Dr. Rich Edwards

Daily Dose of Doozy #7: The Clown Tradition: W.C. Fields

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1. Compared to the last two Daily Doses, how does W.C. Fields verbal slapstick compare to and/or differ from Charley Chase and the Marx Brothers?

 

Possibly my favorite of the three daily doozies, but WC Fields (on top of being hilarious which I had no idea) is the archetype for so many of the modern father figures depicted in television situational comedy -the series dads including Archie Bunker, Fred Flinstone, Al Bundy, and of course the animated Homer Simpson and Family guy, etc. I think it compares to Marx Bros level of verbal comedy and even gives us a little more to chew on...

 

2. Based on Alan Dale's definition of verbal slapstick, what are some of the characteristic verbal "gags" that you noticed in watching this clip? Feel free to share some of your favorite lines from the clip as well.

 

The funniest: "Og Ogilby" "sounds like a bubble in the bath" lol! and "boondoggling" or whatever that was or meant :)

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W.C. Fields is one of the most underrated geniuses ever existed. His films and persona are not only funny and timeless, but has influenced a huge crowd of more modern film and TV characters such as Homer from The Simpsons and Al Bundy from Married with Children.

 

Compared to Charley Chase and the Marx Brothers, Fields' humor is not so crazy and anarchic, and his films have a more sophisticated plot that actually makes sense. His troubles are more realistic and everyday; his wife, children, neighbors and people he meets with. His persona is a character you can identify yourself easily, a hapless husband who likes to drink and is socially awkward. His films and the dialogues in them are not so fast-paced and his verbal slapstick relies more on his unique, peculiar way of expressing himself, as well as the fact he talks exactly the same way no matter who he's talking to and under what conditions.

 

Malapropisms, mispronunciations, strange names (his characters are rarely named ordinarily) and pompuous talk with a unique accent appear frequently in W.C. Fields' verbal repertoire. When he's seen drinking or being drunk, his way of talking is emphasized as to resemble that of a drunk man, and is usually combined with visual gags which, as shown in this clip, were always an important part of his comedies. 

 

In this clip we watch him not hesitating to argue with his younger daughter, giving his wishes to his eldest one, trying to prove he knows about cars and, of course, having a drink. His face expressions, his way of talking and the visual gags he used made him one of the best when it comes to combine visual and verbal slapstick.

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In comparing the three daily doozys W.C.Fields seems to have a slower version of the Marx Brothers banter. Also while the Marx Brothers seem irreverent by ignoring the rules to their situation and Chase desperate trys to change the situation Fields seems unhappily (and comically) resigned.

 

I love the way Fields used the word boondoggling as if it was a sport like fishing. I admit I had to look boondoggling up to find out that it meant “work or activity that is wasteful but appears to have value.” ---”Ever do any Boondoggling?”

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1.  The one thing I noted about W.C. Fields is that he has a great many conversations with himself. The verbal banter between Chico and Groucho might have an aside by Groucho, but their conversations always built to a climax. Charlie Chase was a complainer and would direct his comments of exasperation at most anyone. Fields had a wonderful touch of sarcasm and pseudo-intellectualism in his comments, whether talking to himself or addressing his adversaries. As we saw in the clip, his family members were his primary adversaries, and there was a bite in every sentence.

 

2.  Fields was a genius at verbal slapstick, and he demonstrated it well in "The Bank Dick". He was certainly bombastic when he was interfering with the car repairs. His dialogue is a collections of one-liners and puns with a great use of slang (boondoggling) and non-sequiturs. There was the characteristic battle with young children, in this case it was his daughter, and the youngster always seems to get the better of him. There is the classic Fields delivery that makes him sound like he is always drunk, and his timing is impeccable. When you think about it, most successful verbal slapstick resulted from a partnership between two actors, but Fields accomplished excellent without a partner by talking to himself. This helped the audience "get inside his head".

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In comparing the three daily doozys W.C.Fields seems to have a slower version of the Marx Brothers banter. Also while the Marx Brothers seem irreverent by ignoring the rules to their situation and Chase desperate trys to change the situation Fields seems unhappily (and comically) resigned.

 

I love the way Fields used the word boondoggling as if it was a sport like fishing. I admit I had to look boondoggling up to find out that it meant “work or activity that is wasteful but appears to have value.” ---”Ever do any Boondoggling?”

 

Agreed, Fields pace is a bit slower and I think it adds to his charm. Despite his situation, he is confident and quite at ease with himself.

