Thursday, July 12, 2012

W. C. Fields

I wish someone would explain to me why, at this late date, comedy is still considered a lesser art?  When asked to name a great work of art, most people would name a tragic play or serious novel, or point at the work of Renaissance masters – but it is rare indeed for one to name a great comedy. 

This astonishes your correspondent.  Comedy is infinitely more difficult than tragedy; one remembers the dying words of the great tragedian Edmund Kean who said on his deathbed, “dying is easy; comedy is hard.”  Why great comic inventions are not received with the same veneration as our great tragedies says something about our inherent misconception that “high minded” also means “serious.”

One of the most fascinating comic artists of the early sound era was William Claude Dukenfield (1880-1946), better known as W. C. Fields.  Fields was born in Darby, Pennsylvania, and was bitten by the stage bug early in life.  He started his career in vaudeville, as a comedic juggler.  His prowess at juggling is in evidence in several of his films, most notably 1934’s The Old Fashioned Way.  (You can see it here:  Though we think of Fields as heavy and ungainly, his training as a juggler left him with a remarkable physical grace -- a trait shared by many great comics.  Fields made several films during the silent era, but for all of his grace, sound was an essential part of what became the Fields persona.  

Or perhaps we should say personas, plural.  In the 1930, his most important film decade, Fields really only played two characters: a henpecked husband or a shifty conman.  The henpecked husband was a masterful creation: this Everyman was the perpetual victim of shrewish wives, vile children, pesky salesmen, and the very world around him.  Fields was besieged by stepped-in fly papers, sticky gloves, vanishing hats, stepped-upon rakes and falling objects.  The embattled Fields shares our common humanity and frustrations, helping us laugh at the constant assaults on our dignity and our persons. 

Fields the conman is, perhaps, a wish-fulfillment ideal of ourselves.  Fields the sharpster, unlike his henpecked persona, is the eternal talker and trickster, a man on the make.  (In My Little Chickadee Fields, holding a deck of cards, is asked: “is this a game of chance?”  He replies, “Not the way I play it.”)  Fields the crook is equal to nearly every occasion; his only real enemy is himself.

Though Fields the trickster has become part of our national folklore, I think Fields the Everyman is the more honest and accessible creation.  Watch Fields trying to get some sleep one morning on his front porch in It’s a Gift:  Or, better yet, a brilliant sequence from the same film where Fields, as a shopkeeper, deals with a blind and deaf man and a table of light bulbs:  It’s a tribute to Fields’ genius that we can watch a blind and deaf man flailing around a store and still think it’s funny. 

Fields only really broke out of his established routines in 1935, when he played Mr. Micawber in MGM’s David Copperfield, directed by George Cukor.  It’s impossible to watch this film and not think of other possibilities for Fields inhabiting film versions of great novels, including everything from The Pickwick Papers to the title role in The Wizard of Oz (a part, incidentally, that he was offered).

The 40s were an unhappy decade for Fields.  Many of the great comedians of the 1930s found their more freewheeling style and easy surrealism inconsistent with a world embroiled in a global war, and Fields shared his decline with the Marx Brothers, Mae West and Laurel and Hardy.  Some of his later films, however such as The Bank Dick (1940) and 1941’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (certainly one of the strangest movies ever committed to celluloid) have great sequences and considerable charm.

Fields, a chronic alcoholic, died on Christmas day in 1946.  He had been hospitalized for various ailments for 22 months before winking at his nurse and passing from this life.  He is greatly missed by legions of people who believe that any man who hates dogs and small children can’t be all bad.

Tomorrow:  Mae West

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Laurel and Hardy

It’s perhaps reasonable to say that American cinema’s Golden Age of Comedy occurred in the 1920s and 30s.  Silent clowns, such a Buster Keaton (1895-1966), Harold Lloyd (1893-1971) and Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977), changed the very language of comedy during the silent era, and such diverse talents as W.C. Fields (1880-1946), Mae West (1893-1980) and the Marx Brothers gave voice to that language.

