>> Sunday, May 11, 2008
USA/B&W-21m./Dir: Clyde Bruckman/Wr: W.C. Fields/Cast: W.C. Fields (Mr. Snavely), Rosemary Theby (Mrs. Snavely), George Chandler (Chester Snavely), Richard Cramer (Officer Posthlewhistle)
A Note: The Fatal Glass of Beer is an extremely funny short subject. If you haven’t seen it, I’d highly recommend watching and savoring the film before reading my synopsis below. Analysis tends to kill comedy, and my description is no exception.
Relegated to secondary roles at Paramount Pictures, W.C. Fields made a deal with comedy kingpin Mack Sennett to create and star in a series of shorts based on his popular stage sketches. The Sennett films gave the Great Man an opportunity to showcase his considerable comic skills and to present his humor in pure, undiluted form. After producing The Dentist, a risqué (yet alcohol-free) comedy classic that sent censors into apoplectic spasms, Fields chose to base his second short on “The Stolen Bonds,” a sketch that skewered stilted stage melodramas. In adapting the sketch for the screen, W.C. stretched the satire even further. The Fatal Glass of Beer not only lampooned the leaden dialogue and wooden acting of histrionic theater; it made fun of the filmmaking process that went into producing the short itself.
The film is set in the frozen north of the Yukon territories, where a prospector, Mr. Snavely (Fields), prepares to return home. Before Snavely is able to depart, he receives a visit from an officer of the Mounties (Richard Cramer), who requests that the prospector sing him a morally instructional song that Snavely has written about his son Chester (George Chandler). Mr. Snavely obliges the officer with a temperance ballad detailing how drinking a single glass of beer led to Chester’s downfall and eventual imprisonment. The prospector then bids his friend adieu and heads “over the rim” to his cabin home and the arms of his wife (Rosemary Theby). It isn’t long after the couple have been reunited that they receive a surprise in the form of their son Chester. The prodigal has returned to the nest.
The plot of The Fatal Glass of Beer (what little there is of one) hardly matters, because all of the humor lies on the surface. Field’s artificial, mannered line readings and off-key warbling of the temperance song are hilarious. Even funnier are the many jabs the film takes at studio moviemaking, including Field’s attempts to interact with bad back-projection, cheap props, and the obviously artificial snow that is thrown in his puss each time he declares, “It ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast.” Ironically, although The Fatal Glass of Beer poked fun at temperance sermonizing and wooden theater of past decades, the short turned out to be ahead of its time. The audiences and critics of the day complained about the poor production values of the short, not understanding the self-referential humor.
Luckily, the film has survived for new audiences to appreciate, and many today (this critic included) consider it the funniest short subject ever made. Although only a single mug of beer is consumed in the film, it receives “Booze Movies” highest recommendation.
Intoxicating Effects--Staggering, delirium tremens, and destruction of property
Potent Quotables--MR. SNAVELY (singing): They tempted him to drink, and they said he was a coward, ‘til at last he took the fatal glass of beer. When he found what he’d done, he dashed the glass upon the floor; and he staggered through the door with delirium tremens.
Video Availability--Fields shorts are in the public domain and have been released by multiple companies. The best presentation can be found on the Criterion Collection DVD, W.C. Fields: 6 Short Films.
Similarly Sauced Cinema--Fields ridiculed temperance dramas once again in The Old Fashioned Way (1934), in which he plays the head of a theatrical company putting on a production of The Drunkard.