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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytgPGr6JhLo). 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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_xwqxz1Wio. 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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y189-69cQPs&feature=related. 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