But few comedic talents have a more devoted following than Stan Laurel (1890 – 1965) and Oliver Hardy (1892 –1957).  To this day there are organizations nationwide operating under the umbrella group The Sons of the Desert (named after one of the team’s most famous films), with ‘tents’ in most major cities.  For sheer mania, Laurel and Hardy buffs give devotees of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Who and Star Wars/Trek a run for their money.

This fanaticism is understandable.  There is a certain alchemy to Laurel and Hardy; at their best, the team could bond with viewers in a deep and emotional manner impossible to their equally famous colleagues.

I was thinking a great deal about Laurel and Hardy while reading Stan and Ollie; The Roots of Comedy; The Double Life of Laurel and Hardy -- an excellent book on the duo saddled with two unpunctuated subtitles.  Once I was finished, I could honestly say that I wish I knew them.

The author, Simon Louvish (born 1947), does a fine job of detailing the story of their lives.  He promises upfront not to gloss over the very human failings of the two, and present a warts-and-all biography.  That he does, but the warts are not very disfiguring and both Laurel and Hardy emerge as fallible human beings who remain lovable.  And while Louvish may not be the most limpid stylist, he gets the job done.

Stan was a jobbing vaudevillian born in the UK to a theatrical family.  Ollie was born in Harlem, Georgia, to a near-do-well father and working mother.  As a boy, Ollie became fascinated by the possibilities of moving pictures, starting as a projectionist.  Stan traveled to the US as part of a comedy troupe (which included Chaplin!), and made several solo comedies that did not register much with audiences.

The pairing came about almost by accident, but after the first handful of their 107 co-starring films, the bare essentials were cemented and their screen personas set.

At this point, it’s essential for you to have had a taste of Laurel and Hardy (if you haven’t!) before proceeding.  Jump to YouTube and look for any of the following: Laughing Gravy, Beau Hunks (both 1931), Helpmates, The Music Box (both 1932) or watch the boys dance in Way Out West (1937).  If it were possible to crystalize joy, it’s this graceful and lovely dance!

Now, with that behind your belt, let’s see if we can analyze this magical combination.  I have a few ideas of my own:

Laurel and Hardy are not just a team or a duo, they are a couple.  It’s amazing how often they end up sharing the same bed, consoling one-another, protecting each-other, jointly raising surrogate children or caring for pets.  It is almost silly how all close male relationship are now read for how they are ‘coded’ either hetero-or-homosexual, but I read the onscreen Stan and Ollie as homosexual in the purest, nonsexual sense.  They loved one-another.

At heart, both Stan and Ollie are children.  Yes, Ollie is often more intelligent and given to greater attempts to master the situation; he is the senior child of the two, but that does not make him less of a child.  It is this engaging innocence (even when they’re being brats!) that so many people respond to.

This eternal childhood often makes them more (or less) than human.  As such, they don’t change and seem subject to different physical, social and intellectual laws than we.  It would seem as if the two great clowns were denizens of some alternate reality rather than our own prosaic surroundings.  They are, first and last, their own unique selves.   They are impervious within the protective cocoons of their own strangeness. 

Yet, for all of the strangeness of Laurel and Hardy, the recurring note is one of sweetness.  The couple had a core of sweetness – the kind of sweetness that comes from an innocent, inner benevolence.  Even at their worst behavior (which often results in massive destruction of property), there is that core of kindliness.

As film historian Randy Skretvedt has written: The world is not their oyster; they are the pearl trapped in the oyster.  Their jobs hang by a rapidly unraveling thread.  Their possessions crumble to dust.  Their dreams die just at the point of fruition.  Their dignity is assaulted constantly.  At times they can’t live with each other, but they’ll never be able to live without each other.  Each other is all they will ever have.  That, and the hope of a better day.

