Review: The Lost Weekend (1945)

>> Monday, January 29, 2007

USA/B&W-101 m./Dir: Billy Wilder/Wr: Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder/Cast: Ray Milland (Don Birnam), Jane Wyman (Helen St. James), Howard Da Silva (Nat), Phillip Terry (Wick Birnam), Doris Dowling (Gloria)

The Lost Weekend was a gamble. There had never before been a realistic depiction of alcoholism on film. Sure, there had been a few temperance melodramas in the Twenties and Thirties, but none of them had been what anyone would call true-to-life. Otherwise, the movies had relegated booze and boozers to the role of comic relief. The consensus of opinion in Hollywood was that The Lost Weekend was a losing bet. No one thought audiences would want to see a character debase himself due to alcohol addiction, and it was whispered that director Wilder and star Milland were committing career suicide in the attempting such a project. As it turned out, the film garnered four Academy Awards--two for Wilder (Best Director and Screenplay, shared with co-writer Charles Brackett), one for Milland (Best Actor), and one for “Best Picture.”

The film documents a four-day weekend in the life of an alcoholic (Milland), as the initially charming inebriate lies, steals, hallucinates, and eventually considers suicide due to his reliance on the bottle. On the whole, it’s dark stuff, but the typically sharp Brackett/Wilder screenplay keeps the proceedings from getting too maudlin (watch for the physical business they give Milland each time he lights a cigarette). The only misstep is the ending, which seems a bit too hopeful in relation to what has come before.

As for Milland, he gives the best performance of his career. Whether the scene requires him to be charming, manipulative, pathetic, or delirious, he hits just the right notes. His portrayal of a souse on the slide is an object lesson in the pitfalls of too much of a good thing.

Drinks Consumed--Rye, gin, and vermouth

Intoxicating Effects--Sneaking sips, slurred speech, stumbling, bar tossed, hangover, the shakes, and delirium tremens

Potent Quotables--BIRNAM: You don’t approve of drinking?
NAT: Not the way you drink.
BIRNAM: It shrinks my liver, doesn’t it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys, yes. But what does it do to my mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly, I’m above the ordinary. I’m confident, supremely confident. I’m walking a tightrope over Niagra Falls. I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michelangelo molding the beard of Moses. I’m van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I’m Horowitz playing the “Emperor Concerto.” I’m John Barrymore before the movies got him by the throat. I’m Jesse James and his two brothers. All three of them! I’m W. Shakespeare. And out there, it’s not 3rd Avenue any longer. It’s the Nile, Nat, the Nile, and down it floats the barge of Cleopatra.

Video Availability--The Lost Weekend DVD (Universal)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Ray Milland hit the bottle again in the 1951 melodrama Night Into Morning.


Review: Bad Santa (2003)

>> Saturday, January 27, 2007

USA/C-91 m./Dir: Terry Zwigoff/Wr: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa/Cast: Billy Bob Thornton(Willie T. Soke), Tony Cox (Marcus), Brett Kelly (Thurman Merman), Lauren Graham (Sue), Bernie Mac (Gin), John Ritter (Bob Chipeska)

For those of us of the “bah, humbug” crowd that find sugarcoated holiday fare intolerable, Bad Santa provides the perfect 100 proof antidote. This laugh-out-loud dark comedy is simply the funniest film to be produced so far this decade; and it can proudly stand head-to-head with the best work of W.C. Fields.

Billy Bob Thornton stars as Willie T. Soke, a small-time safecracker who, with his dwarf partner, Marcus (Tony Cox), takes a job each year as a department store Santa Claus and elf combo, in order to case the business they plan to rob. Although the scheme has resulted in several big scores, Willie has become unreliable over the years due to his drinking. The pair has a hard time staying inconspicuous, because the sham Santa isn’t a good-natured drunk like Dudley Moore’s Arthur. He’s a bad-tempered, foul-mouthed, suicidal, pissing-his-pants drunk. If the heist wasn’t complicated enough, it doesn’t help that Willie can’t shake a weird, fat kid (Brett Kelly) who still believes in Santa Claus.

