Reviews: The Pharmacist (1933)

>> Monday, September 7, 2009


USA/B&W-20m./Dir: Arthur Ripley/Wr: W.C. Fields/Cast: W.C. Fields (Mr. Dilweg), Elise Cavanna (Mrs. Dilweg), Babe Kane (Younger Daughter), Lorena Carr (Older Daughter), Grady Sutton (Cuthbert Smith)

Although considered a comedy classic today, The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933), W.C. Field’s second short for comedy kingpin Mack Sennett, was too bizarre for viewers of the time; and it was a failure with critics and audiences alike. Consequently, the Great Man stuck to safer territory for the final two shorts of his Sennett contract. Both The Pharmacist (1933) and The Barber Shop (1933) were based on popular sketches the comedian had performed on the stage. These sure-fire laugh-getters both featured Fields as a put upon family man who suffers indignities at home and in the working world--a formula the Great Man would exploit off and on for the rest of his career.

In The Pharmacist, Fields portrays Mr. Dilweg, a drug store proprietor, who gives away expensive painted vases with every purchase, despite the fact that those purchases mainly consist of individual postage stamps (and a few borrowed matches). When not meekly waiting on demanding customers and avoiding lawmen intent on catching him illegally dispensing alcohol, Dilweg tricks his bratty daughter into mixing him up martinis by attaching his cocktail shaker to her pogo stick.

The Pharmacist was based upon Fields’ stage sketch, “The Druggist,” from which he had previously borrowed material for his silent feature It’s the Old Army Game (1926). It’s interesting to compare the two films as many of the jokes are identical. In It’s the Old Army Game, Fields’ character was also a druggist whose trade mainly consisted of selling stamps and who also gave away expensive souvenirs with every purchase. Fields also repeated a Prohibition-based gag from It’s the Old Army Game in The Pharmacist. When a man walks into the shop and whispers in Dilweg’s ear that he’d like to buy some booze, the druggist uses an electric fan to blow the man’s coat open, revealing a police badge under the man’s lapel. These gags work even better in sound short than they did in the silent feature, due to the addition of the comedian’s distinctive nasal line readings.

Fields also goes further in The Pharmacist than in It’s the Old Army Game in exploring the soused aspects of his comic character. In addition to the electric fan gag, Fields mixes up his luncheon martinis by attaching the cocktail shaker to his daughter’s pogo stick, and later when an unconscious woman is carried into the store, Dilweg’s initial reaction is “Is she blotto!” Fields garnered big laughs from these liquor jokes, and the alcohol references would only increase in the comedian’s later starring features.

In the filmography of W.C. Fields, The Pharmacist is an interesting anomaly. The comedian tended to shift between two distinct personalities from film to film--in one movie he would portray an aggressive, cantankerous con man, and in another he would play a meek family man who mumbles curses at his various indignities. In The Pharmacist, Fields played both parts at once. In the scenes with his family, Mr. Dilweg is a cranky, outspoken lion, but with his customers, he is a submissive mouse. It’s a strange Jekyll and Hyde act, but the jokes are so good, Fields manages to make it work.

Wisely, the Great Man would never again revisit this split personality take on his comic persona. Although The Pharmacist is undeniably funny, Fields’ character was funnier when he was less aggressive, and therefore less deserving of the aggravations that he suffered. He toned down his character’s antagonism for his next domestic (and alcohol-free) comedy, The Barber Shop, and he continued to display a more milquetoast temperament in his later comic masterpieces, It’s a Gift (1934), The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935), and The Bank Dick (1940).

Drinks Consumed--Martinis (gin)

Intoxicating Effects--None

Potent Quotables--MR. DILWEG (to an undercover lawman in response to his request for alcohol): Certainly not! You don’t think I’d break the laws of this of this great and grand and glorious United States of ours just to satisfy your depraved tastes? A thousands no’s. I’ve never had or sold a bottle of liquor since I’ve opened this place.
LAWMAN: No? Well, you’re not foolin’ me. I’ll get you yet.
MR. DILWEG: Huh? Maybe and maybe not.

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 (Criterion).

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Fields previously purloined bits from his “Druggist” sketch for his silent feature It’s the Old Army Game (1926).

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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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