>> Monday, February 15, 2010
USA/C-111m./Dir: Arthur Hiller/Wr: Bob Merrill/Cast: Rod Steiger (W.C. Fields), Valerie Perrine (Carlotta Monti), John Marley (Studio Head Bannerman), Jack Cassidy (John Barrymore), Billy Barty (Ludwig), Allan Arbus (Gregory LaCava), Dana Elcar (Agent Dockstedter)
“You don’t think a man would resort to taradiddle, do you?”
--W.C. Fields as Egbert Souse in The Bank Dick (1940)
W.C. Fields often resorted to taradiddle when relaying the story of his life. He was always more interested in telling an engaging story and getting a good laugh than in sticking strictly to the facts. Consequently, it wasn’t surprising that when a biopic of the Great Man was produced that it would bend the truth a little. However, not content to simply bend the truth, the producers of W.C. Fields and Me, twisted the truth into knots, locked it in a trunk, shot it full of holes, ran it over, and left it bleeding on the side of the road. Based loosely on the discredited and self-serving memoir of Fields’ mistress, Carlotta Monti, W.C. Fields and Me is almost entirely a work of fiction. Worse yet, it is a drab, uninteresting work of fiction that contains none of the Great Man’s flair for humor or for spinning a good yarn.
The film skips Fields’ childhood and his years on the vaudeville circuit as an eccentric juggler and begins when the comedian (Rod Steiger) was starring in the Ziegfield Follies. From that point forward, the banana oil is spread is huge strokes. After being fired from the Ziegfield Follies for not sticking to scripted material (never happened) and losing most of his money to a crooked broker (also untrue), W.C. Fields talks his diminutive pal Ludwig (never existed) into staking him to a trip to California. The comedian and midget (Billy Barty) take over the operation of a wax museum (a complete fabrication) while Fields tries to enter the movie business by writing scripts for films that he wouldn’t make for another ten years (unadulterated hooey). Fields’ scripts get him noticed (nope) by Paramount studios and he is offered a part in a movie. Through a montage of movie title cards (shown out of chronological order and including many of Fields later pictures made at Universal) Fields’ star rises at Paramount.
Here the “me” part of the title enters the picture. Chorus girl Carlotta Monti (Valerie Perrine) meets the Great Man when working on his film Mississippi (didn’t happen), and to her surprise (Ha!) she is invited to his home. Fields invites her to live with him as a sort of platonic (Double ha!) companion. She agrees to the arrangement, unaware that the Great Man is married (Triple ha!) and that he has sabotaged her career to avoid losing her (pure twaddle--Carlotta played several bit parts in films during her time with W.C., and he even featured her in a couple of his films.)
While many details of Fields’ true life story were unknown at the time that W.C. Fields and Me was made, it is baffling why the producers were so determined to get even the most obvious facts wrong, such as shuffling the order in which the films were made or in depicting Gregory LaCava as the director of movies actually directed by Eddie Sutherland. It also makes no sense why the screenwriter would choose to invent melodramatic soap opera when the events of Fields’ real life were much more interesting. The movie completely ignores the Great Man’s rocky career in silent films, the illness that kept him off the screen between 1936 and 1938, his radio feud with Charlie McCarthy, how the timing of his return to films kept him from accepting the role of the Wizard of Oz, censorship skirmishes with Universal, the battle of egos between Fields and Mae West, etc.
The film even fails to depict the Great Man’s tempestuous relationship with the bottle correctly. In the movie, Steiger’s Fields is pro-booze all the way. However, while W.C. always saw the comic possibilities of liquor-laced humor, his true feelings on alcohol were much more conflicted. In his vaudeville days, he shunned the bottle, because he feared it would diminish his abilities as a juggler. Still, he traveled with booze in his trunk to encourage other performers to keep him company after the show. After succumbing to the lure of drink, he tried to give it up at various times in his career, chewing toothpicks obsessively during his dry bouts. He always fell off the wagon, but on his death bed the Great Man admitted to Eddie Cantor that “I’ve often wondered how far I could have gone had I laid off the booze.”
Many of the picture's inaccuracies could easily be forgiven if it correctly captured the spirit of the comedian. Unfortunately, though Rod Steiger tries to keep his portrayal of Fields from becoming a caricature, his performance suffers from the fact that he is singularly unfunny. Of course, Steiger isn’t helped by the fact that the script chooses to avoid using any the Great Man’s classic stage and film material and instead substitutes sub par hokum. It is a shame that the funniest man to ever stagger in front of a movie camera was saddled with such a mirthless biopic.
A Note--If you are interested in the real Fields, I’d highly recommend James Curtis’ definitive book W. C. Fields: A Biography. The documentary W.C. Fields Straight Up also presents a satisfying, well-rounded portrait of the Great Man. By the way, a picture of the real W.C. Fields and Carlotta Monti is presented to the right of this paragraph.
Drinks Consumed--Gin, whiskey, tequila, and unnamed cocktails
Intoxicating Effects--Sneaking sips, staggering, slurred speech, the giggles, harmonizing, bickering, and public disturbance
Potent Quotables--FIELDS: (Sneaking a swig from a bottle before filming a scene) Mm. Like blood to a vampire.
Video Availability--W.C. Fields and Me has never been released on video, but Yammering Magpie Cinema has a collectors copy available on DVD. The DVD is full frame and the video quality is variable (Yammering Magpie’s site ranks the video quality a “B”). Still, this collector’s copy may be the only way you’ll ever see this rarely screened flick.
Similarly Sauced Cinema--Donald O’Connor stars in The Buster Keaton Story (1957), another mostly fictional biopic about a comedy legend who had his problems with drink.
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)
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)