Thankfully, this is not the type of film where a grumpy adult learns the true meaning of Christmas from a loveable waif. Bad Santa is vile, depraved, gross, and at times near tragic, but the film manages to get away with its dark subject matter, because it is balanced with uproarious dialogue and situations. It’s a shame that this type of film never wins awards, because Thornton, Cox, and John Ritter all deliver Oscar-caliber performances. If you hate Christmas or you just love liquored laughs, Bad Santa will have you in hysterics for days after viewing it.

Drinks Consumed--Bourbon, beer, and vodka (straight and screwdrivers)

Intoxicating Effects--Swearing, staggering, stumbling, vomiting, public urination, soused sex, passing out, the shakes, public disturbance, destruction of property, and physical violence

Potent Quotables--WILLIE: You can’t drink worth a shit. You know that?
MARCUS: I weigh 92 pounds, you dick.

Video Availability--Three versions of the film are available on Buena Vista DVD: Bad Santa, Badder Santa, and Bad Santa: Director's Cut. Badder Santa is the longest of the bunch, adding seven minutes of equally amusing footage to the theatrical cut. The Director’s Cut is actually three minutes shorter than the theatrical version, but it does contain alternative material that was not available in the previous versions. Overall, Badder Santa is the preferred version, but the Director’s Cut is an interesting curiosity for fans of the film. The Bad Santa Blu-ray disc includes both the Badder Santa and Director's Cut versions.

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Coach Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) of The Bad News Bears (1976) also mixed kids and alcohol with amusing results, so it wasn’t surprising that Billy Bob agreed to put his stamp on the role in the 2005 remake.


Review: Cat Ballou (1965)

>> Thursday, January 25, 2007

USA/C-97 m./Dir: Elliot Silverstein/Wr: Walter Newman & Frank R. Pierson/Cast: Jane Fonda (Catherine Ballou), Lee Marvin (Kid Shelleen), Michael Callan (Clay Boone), Dwayne Hickman (Jed), Tom Nardini (Jackson)

From the silent features of William S. Hart to HBO’s small-screen masterpiece, Deadwood, liquor has played an essential role in Western storytelling. Nearly every oater has showcased booze in some capacity, but the Western comedy, Cat Ballou, may take the prize as the most bleary-eyed thanks to Lee Marvin’s Oscar-winning turn as the alky gunslinger, Kid Shelleen.

Town troubadours Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye relay the story of Catherine Ballou (Jane Fonda), an inexperienced schoolteacher who turns outlaw when corrupt local authorities try to force her father off his land. Needing professional guns, Cat sends for Shelleen, not knowing that the celebrated gunman has become a sloppy drunk. With the aid of the sagebrush souse, Cat soon finds herself in the hands of the law with a noose around her neck.

Cat Ballou features plenty of whiskey-soaked mayhem, from drunken horseback riding, to unfocused gunplay (“He did it! He missed the barn!”), to the memorable image of the hung-over Shelleen slouched in his saddle atop a woozy, cross-legged horse. The ingredients of six-guns, slapstick, and song blend together to form a pleasant cocktail that, while light and unsophisticated, goes down smoothly.

Drinks Consumed--Whiskey

Intoxicating Effects--Slurred speech, bad breath, staggering, passing out, harmonizing, drunk horseback riding, bravado, public disturbance, destruction of property, physical violence, and hangover

Potent Quotables--JACKSON: Look at your eyes.
SHELLEEN: What’s wrong with my eyes?
JACKSON: They’re red… bloodshot.
SHELLEEN: You ought to see ‘em from my side.

Video Availability--Cat Ballou DVD (columbia/Tri-Star)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--The genres of Western and comedy were most memorably merged in Blazing Saddles (1974), featuring Gene Wilder as the Waco Kid, the gunfighter with the shakiest gun hand in movie history.


Booze News: Clive Owen is Philip Marlowe!

>> Tuesday, January 23, 2007

“She was a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud. I gave her a drink. She was a gal who'd take a drink, if she had to knock you down to get to the bottle.”

--Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet (1944)

This item from today’s Variety is the best movie news I’ve heard in some time:
"Owen tracks down noir with Marlowe
Universal, Strike uncover Chandler series
By Michael Fleming

Universal Pictures and Strike Entertainment have found a new vehicle for Clive Owen: Raymond Chandler's hardboiled private eye Philip Marlowe.

Strike has made a deal with Phil Clymer at U.K.-based Chorion to get rights to a Chandler mystery series that includes "The Big Sleep" and "Farewell My Lovely." Strike's Marc Abraham and Eric Newman will produce the film, with Owen exec producing. The project is in a nascent stage -- they are courting writers and filmmakers -- and they haven't decided which title to adapt.

But they sparked to having Owen narrate the dramas in Chandler's testosterone-laced prose, something Owen did well in "Sin City." The plan is to keep the noir spirit of the Chandler books, and keep the mysteries set in the 1940s in Los Angeles, with Marlowe continuing to be the hard-drinking, wisecracking gumshoe."

Marlowe is my favorite of the hardboiled, hard-drinking pulp detectives of the 1940’s. I’ve read all seven of Chandler’s novels, and I hope Owen and company go back to The Big Sleep and keep churning out sequels until they’ve covered the booze-soaked lot of them. Owen will be joining an impressive group of actors that have portrayed the swilling shamus, including Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery, James Garner, Robert Mitchum, Elliot Gould, Powers Booth, and James Caan. In my opinion, Powell was the best (Sorry, Bogart), and I could see Owen being just as good.

Raymond Chandler: Stories and Early Novels: Pulp Stories / The Big Sleep / Farewell, My Lovely / The High Window (Library of America)

Raymond Chandler: Later Novels and Other Writings: The Lady in the Lake / The Little Sister / The Long Goodbye / Playback /Double Indemnity / Selected Essays and Letters (Library of America)


Review: The Bank Dick (1940)

>> Monday, January 22, 2007

USA/B&W-74 m./Dir: Edward Cline/Wr: Mahatma Kane Jeeves (W.C. Fields)/Cast: W.C. Fields (Egbert Sousé), Grady Sutton (Og Oggilby), Franklin Pangborn (J. Pinkerton Snoopington), Una Merkel (Myrtle Sousé), Shemp Howard (Joe), Jack Norton (A. Pismo Clam)

Comedians tend to produce their strongest work in their youth, but at the age of 60, W.C. Fields wrote and starred in The Bank Dick, an acknowledged masterpiece of screen comedy and arguably his finest work. Universal gave Fields full creative control on the picture, and he took full advantage of it, filling the film with jokes on his favorite themes--disapproving family members, malevolent children, pompous authority figures, and most of all, booze.

In this classic, The Great Man portrays Egbert Sousé (accent grave over the “e”), a small town layabout, who spends his happiest hours downing cocktails at the Black Pussy Café. After accidentally disrupting the getaway of a couple of bank robbers, Sousé is rewarded with a job as a security guard and is soon involved in embezzling bank funds. The paper-thin plot serves as a framework on which to hang a number of alcohol-fueled gags, including a memorable sequence in which Fields slips the bank examiner a Mickey with the help of the Black Pussy’s bartender, Joe (Stooge Shemp Howard).

Everything works in The Bank Dick, from the glimpses of Sousé’s horrific home life, to the chummy tête-à-tête with his bartender, to the climatic car chase (which is slapstick at its most surreal). In addition to career-topping work by the Great Man himself, the film features very funny supporting performances from Fields' regulars Grady Sutton and Franklin Pangborn, Una Merkel as Sousé’s daughter, the aforementioned Shemp Howard, and famous character drunk Jack Norton as dipsomaniac director A. Pismo Clam.

In truth, the film is drunkenly incoherent--no plot or real connection between the scenes begins to emerge until halfway through the movie--but the proceedings are so funny, you aren’t likely to notice. If you're not familiar with the work of W.C. Fields, you owe it to yourself to check out his riotous films, and there's no better place to start than The Bank Dick (although It's a Gift is an excellent alternative). This comedy classic a soused cinema "must see!"