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1.  The one thing I noted about W.C. Fields is that he has a great many conversations with himself. The verbal banter between Chico and Groucho might have an aside by Groucho, but their conversations always built to a climax. Charlie Chase was a complainer and would direct his comments of exasperation at most anyone. Fields had a wonderful touch of sarcasm and pseudo-intellectualism in his comments, whether talking to himself or addressing his adversaries. As we saw in the clip, his family members were his primary adversaries, and there was a bite in every sentence.

 

2.  Fields was a genius at verbal slapstick, and he demonstrated it well in "The Bank Dick". He was certainly bombastic when he was interfering with the car repairs. His dialogue is a collections of one-liners and puns with a great use of slang (boondoggling) and non-sequiturs. There was the characteristic battle with young children, in this case it was his daughter, and the youngster always seems to get the better of him. There is the classic Fields delivery that makes him sound like he is always drunk, and his timing is impeccable. When you think about it, most successful verbal slapstick resulted from a partnership between two actors, but Fields accomplished excellent without a partner by talking to himself. This helped the audience "get inside his head".

If you have not yet seen this entire picture, I strongly recommend it as well as It's a Gift. WC Fields sets the standard for this type of character. He is hen pecked and made miserable at home but always strives to provide for his unappreciative family yet his characters always find a ray of sunshine somewhere to lighten his load. The tradition was carried forward to a more sophisticated degree by Jackie Gleason in Pappa's Delicate Condition.

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1) Fields was a master of verbal comedy. His asides and comments are different from Charley Chase and the Marx Brothers as much of his conversation is with himself, but loud enough for us to hear and be let in on the joke. Charley and the Brothers Marx's comments were their comments on what is going on and for others to ignore or be a part of.

 

2) Fields mumbles his lines and makes sarcastic comments. He says "Og Ogilby. Sounds like a bubble in a bathtub" but isn't fazed by saying right in front of the person he insulted. And boondoggling! Who else has ever used this as a part of normal conversation? This film is a wonderful display of Fields' verbal humor.

 

I particularly like his almost returning fire to his youngest daughter by wanting to throw a potted plant at her, only to be stopped (unknowingly) by his oldest daughter. A great scene.

 

 

A wonderful comedian and one of a kind. Very much under-appreciated today. He learned to make unkind mumbled comments from his Mother, who would do this with neighbors from their front porch. Mrs. Fields, "Good morning Mrs. Dunk. How is Mr. Dunk today?" Mrs. Dunk, "Not well, I'm afraid. He's very ill today." Mrs. Fields, "Oh, that's too bad."  Then mumbling to young Bill Fields, "Probably had too much to drink last night."

 

Besides learning to say funny things (almost) under his breath from his Mother, he also inherited his nose from her.

 

His other GREAT film (although ALL are very entertaining), is "It's a Gift" wherein is he attacked, in various ways, by nasty and unkind people. Catch it when you can.

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Agreed, Fields pace is a bit slower and I think it adds to his charm. Despite his situation, he is confident and quite at ease with himself.

 

I also agree. The slow pace of his talking fits his jokes to a "T".

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Fields' pace is much slower, usually, and his volume is lower as well, and he generally speaks as if he is speaking to a person rather than to the camera (the audience) giving a much more intimate sense than Chase or the Marx Brothers. In this particular clip we heard some sarcasm ("you need some vaseline to get through here"), a lot of his characteristic "orotundity" in regard to his "cod liver oil mine," one-liners like "sounds like a bubble in a bathtub, vivid slang in "boondoggling' and a vicious double entendre in "Give the gentleman what he asks for, James."

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1. When compared to Charley Chase and the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields brand of slapstick almost provides a better payoff because it is delivered much slower, and perhaps, a bit more deliberately. As noted by Gerald Mast, Fields has a domestic element not present in Marx Brothers comedies. He is also not delivering rapid-fire dialogue like the foursome. Fields relies on his reactions to the physical humor of his gags more so than a rapid dialogue exchange. What is also unique to Fields is the way he uses space in his gags. Fields is obviously a larger man than any of the Marx Brothers or Charley Chase, and instead of shying away from that fact, he uses it to his advantage making his gags even more funny in a unique way. 

 

2. Before I get into the characteristics of the verbal gags Fields employs, I want to remark at how much I enjoyed his line delivery. I have never seen a W.C. Fields movie in its entirety, only clips; which is why I'm grateful to see The Bank Dick on TCM tonight. Being largely unfamiliar with him I am stricken by his pacing and deliberate dialogue, and quite enjoy it. 

 

Some characteristics of verbal slapstick according to Alan Dale that W.C. Fields used were the sarcastic asides, especially when talking to the man in the bar, and the comeback when interacting with the man at the car. 