Though I enjoyed Stan and Ollie a great deal, I can’t help but feel that reading about great comedians is never as satisfying as watching them.  Fortunately, Laurel and Hardy are readily available online and in a new DVD collection gathering their best films.  Many of their later films, such as Air Raid Wardens (1943) and Nothing but Trouble (1944) are despised by purists, but I find them watchable still for the inescapable benevolence of the duo.  Make yourself happy – watch Laurel and Hardy.

Tomorrow:  W. C. Fields

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Western Art of William R. Leigh Part VIII

One last picture from William R. Leigh (1866-1955) before we allow him to ride off into the great Western sunset reserved for American artists of the first rank.  Above is Leigh’s color study of the Grand Canyon, painted in 1909.  This is a smallish picture, 16 x 12, oil on canvas board.  It is a stunning landscape that perfectly captures the majesty and mystery of the American landscape.

Once again, I’m indebted to artist/author Stephen Gjerston and his magisterial Frontiers of Enchantment: The Outdoor Studies of William R. Leigh for what may be the best summation of Leigh and his work:  Leigh’s artistic legacy rests primarily on his paintings of the West and Southwest which he painted in his New York studio.  The convincing sense of reality that he achieved in the best of them is due, in large measure, to the excellence of the outdoor studies which he used as sources of information.  The majority of these studies are masterpieces of their kind.  They have an intensity and immediacy that can only be achieved by a fine artist, with a sensitive eye, in the presence of nature.  Through unerring draftsmanship and an acute eye for color values Leigh has fixed on these panels the form and atmosphere of the frontiers he loved….

A few words about Grand Canyon.  Many contemporary artists depicting the West fall back on trite-and-true tropes garnered in revisionist Westerns that sought to render the time and place as squalid, muddy and barren.  Actually, the colorful panorama that was the real West would present a challenge to the most extravagant colorist and the most gifted of artists.  The West of Leigh was much like that of fellow-artist Charlie Russell – a place of wonder and of marvels, where nature ran riot with color and the world is once again young.

This color study is the kind of thing upon which Leigh would spend his days out West, painting in the open air and finding just that magical mix of color and light.  His brush is heavily loaded with paint, and the brush strokes are particularly evident in the clouds.  The peaks in the distance merge with the blue of the sky, making the horizon (and our horizon) a thing infinite and mysterious. 

But while Leigh is sketchy, he is also exact.  Never if there a misplaced stroke, a piece of scenery that is unclear or ill-fitting to the composition.  This is nature transformed into art by the hand of a master.

It was somehow fitting to end the celebration of our nation’s birthday with Leigh.  His America is indeed a vanished America, and place that now only resides in the dreams of a lucky few.  When thinking of the settling of this great land, and of the days of brave pioneers and stalwart settlers, heroic Indians and nature-in-the-raw, spare a thought for the great American artists who helped focus this picture in our mind’s eye, turning natural beauty into national legend.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Western Art of William R. Leigh Part VII

In his masterful study on William R. Leigh (1866 –1955) Frontiers of Enchantment: The Outdoor Studies of William R. Leigh, artist/author Stephen Gjerston quotes the artist as saying, “The world is so wonderful, so marvelous … If people would only open their eyes to it.  If only they would see the color and enchantment waiting to be discovered right before them.”  Words that could be the motto of everyone here at The Jade Sphinx.

After returning to the US following a series of prolonged painting trips to Africa (on behalf of the American Museum of Natural History), Leigh resumed painting his vision of the American West with a vengeance.  To do this, Leigh used the hundreds of studies he painted during his many trips there, later making large pictures in his New York studio.  His painting method was consistent with his European training:

You start with a detailed charcoal drawing and then paint over that – the most distant things first.  If there are no clouds, the sky may take no more than a day.  The distant figures may be done in a week.  It gets more difficult as you approach the foreground – a large canvas make take four or six months altogether – but the most economical way is to finish as you go. 

Today’s picture, Buffalo Drive from 1947, is indeed a large canvas: 6.5 feet x 10.5 feet.  It currently resides in the Whitney Gallery of Western Art, Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, WY.  This is an incredibly energetic and dramatic picture, replete with many of Leigh’s signature touches.