Incidentally, Fields was able to get the name, “The Black Pussy,” past censors, because his friend, Leon Errol, owned a Santa Monica bar and grill of the same name.

Drinks Consumed--Straight Rye (referred to as “poultice” and “depth bomb”), rye highballs, and absinthe

Intoxicating Effects--Boasting, swearing (of a sort), sneaking sips, hiccups, slurred speech, staggering, passing out, and Mickey-slipping

Potent Quotables--Sousé (to his bartender): Was I in here last night, and did I spend a twenty dollar bill?
JOE: Yeah.
Sousé: Oh, boy. What a load that is off my mind. I thought I’d lost it.

Video Availability--DVD, as part of the W.C. Fields Comedy Collection, Vol. 1 (The Bank Dick / My Little Chickadee / You Can't Cheat an Honest Man / It's a Gift / International House)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Fields co-starred with Black Pussy-owner Leon Errol in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941).

W.C. Fields Comedy Collection, Vol. 2 (Never Give A Sucker An Even Break / The Man on the Flying Trapeze / Poppy / The Old Fashioned Way / You're Telling Me!)


Review: My Little Chickadee (1940)

>> Sunday, January 21, 2007

USA/B&W-83 m./Dir: Edward Cline/Wr: Mae West & W.C. Fields/Cast: Mae West (Flower Belle Lee), W.C. Fields (Cuthbert J. Twillie), Joseph Calleia (Jeff Badger), Dick Foran (Wayne Carter), George Moran (Clarence)

Since the pairing of W.C. Fields and Edgar Bergen in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939) had resulted in a box office smash, Universal tried to create another winning team by co-starring the Great Man with the risqué comedienne, Mae West. Although My Little Chickadee provided another hit for Universal, the pairing of the comedians was not as successful.

Mae West stars as Flower Belle, a scandalous woman, booted from her home town because of the residents’ belief that she was the lover of the notorious Masked Bandit (Joseph Calleia). On the train out of town, she makes the acquaintance of con man Cuthbert J. Twillie (W.C. Fields), who she mistakenly thinks is loaded (With cash, that is. He’s almost certainly loaded on spirits.) Attracted by the money, Flower Belle pretends to marry Cuthbert, but the ceremony is a fake. Fields spends most of the rest of the film trying to consummate the union; while West splits her affections between the Masked Bandit and an honest newspaper editor (Dick Foran).

What should have been a perfect pairing falls flat, because the personalities of W.C. Fields and Mae West were too strong to mesh well together onscreen. They both fared best in the scenes in which they performed separately. Also, since W.C. contributed the dialogue for his scenes, while Mae West wrote and plotted the rest of this Western comedy, many of the Great Man’s passages feel as if they were intended for another (possibly better) film. Still, the movie is essential viewing to see Fields as Cuthbert J. Twillie, tending bar, cheating openly at cards, and drinking Mae West’s perfume for its alcohol content.

An interesting sidelight--Mae West was a teetotaler and had a clause written into her contract that allowed her to shut down the set if she ever caught Fields drunk. Stories vary as to whether she ever acted upon it, but everyone agrees that the Great Man continued to drink unabated throughout the shoot.

Drinks Consumed--Whiskey and perfume

Intoxicating Effects--Sneaking sips, hangover, boasting, slurred speech, hiccups, and physical violence

Potent Quotables--Twillie (nursing a hangover): I feel as though a midget with muddy feet had been walking over my tongue all night.

Video Availability--DVD, as part of the W.C. Fields Comedy Collection Vol. 1 (Universal)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Paramount Studios had previously tried to create a male/female comedy team with Fields and Alison Skipworth in If I Had a Million (1932), Tillie and Gus (1933), and Six of a Kind (1934).

