Saturday, November 3, 2007

“A bird in the hand is a hard pill to swallow…”

I’d be willing to wager that many people who became silent movie fans in the 1970s did so by being exposed to those classics via the Paul Killiam Collection—a compilation of films which frequently surfaced on public television during that time. At least, that’s where I started my formal silents education, being exposed to Douglas Fairbanks’ The Mark of Zorro (1920), John Barrymore’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1920), Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925), Buster Keaton’s The General (1927), etc. One film I remember in particular was Sally of the Sawdust (1925), directed by D.W. Griffith and featuring…W.C. Fields?

Yes, at that time I was completely unaware of The Great Man’s brief foray into silent cinema, which began in 1915 with a comedy short called His Lordship’s Dilemma. He completed one more short in Pool Sharks (available from many sources, but Criterion’s W.C. Fields: Six Short Films is the one to get) before leaving the silver screen to concentrate exclusively on stage performances (particularly in the Ziegfeld Follies). He would return to feature films in 1924 with Janice Meredith and the Griffith-directed That Royle Girl (1925, a highly sought-after “lost” film).

It’s hard to conceive of Fields as a silent performer, but when he first appeared on stage with his famous “Golf Specialist” routine he spoke nary a word until on one occasion when he ad-libbed a line in response to one of the other performers and from that point on, added more and more dialogue to the sketch. However, when you consider how skilled he was at both pantomime and physical comedy, silent movies seem tailor-made for him; of the ones I had seen, namely Sharks, Sawdust and Running Wild (1927, released on VHS by Paramount in the 1980s), he held his own…though the sound medium still suited him best. During my hiatus (which is one of my favorite euphemisms for “when I didn’t do diddly-squat on the blog”), I got the opportunity to see It’s the Old Army Game, a 1926 comedy feature that serves primarily as a blueprint for his later sound masterpiece, It’s a Gift (1934). In the film, Fields plays Elmer Prettywillie, a small-town druggist beset upon by the usual annoyances he experienced in his films (his old crony Elise Cavanna—the patient with which he has much difficulty pulling a tooth in 1932’s The Dentist—plays a busybody who wakes Fields up in the middle of the night wanting a two-cent stamp to mail a letter), and later hooks up with a salesman (Broadway star William Gaxton) to make a tidy sum selling New York real estate. When Gaxton is accused of fraud, Fields takes it upon himself to clear Gaxton’s name, and everything comes out in the wash.

Fields is great in Game: he gets the opportunity to do much of the physical comedy for which he’s known and already many of his familiar mannerisms (such as the raising of the arms to ward off the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, as it were) are in place. The highlight of the film spotlights his attempts to catch up on some much needed sleep by catching a few Z’s on his back porch which, again, It’s a Gift devotees will recognize as a dress rehearsal for that later film (though in Game, no one inquires about Carl LaFong). The really big plus in Game is an appearance by the always radiant Louise Brooks as Fields’ shop-girl—particularly the captivating way she’s unable to keep a straight face when the Great Man lets loose with his shtick. (Game’s director, A. Edward Sutherland, was married to Brooksie at the time—so obviously there was a smidge of nepotism involved in her getting the part.)

I have but two minor quibbles regarding It’s the Old Army Game. One, Fields’ insistence on wearing the same goddamned clip-on moustache that he did in every silent film—no one could ever talk him out of it. The other is a sequence that sort of brings the film to a screeching halt (for me, anyway) when Fields’ Prettywillie takes his family on a picnic and obnoxiously insists on having the meal on the private grounds of a wealthy individual’s estate, trashing the place in the process. Fields’ movie characters could never be considered role models—but in this particular instance, Prettywillie’s cruelty comes off as truly unpleasant and the whole scene smacks of something out of The Three Stooges. (I guess what I’m saying is, I expect more from Fields.)

That having been said, I really enjoyed watching this feature, and I figure that if I can manage to see Fields’ So’s Your Old Man (1926—a precursor to his 1934 sound film, You’re Telling Me!) my time on Earth will be well-spent. It’s the Old Army Game isn’t the easiest film to see or get a hold of; I obtained a DVD copy via a tip from the Master Ticket Taker at In the Balcony, Laughing Gravy, who informed me that he obtained the film from Sunrise Silents. (The website no longer has a listing for Game, but if you drop Rich an e-mail—like I did—he’ll no doubt see his way in arranging for you to buy a copy.)

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