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Like a couple of other folks, I'm hung up on "boondoggling," It's so common today that I was a little bit surprised to see that it was still a new-ish term in 1940 when this film was made, and therefore not unexpected that the bartender and drinking companion didn't know the term. It started out as a word for braiding those cowboy / Boy Scout lanyards, and apparently was first used generally in 1935. That's the meaning that Fields starts off with, since it was the kind of work done by cowboys in their off time and what he supposedly did in his idle hours in the Yukon winters. But by 1937 it had become a term for an extravagant waste of time, especially in connection with government projects. It might be said that Boondoggling is what WC Fields did best. The use of slang is key to Verbal Slapstick, especially funny-sounding words that can be confusing and humorously applied. Although my OED doesn't say so, it wouldn't surprise me if a film like The Bank Dick would help to popularize the term to the general public.

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1. Fields' use of sophisticated wit and upper level diction that almost feels reminiscent of a dickensian novel from the 19th century and he does feel like a paternal figure of the household with a cranky and bemusing attitude to his character. Mast's description about W.C. Fields and the roles he plays in a domesticated comedy is very accurate since it differs from Charley Chase's comedies as well as the Marx Brothers who were at first anarchic then became accomplices for the main hero in their later movies.

 

2. The verbal gags include the use of the names for the characters in the film such as Egbert Souse, and Og Oggilby. He also used the term "boondoggling" that is not the same as bootlegging, the term is old fashioned and out of date that was originally meant to waste money or time unnecessary or questionable projects. My favorite quip from Fields is: "Give me a Shift Expender." James: "Huh?" Souse: "A monkey wrench."

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The main thing I had to add was how much I disagree with Mast's characterization of Fields' onscreen persona:

 

But Fields frequently finds himself with a wife, a daughter, or both, who depend on him for support. Confined by this domestic prison, Fields never keeps his opinion of his captors a secret: first, he comments about them under his breath; second, he escapes to the masculine freedom of the local tavern; and third, he resorts to direct assault. Where the Marx Brothers films comment on the grand social institutions, the Fields films usually confine themselves to the family, where Fields himself is confined."

 

 

It's almost like he was asked to come up with it while standing on one foot.  W.C. always had two main screen characters (excluding Macawber and Humpty Dumpty, of course): the put upon henpecked husband who manages to win in the end (The Bank Dick, It's A Gift & Man On The Flying Trapeze) and the skilled, unscrupulous conman/hustler as in The Old Fashioned Way, Six of a Kind, My Little Chickadee (granted that character met his match in Mae West) and Million Dollar Legs for example.

 

Look at this clip from Million Dollar Legs where W.C. confirms he's still President of Klopstokia at the morning cabinet meeting

 

 

 

And Honest John in Six of a Kind is hardly confined in a domestic prison

 

 

 

 

So at the very least Mast paints an incomplete picture of WC Fields on the screen.

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1. Compared to the last two Daily Doses, how does W.C. Fields verbal slapstick compare to and/or differ from Charley Chase and the Marx Brothers?

 

In the clips showcased Chase's comedy style is the exact opposite of Fields'. Chase is self effacing, unassuming, humble. Fields is biggety, boastful, grandiose. In his own way Fields is also self effacing and unassuming shown by the number of times he allows himself to be gotten the better of but with Chase it's part of his obvious schitck. With Fields the audience enjoys it but he doesn't play up to it. He simply allows it to act as a foil to his pomposity. It provides him with a sympathetic depth in his characterization. Both comedians rely much on their faces to get across their humor but where Chase's face is average and attractive, Fields' face is aberrant, off key. It's partly why we laugh so easily at him. I especially loved the homage to Chaplin, the fingers in the water chaser, the unexpected ballet like kick of the napkin from such an unathletic looking man. Good stuff...

 

Mast makes a great point about the differences between Fields' and the Marx Brothers. Fields constrains his humor. It is more a domestic humor which brings to mind the likes of more contemporary comics like Rodney Dangerfield. The Marx Brothers give themselves no such constraints. They roam about like wild animals destroying the landscape and anyone in their paths. Because they are a troupe they can broaden their humor and each can take on a very specific characterization. Fields, as a lone comedian, once he presented himself in a certain characterization couldn't roam too far afield. He worked alongside many great character actors but often must be his own comedian and straight man. He is often the butt of his own gags, the bottle in the head, the stomped foot. The Marx Brothers take their licks but are often victorious at the end of the gag. Not so Fields. The gag ends and he limps away holding his head. Ouch!