W.C. Fields Comedy Collection, Vol. 2 (The Man on the Flying Trapeze / Never Give A Sucker An Even Break / You're Telling Me! / The Old Fashioned Way / Poppy)


Review: You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939)

>> Saturday, January 20, 2007

USA/B&W-76 m./Dir: George Marshall/Wr: George Marion, Jr., Richard Mack, & Everett Freeman/Cast: W.C. Fields (Larson E. Whipsnade), Edgar Bergen (The Great Edgar), Charlie McCarthy (Himself), Mortimer Snerd (Himself)

Due to illness exacerbated by a fondness for fermented fluids, W.C. Fields was hospitalized in the summer of 1936 and was forced to take a two-year hiatus from film work. As he recouped, he was able to appear in the less-strenuous medium of radio, where he became a semi-regular on The Chase and Sandborn Hour, starring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and wooden sidekick Charlie McCarthy. Ironically, it was during Fields’ lowest period of health that he achieved the height of his popularity. A large portion of the public discovered W.C. for the first time when his voice was broadcast directly into their homes, and his verbal sparing with Charlie McCarthy became something of a phenomenon. When Fields’ health improved, it was only natural for his new movie studio, Universal, to exploit the Great Man’s radio popularity by teaming him with the dummy.

In You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, Fields plays the most unscrupulous of all of his huckster characters, Larson E. Whipsnade (“It’s not ‘Larceny.” It’s ‘Larson E.’”), the liquid lunch-ingesting proprietor of Whipsnade’s Circus Giganticus. With Bergen employed by the outfit as a magician/ventriloquist, the Great Man gets plenty of opportunity to trade insults with his wooden nemesis. Unfortunately, Fields’ onset battles with his director and severe editing resulted in a disjointed finished product. Worst of all, Bergen’s hokum and romantic subplot slow the picture to a crawl whenever the Great Man is off screen. Still, the film showcases Fields at his most purposely pestiferous, and for that alone, it’s worth a view.

Incidentally, the Great Man was offered the role of the Wizard of Oz in the MGM classic, but he reluctantly had to turn it down due to a scheduling conflict with You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man.

Drinks Consumed--Whiskey

Intoxicating Effects--Boasting and public disturbance

Potent Quotables--WHIPSNADE (to his daughter): Victoria dear, some weasel took the cork out of my lunch.

Video Availability--DVD, as part of the W.C. Fields Comedy Collection Vol. 1 (Universal)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--The Great Man teamed with Bergen again for a short bit in the best forgotten, Song of the Open Road (1944)

Official Edgar Bergen and Charlie Mccarthy Old Time Radio OTR Mp3 Collection on DVD - Offering 64 Different Shows and Appearances for a Total of 32+ Hours of Listening Enjoyment

W.C. Fields Comedy Collection, Vol. 2 (The Man on the Flying Trapeze / Never Give A Sucker An Even Break / You're Telling Me! / The Old Fashioned Way / Poppy)


Review: It's a Gift (1934)

>> Thursday, January 18, 2007

USA/B&W-73 m./Dir: Norman McLeod/Wr: Jack Cunningham (from The Comic Supplement by J.P. McEvoy)/Cast: W.C. Fields (Harold Bissonette), Kathleen Howard (Amelia Bissonette), Baby LeRoy (Ellwood Dunk), Tommy Bupp (Norman Bissonette)

Most people, if asked to conjure up an image of W.C. Fields, would picture him dressed in a top hat and checkered coat in the role of an itinerant con man. Although the Great Man’s huckster persona is ingrained in the public consciousness, over the course of his career, W.C. was just as likely to portray a hen-pecked family man beset by aggravations sufficient to send Job running for the liquor cabinet. Most of Fields’ best comedies fall into the latter category, including It’s a Gift, his only feature to crack the American Film Institute’s list of the “100 Funniest Films.”

Fields stars as Harold Bissonette (pronounced Biss-o-nay), a small town grocer who dreams of escaping his daily annoyances--a nagging wife, ill-behaved kids, a dimwitted employee, and demanding customers--to retire to a California orange grove. Before Harold can achieve his goal, he has to endure several painfully funny set pieces including a run in with the most detestable blind man ever depicted on celluloid and the film’s comic highlight, in which Harold, driven outdoors by his wife’s nagging, tries to get some sleep on a porch swing.