First, let’s look at central figure of the Indian carrying the spear.  Once again, Leigh does many things to isolate and draw attention to the figure: the Indian is “framed” by the white of his white horse, the patch of white dust at his feet and brown shadow over his shoulder, and the whiteness of his spear.  He further underscores the figure with the ornate saddle blanket that creates a pedestal for the muscular torso and detailed posing. (The same saddle blanket used in The Leader's Downfall – how I would have loved to have pawed through Leigh’s collection of props!) 

Leigh used these techniques to draw the viewer to his main figure, but that does not mean he stinted the other figures.  The buffalo heading right into our line of vision (tongue distended in fright and fatigue) is a little too realistic for our complete comfort, and the Indians to the left of the picture are sculpted by Leigh’s brush with all the subtlety of figures by a Renaissance master.  In fact, something about the figures – particularly the left-most four – smack of his European training and influence.  The poses are very similar to those of soldiers in Renaissance-era paintings and drawings.

The scene depicted is guaranteed to strike contemporary viewers as gratuitously violent (or perhaps even comedic), but it was not uncommon for American Indians to stampede buffalo off of  cliff sides as an easy method of killing them for food, clothing and the hundreds of other necessities they made from the carcass.   (This would include thread, hats, needles, tools and even primitive painting materials!)  The small calf (to the right of our fatigued buffalo) strikes a particular note of pathos – the struggle for survival can be extraordinarily unsentimental.

If we could overlook the exceptional draftsmanship of the piece (no small task), we would then be seduced by Leigh’s fabulous sense of color.  The buffalo are little more than carefully manipulated splotches of color (particularly those in the background), but Leigh manages to use color to carefully delineate each and every animal.  And the blue of his sky and the bright earth tones both on top and at the bottom of the cliff further frame the main action.

Despite the brutality of this picture, I find it still inescapably romantic.  Leigh shows the struggle for survival, but his heightened coloration gives the scene a sense of showbiz razzmatazz.

Many figures of the West – Buffalo Bill Cody comes to mind – were fully aware of the pageant that they lived through.  To those ranks we can add William Robinson Leigh.

More William Leigh tomorrow!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Western Art of William R. Leigh Part VI

For all of you heading into the woods this July 4th weekend, here is a very dramatic picture by William R. Leigh, A Close Call.  Painted in 1914, this picture is oil on canvas, measuring 40.5 x 60.5 and currently housed in the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

One would be hard-pressed to find a more exciting painting than A Close Call.  Here, a hunter unconscious after a bear attack, is protected by his dogs while a fellow hunter in the distance approaches.

Let’s start with Leigh’s masterful use of light.  Notice that the hunter, bear and several of the dogs are in a brilliant shaft of light.  The lesser shaft of light is in the background, drawing attention to the hunter racing to the rescue.

This painting is interesting when compared to others in Leigh’s oeuvre.  It was not uncommon for Leigh to render a central figure with absolute realism, and then paint the ancillary figures and surroundings in a more Impressionistic manner.  With A Close Call, however, all of the central figures are clearly depicted; even the forest setting benefits from a more articulated rendering than is customary with Leigh.  (Look, for instance, at the barren branches just behind the bear on the right of the canvas.  This is the kind of detail that Leigh often suggested rather than drew.)

Let’s take a moment to savor the drama of this picture.  The bear and the fallen hunter form a perfect triangle; but Leigh actually improves on the inner structure by adding a circle (of dogs) around the triangle.  Even more impressive, the hunter on his way to rescue his friend could easily be lost in the dynamic, but Leigh helpfully points to him with the white-tipped tree trunk directly below him.

We should also spare a thought for Leigh’s supreme draftsmanship here.  The hunter is neatly done in extreme foreshortening; the bear convincingly furry and menacing.  However, the real achievements here are the dogs.  Leigh manages to create variations on a pose for all of them, creating a sense of individuality in each, and drawing them in convincing states of movement. 

