cline) as The Bank Dick. Fields had just nearly turned 60 and was beginning to suffer gravely from years of alcoholism. It was also around this same time that many of his contemporaries began to fade as well, though many continued working just not as famously as in their hey-day of the 1920s through the 1940s, which is oft-considered as the greatest time of American screen comedy still to this day. That was the time when Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers and a handful of others were giving us the best years of their career, which contained many of the best comedies in our country’s history.
Unlike the majority of those contemporaries, Fields ended his career still at the peak. With The Bank Dick he appeared in what can be considered his finest picture in a career full of fine pictures. His body gave out before his performance heart did, resulting in a strange case of a performer being forced out by health before he could get burned out on interest.
Strangely, I wonder how many entertainers would actually consider that luck.
Sober up and enjoy more Criterion Files