To call It’s a Gift a comic masterpiece is not hyperbole. It is quite simply one of the finest film comedies ever made. The Bank Dick (1940) may edge it out slightly as the Great Man’s greatest, but It’s a Gift displays W.C. at the height of his powers, performing precision-timed material cribbed from his best-loved stage sketches. If the plot is a bit thin and the scenes don’t fully mesh, it matters not, because each individual sequence is amongst the funniest ever captured on film. This is pure, undiluted, 200 proof Fields.

Drinks Consumed--Unidentified liquor in a flask (referred to as “reviver”) and gin (with a dribble of orange juice)

Intoxicating Effects--Sneaking sips, harmonizing, and bravado

Potent Quotables-- BUSINESSMAN: You’re drunk.
HAROLD: Yeah, and you’re crazy. But I’ll be sober tomorrow, and you’ll be crazy for the rest of your life.

Video Availability--DVD, as part of the W.C. Fields Comedy Collection Vol. 1 (Universal)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--W.C. previously performed a version of the porch swing scene in the excellent but rarely screened silent feature, It’s the Old Army Game (1926).

W.C. Fields Comedy Collection, Vol. 2 (The Man on the Flying Trapeze / Never Give A Sucker An Even Break / You're Telling Me! / The Old Fashioned Way / Poppy)


Review: International House (1933)

>> Wednesday, January 17, 2007

USA/B&W-70 m./Dir: Edward Sutherland/Wr: Francis Martin & Walter DeLeon/Cast: Peggy Hopkins Joyce (Herself), W.C. Fields (Professor Quail), Edmund Breese (Dr. Wong), George Burns (Dr. Burns), Gracie Allen (Nurse Allen), Franklin Pangborn (Hotel Manager)

Despite W.C. Fields’ tremendous success as an eccentric juggler on the Vaudeville circuit, as a sketch comedian in the Ziegfeld Follies, and as a Broadway thespian in Poppy, film stardom was more elusive. The bigwigs at Paramount Studios doubted the Great Man’s ability to carry a feature on his own, so they stacked the deck by forcing W.C. into multi-star vehicles that ensured boffo box office. In International House, for example, Fields was required to share screen-time with Peggy Hopkins Joyce (an untalented but notorious divorcée), Burns and Allen, Rudy Vallee, Cab Calloway (performing “Reefer Man”), and even Bela Lugosi. Still, International House is the best of Fields’ early all-star movies, because the director, Eddie Sutherland, allowed Fields free reign to improvise and embellish his scenes.

As Professor Henry R. Quail, Fields drunkenly pilots his Auto-Gyro (half airplane/half helicopter) thousands of miles off-course. He’s headed for Kansas City, but he lands in Wuhu, China, just as his supply of beer runs out. Luckily, there’s plenty of booze to be had at Wuhu’s International House Hotel; and with a full tank of giggle juice, Fields is at his belligerent best. The film tends to sag when the Great Man is off screen, but it’s worth riding out for Fields’ 100 proof hijinks.

Incidentally, Fields often succeeded in slipping dirty lines past the censors. In International House, when Peggy Hopkins Joyce asks what she’s sitting on, Fields picks up a cat and replies, “Ah, it’s a pussy.”

Drinks Consumed-- Beer, champagne, whiskey, and a variety of other hard liquors (based on the scattered empties)

Intoxicating Effects-- Drunk flying, destruction of property, public disturbance, hiccups

Potent Quotables--QUAIL (to a valet): Hey, “garcon.” Bring me a drink.
VALET: Water, sir?
QUAIL: A little on the side… very little.

Video Availability--DVD, as part of the W.C. Fields Comedy Collection Vol. 1 (Universal)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Other multi-star movies featuring Fields include If I Had a Million (1932), Six Of A Kind (1934), and the wonderfully loony Million Dollar Legs (1932).