 

2. Based on Alan Dale's definition of verbal slapstick, what are some of the characteristic verbal "gags" that you noticed in watching this clip? Feel free to share some of your favorite lines from the clip as well.

 

As Dale pointed out, Fields use of orotundity. Just the tone and pitch of his voice affects an air of pomposity and grandiosity. He knows how to do everything because he's already done it himself. Juxtapose this with his appearance with his big belly, straw or top hat, floppy neck tie and later on spats, cane and checkered waistcoat and all combine to provide the audience with a new age clown. His naturally reddened, bulbous nose completes the look. No facepaint is necessary.

 

We laugh at him but also with him as he slings sarcastic asides, "Og Oggilby. Sounds like a bubble in a bathtub," one liners, "Mine's a poultice," vivid slang, "boondoggle," outrageous metaphors, "Take off your hat in the presence of a gentleman" (to a whiskey bottle), "Give me a shift expander...A monkey wrench," nonsequiturs, "Are you carrying the proper amount of air in the tires? Had the brakes tested lately? 'Course it may be the wheel base?" (to an exasperated chauffeur attempting to fix a stalled automobile), malapropisms, "I had a half interest in a cod liver oil mine...." So much to appreciate in such a short clip.

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I agree that the Marx brothers cannot be "class" placed-they do not merly meander over class levels in society they push threw ,over,and conquer all society levals. W.C. Fields however seems always slightly out of step with what ever place or environment he finds himself in.He reminds me of the "uncle" that the family is slightly embaressed about-rumpled clothes,smelly cigar,gravel course voice,and way to often slightly tipsy with drink,and talking under his breath about his feelings towards family members.

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1.       Like Charley Chase in “Pip from Pittsburg,” Fields’ screen persona condescends to the people around him and he spends much time complaining about them. Their styles are entirely different, though. Whereas Chase has a high energy, Fields is nearly devoid of it. Whereas Chase imagines himself a bon vivant with stinging bon mots, Fields is a grumpy old man stewing and ruing the people who (as Dale points out) constrain him, in this case wife, mother-in-law & young daughter. Fields differs even more from the Marx Brothers. In the “Sanity Clause” scene from “A Night at the Opera,” Chico and Groucho tangle a discussion into a confused, intricate, hilarious web, bouncing off the other’s confusion, and as Dale points, theirs is a more anarchic world in which whole systems are rejected (in this case, legal documents). Fields’ critiques are often under his breath as he finds himself trapped socially. After enduring their critique as he walks through the dining room, he volleys a few harsh words toward the women in his family, but quickly escapes to the bar, where he finds himself sitting next to a nearly catatonic patron who disrupts his plan for a relaxed exile.

2.       This scene from “The Bank Dick” includes several classic W.C. Fields “verbal slapstick” tropes. He relishes using unusual words like “boondoggling” and coining alliterative phrases like “Sounds like a bubble in a bathtub.” It also, of course, includes some traditional physical slapstick, including bonking his daughter on the head (with sound effect), followed by her following suit (with cowbell noise), and nearly throwing a planter at her. The bit with the chauffeur ends up, predictably and humorously, with Fields screwing things up (the engine falls to the ground). In the bar, he does the classic Fields bit where as part of a double take, he grabs his boater to keep it from popping off.

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1. Compared to the last two Daily Doses, how does W.C. Fields verbal slapstick compare to and/or differ from Charley Chase and the Marx Brothers?

 

Judging by the clip, Fields seems more relaxed and naturalistic in his surroundings. He looks pretty content, even in the most outrageous situations. His mannerisms, facial expressions, body language, and delivery is more subtle than Chase and the Marx Brothers. He uses self-awareness to his comedy, in which he deals with everyday things that can easily happen in real life. The gags that he used in his films are sharp and pitch perfect, meaning that they mesh well in the plot.

 

2. Based on Alan Dale's definition of verbal slapstick, what are some of the characteristic verbal "gags" that you noticed in watching this clip? Feel free to share some of your favorite lines from the clip as well.

 

There is a level of deftness and sarcasm in the back-and-forth delivery of lines and dialogue. He also uses words that sound like gibberish and unrealistic, but the vocabulary turns out to be part of the overall charm. The words sound fake, but they actually enhance the action and moments taking place in the film.

 

Favorite lines from the clip and the film: "Og Oggilby... sounds like a bubble in a bathtub!", "Don't be a luddy-duddy! Don't be a mooncalf! Don't be a jabbernowl! You're not those, are you?", and "The jockey was a very insulting fellow. He referred to my proboscis as an adscititious excrescence. I had to tweak his nose."

