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Mr. Movie: W.C. Fields

 “Ah yes,” he famously intoned, “my first wife drove me to drink. I’ll always be grateful to her.”


W.C. Fields was an American original. He’s been dead for 70 years and lots of young folks never heard of him. Well, he was laugh-out-loud funny in lots of movies in the late ’30s and early ’40s, and all of these are available on DVD.


There have been at least a half-dozen versions of Dickens’ mighty David Copperfield. My personal favorite is the 1935 version with Mr. Fields as the inimitable Wilkins Micawber (“Something will, in short, turn up!”). Also in this sterling cast are Lionel Barrymore as Dan, Hugh Williams as Steerforth, Basil Rathbone as Murdstone and Hugh Walpole as the Vicar. 


Perhaps you have at least heard of Mae West, the first of the red-hot mommas. She dripped sex appeal and constantly pushed the Hayes Office censorship envelope. In My Little Chickadee (1940), she is the quintessential sex bomb and Fields is her helpless conquest. He cannot resist her famous line: “Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?” Ms. West somehow manages to be hilariously funny while being a sultry siren.


Fields is a henpecked grocer in It’s A Gift (1934). He wants to move his family to California despite objections from his domineering wife and various annoying children, including Baby Leroy (who was famous back in the day). The beautiful orange grove in the brochure turns out to be a deserted barren stretch with a tumbledown shack, but there is a happy ending. The plot is really secondary to the funny set pieces involving Fields’ Harold Bissonette (pronounced Bisonay!). 


Fields wrote the screenplay for Never Give A Sucker An Even Break (1941) (using the pen name Otis Criblecoblis). It was his last starring film, as alcohol and age caught up with him. But it is one of his funniest. He is a writer looking for a producer for his screenplay. He is ably assisted by Franklin Pangborn, Margaret Dumont and Leon Errol. The title comes from a line in You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man (1939), when Fields revealed his Grandfather’s last words (“Before they sprung the trap on him”) were: “You can’t cheat an honest man or smarten up a chump, and never give a sucker an even break.” Fields plays shady carnival-owner Larson E. Whipsnade, constantly on the run from the law and entertaining us every minute. 


Fields is Egbert Souse (his screen names are always amusing) in The Bank Dick (1940). He accidently trips a bank robber and ends up as a security guard. He is beset by the usual nagging wife, hateful mother-in-law and dreadful children. He constantly reminds people to pronounce his name “susay” and not “souse” (drunkard). 


All of these films are available on DVD and they are all fine for all ages.