April 1, 2003

Cleese Introduces Fields Film

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John Cleese, an A.D. White Professor-at-Large, triumphed over a reticent microphone to introduce W.C. Fields’ The Bank Dick to a rapt audience yesterday in the Straight.

The film, released in 1940, was the second-to-last that Fields ever starred in and is commonly thought to be one of his best, a sentiment shared by Cleese and his colleague, James Curtis.

Curtis, whose book on Fields is about to be published, described the hard-drinking, cigar-chomping, dog-kicking, child-hating genius Fields as “a dangerous man.”

Unlike the slum-born Charlie Chaplin, Fields was an everyman, and “everyone knew someone just like him,” Curtis continued. Most of Fields’ films concerned dysfunctional families and were, Curtis said, “an attempt to work through his own abortive relationship with his son.”

Curtis also said that the classic comedians such as Chaplin, Fields and Buster Keaton have periodic surges in popularity. The last such renaissance for Fields occurred in the late ’60s under the auspices of repertory cinema and the shadow of the Vietnam War. Fields’ cynical onscreen persona — a famous poster shows him cheating at cards — was perfectly suited to those times, and, as Curtis and Cleese will explain tonight in the Statler at 7:30 p.m., our own time as well.

Cleese pinpointed Fields’ wide appeal to his background and the nature of his comedy. Discovering Fields after the other great silent clowns, Cleese said he was struck by “Fields’ humor. It was profound and a bit out of left field. I was always drawn to physical comedy and wit. At the same time there’s a depth to his jokes.”

Before emerging as a film star, Fields was known as the best of the vaudeville comedians. Vaudeville was the proving ground for many song-and-dance performers, comics and actors. The prevalent form of popular entertainment during the first two decades of the 20th century, vaudeville was a stage-based medium with an often crude, rough edge.

That heritage, Cleese said, is apparent in Fields’ movies: “Especially in The Bank Dick, it’s obvious that Fields was a great natural performer. He had this dexterity to him. In The Bank Dick, he’s shooting as though it’s onstage. This was a very rapid shoot, 27 days. There’s a very rough presentation; it’s a film made without an attempt at perfection.”

This is not to say the film is not hilarious. Although a commercial failure at the time of its release, which wrecked Fields’ career, it has always been a critic’s darling, and judging by the crowd’s reaction last night, the jokes remain as funny as they were 43 years ago.

Archived article by Erica Stein