W.C. Fields Comedy Collection, Vol. 2 (The Man on the Flying Trapeze / Never Give A Sucker An Even Break / You're Telling Me! / The Old Fashioned Way / Poppy)


A Toast to W.C. Fields, the Great Man of Soused Cinema

>> Tuesday, January 16, 2007

“I was in love with a beautiful blonde once, dear. She drove me to drink. It’s the one thing I’m indebted to her for.”

-- W.C. Fields, Never Give A Sucker An Even Break (1941)

In the hundred-plus year history of motion pictures, no performer has been more associated with strong drink than W.C. Fields. His preeminent position as Hollywood’s supreme souse is well earned. During the 1930’s and 40’s, the celebrated comedian produced a string of hilarious feature films and short subjects overflowing with booze-spiked humor. Onscreen, his characters would go to any length to enjoy liquor’s warm embrace, whether it required sneaking sips behind the back of a nagging wife, chasing an off-duty bartender down a city street, producing homemade hooch, or jumping out of an airplane to retrieve a falling bottle. Off screen, Fields was just as fond of stimulating beverages; and indulgent directors allowed W.C. to arrive late to the set, drink on the job, and leave early when his glow became too rosy, because they knew that their star was always at his most creative with a healthy snoot-full. He was known as “The Great Man” for good reason.

Of course, William Claude Dukenfield (as reads the Great Man’s birth certificate) was much more than a walking billboard for the liquor industry. He was a phenomenally talented comic actor, juggler, writer, and improviser--in short, the funniest man, drunk or sober, to ever step in front of a movie camera. His comedy was unique amongst the classic film comedians in that it drew laughs from wonderfully ill-tempered, misanthropic behavior. Not only were Fields’ characters drunkards, they were also dishonest, profane, child-hating, prone to boasting, lecherous, and even upon occasion, physically violent. To sum it up, W.C. Fields was politically incorrect long before the term existed.

Still, despite the mean-spirited edge to the Great Man’s humor, audiences loved and rooted for the rotund comedian, because he was a more identifiable reflection of the common man than the enduring heroes at the center of most Hollywood productions. Whether portraying an unscrupulous con artist or a henpecked family man, Fields was always the underdog, and his wrath was only unleashed after patiently enduring abuse or public embarrassment from shrill relatives, bill-collectors, dullards, policemen, small children, and dogs. Consequently, his anger was understandable, as was his heavy drinking. Within both lay an element of wish-fulfillment for the movie-going public.

Unfortunately, the Great Man and his work are largely unknown to today’s audiences. This is primarily due to the inaccessibility of his films. Fields’ movies are rarely broadcast on television, and many of his best titles have never been released on video. Worse yet, those of the under-forty set that have heard of W.C. Fields usually have an inaccurate view of the comedian. The Great Man’s 100-proof reputation has been watered down over the years due to second-rate impersonations by lesser comics, which rarely capture the distinctive nasal twang of Fields’ voice and never capture the essence of his comedy. Furthermore, the Great Man is the most misquoted figure of the Twentieth Century. Over the years, the hysterically funny things W.C. actually said in life and on film have been largely drowned out by thousands of humorless quotations created by others and credited to the Great Man.

It is ironic that Fields’ work has faded from public consciousness faster than that of his contemporaries--such as the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, or Abbott and Costello--because his humor has held up better and has had a greater impact on modern comedy than that of any of his peers. Such misanthropic characters as John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty (Fawlty Towers), Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder (Black Adder), Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie Soke (Bad Santa), and Larry David’s Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm) would be unthinkable had Fields not previously fought the censors and pushed the boundaries of politically incorrect humor.

W.C. Fields’ work is as fresh and funny today as it was upon its original release, and it is ripe for rediscovery. If you’ve never witnessed the Great Man in action, you are doing yourself a disservice. However, this condition, like sobriety, can easily be corrected. I highly recommend that you pour yourself a tall glass of your favorite intoxicant and treat yourself to a Fieldsian film festival.

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About Me

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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

All text including the title "Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide" Copyright William T. Garver

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