Leigh also scores points with his coloration (one of his most significant artistic assets).  A picture like this could easily be too “brown” or dark; Leigh not only livens it up with the shaft(s) of light, but also employs his signature bright colors.  The dogs here are nearly as colorful as paint horses, and the variations in the bear’s coat keep the monster from being a mere brown blot with fangs and claws.

This is not my favorite work by Leigh – while I certainly appreciate its technical excellence, something about it (the number of dogs? the approaching rescue?) pitches the tenor perilously over-the-top.  It is, however, an interesting image to have in mind while camping this weekend.

More William Leigh Thursday and Friday!

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Western Art of William R. Leigh Part V

I could not help it … I’ve found so many of the pictures of William R. Leigh so beautiful, I had to continue.  And I also thought that there would be no better way to celebrate July 4th than by looking at some of Leigh’s gorgeous examples of pure Americana.

Many of the pictures of William Robinson Leigh (1866 –1955) depict landscapes of the American West and various scenes from the lives of her native peoples.  However, it was relatively rare that Leigh painted the cowboys who flooded the West and transformed the land into the country we know today. 

There are few myths more potent than that of the American cowboy.  He is the US equivalent of the knights errant of old, our great national hero, and the exemplar of what all boys wanted (at one time) to be.

Today, the myth of the West has been tarnished for a variety of political reasons, not the least of which is political correctness, which would condemn the cowboy (and the entire Western genre) as sexist, racist, exclusionary, and, who knows, even guilty of halitosis.  Critics who dismiss the West (both in art and literature) seem never to have really read Western novels or looked at Western pictures – they never really have a proper understanding of the genre.  A quick look at the works of Jack Schaefer (1907-1991) or Owen Wister (1860-1938) or Zane Grey (1872-1939) would quickly give lie to the racist/sexist canard, and the aesthete can look at the beautiful pictures of Charles Russell (1864-1926) and Frederic Remington (1861-1909) and many others without a pang of guilt – the pictures are magnificent and the “political” message, if there be any, minimal.

There are other, equally pernicious, nails in the coffin of our great American Western myth.  First is the increased urbanization of the US – fewer and fewer people are living in rural areas, and many young people find it easier to relate to myths involving aliens and other planets than the pioneers who lived a rugged life on the frontier.  Another is our sedentary culture, where the idea of vigorous life (outside of the gym, at least) is met with smiling condescension, and, of course, the influx of peoples from other countries who would much rather forget those heroes who built the land and merely accept it benefits.

But, whatever the reason for the decline of the great Western myth, let’s pause to consider Bucking Bronco with Cowboy, painted by Leigh in 1913.  The picture is 30 x 22, oil on canvas, and currently up for auction at the Jackson Hole Art Auction, set for September 15th, 2012 at the Center for the Arts, 265 South Cache, Jackson Wyoming.  Along with this magnificent Leigh, works by Russell, Remington and Albert Bierstadt will be on hand.  More information can be found at:

Bucking Bronco is unusual in that it is painted in a more Impressionist manner than Leigh’s other works – the cowboy, though realistically depicted, is painted with broader strokes than is usual for the central figures of many of his pictures.  The horse is magnificently rendered, with a great sense of motion and animation.  Here Leigh’s highly trained grasp of anatomy – both human and animal – are a great boon to the overall realism of the scene.  Too often in Western paintings it’s clear that the artist has never seen a horse; Leigh clearly knows horse anatomy and the best ways of realistically manipulating it.

Leigh uses a heavily loaded brush for his impasto effects of the sky and landscape.  His thick application of paint in this picture is particularly luscious, and his vibrant coloration a mini-July 4th celebration with every look at the picture. 

As is often the case with Leigh, it is little touches that true devotees savor.  Look at the studs lining the back of the cowboy’s saddle, or the completely realized reins held by the cowboy.  Even the cowboy’s quirt is alive with a peculiar animation.

Bucking Bronco With Cowboy is one of those pictures that makes me happy just looking at it.

More William Leigh tomorrow!