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Compared to Charley Chase and the Marx Brothers, Fields doesn't exaggerate his verbal gags.  His voice is steady and calm.  The Marx Brothers are rapid fire verbal gags which works for them and us.  Fields, I think, is smoother.  I'm not as crazy about Charley Chase, who in the shorts I've watched, he is too exaggerated to pull off decent acting, than I am of the others we're studying.  In the Pip from PittsburgH (there should be an H at the end of Pittsburgh), and in Dollar Dizzy, I didn't get the sense that he or the women were good actors.  Just my opinion.  But, maybe that's why I had never heard of Chase until this week.

 

I did like the tip of the hat to Chaplin, with the hat shaking (not sure how to describe it) and the kick of the wad of paper to the side.

 

Verbal gags: unfortunately I didn't catch everything Fields said cause he sort of mumbles and I would have to watch the clip a third time to be able to quote lines.

 

Enjoying this.

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With Mast's comments about societal constraints in mind, I see that Fields is rebellious against his judgmental family and his obligation to them.  In reaction and wishing to take charge of something, he meddles with a mechanic and "gets what he deserves", which is a crunch on the foot. Lots of sarcastic asides, violence, and bits like swallowing the cigarette.  Fields is more sophisticated than Chase, though operating much the same way.  His cutting asides are like Groucho, but more malicious.  He is alchoholic, rude, cynical.

 

I never have liked Fields, never thought he was funny even when I was a child.  I guess its the misogyny and misanthropy that turns me off and gives me a chill inside.  He's a clown, but an evil one.  Humor really is a double-edged sword isn't it?

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The main thing I had to add was how much I disagree with Mast's characterization of Fields' onscreen persona:

 

But Fields frequently finds himself with a wife, a daughter, or both, who depend on him for support. Confined by this domestic prison, Fields never keeps his opinion of his captors a secret: first, he comments about them under his breath; second, he escapes to the masculine freedom of the local tavern; and third, he resorts to direct assault. Where the Marx Brothers films comment on the grand social institutions, the Fields films usually confine themselves to the family, where Fields himself is confined."

 

 

It's almost like he was asked to come up with it while standing on one foot.  W.C. always had two main screen characters (excluding Macawber and Humpty Dumpty, of course): the put upon henpecked husband who manages to win in the end (The Bank Dick, It's A Gift & Man On The Flying Trapeze) and the skilled, unscrupulous conman/hustler as in The Old Fashioned Way, Six of a Kind, My Little Chickadee (granted that character met his match in Mae West) and Million Dollar Legs for example.

 

Look at this clip from Million Dollar Legs where W.C. confirms he's still President of Klopstokia at the morning cabinet meeting

 

 

 

And Honest John in Six of a Kind is hardly confined in a domestic prison

 

 

 

 

So at the very least Mast paints an incomplete picture of WC Fields on the screen.

Now This was funny!

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1. The verbal slapstick of Fields is usually under the breath while The Marx Brothers are in your face. I think Charlie Chase is somewhere between. Fields is more believable in that he is just trying to get through the day and his quiet antics usually keep him out of trouble. If the Marx Brothers, especially Groucho, acted in real life like they did on screen, I think they'd regularly get slapped, poked in the eyes, and hit on the head with rolling pins. I think Charlie Chase is somewhere between. I think I have all the Fields and Marx movies on DVD and always liked Charlie Chase.  Hilarious stuff!

 

2. Vivid slang -shifting spanner.

 

Og Oggilby is one of the funniest character names I've ever heard.

 

I love the cod liver oil mine and a certain other mine that comes in the plot later (I won't use 

spoilers).  Can't wait to watch The Bank Dick tonight!

 

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Fields is good at playing smarter than he really is, the big faker! :)Chase is the master of exasperation. Marx brothers are master of lunacy! I love his battle of wills with children! :)

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In comparison, I think that Charley Chase is more suave and debonair Where as the Marx  Brothers are more of a team that work together to pull off some of their gags.Fields is more of a dark performer in the "clown tradition".

In this clip, fields  comes down stairs smoking doesn't want his wife to know so he swallows it while its lit. He tries to help the driver with his car being somewhat sarcastic and the drive steps in his foot.

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I think Fields says what we are thinking and could say sometimes.

 

Fields tends to talk to himself more and is bombastic with what he is saying. When he walks into the bar and starts to walk between the booth and the post he says to himself referring to Joe the bartender that he needs to vasoline the place or move the post over. Then he orders a drink. Joe puts the bottle down in front of him and a glass of water. I always expect Fields to chase the shot withe the water but he washes his hands in it instead.

 

 

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