The best of the best: W.C. Fields

by Martin Hafer

William Claude Dukenfield was not a very promising name for the stage or big screen, so he changed it to W.C. Fields and made some wonderful comedies.  However, his very early films were silents and only a few of them exist today.  While they are entertaining, they lack the wonderful language and characters for which Fields became known for in his later films.  Unfortunately, his sound career was hampered by two things.  Too often the studios insisted in putting him in insipid films in which the comedy was secondary.  Additionally, by the time he became famous, he was older and seldom got a chance to make his sort of films–which were filled with strange but lovable sorts of characters that only Fields could do so well.  The following list are a few of my favorites:

If I Had a Million (1932):  While Fields is in this film and he’s terrific, this is unlike any other film he appeared in because it’s an anthology made up of many different stories–some very funny, some very touching and some rather dramatic.  It’s the story of a millionaire who gives out his fortune to total strangers and the impact on their lives.

Why I love it:  This is a terrific film with or without the short sequence starring Fields.  It’s a bit difficult to find this film but it’s well worth seeing if you can.  I particularly loved the sequences starring Fields, Charles Laughton as well as the final one which is set at an old folks’ home.

The Dentist (1932):  This short is quite shocking, as it has some rather adult language as well as a very sexual scene involving a lady patient.  Fields is the dentist…and after seeing this one, you might never want to visit one again!

Why I love it:  This short is not short on laughs, as it has many funny segments.  And, as I mentioned above, it’s got a few shocking scenes that are well worth seeing.

The Barber Shop (1933):  Another Fields short.  In this one he plays a surprisingly nice barber.

Why I love it: Fields was famous for saying that he liked children….boiled!  Oddly, however, he seems to be a good father and really likes his kid in this one–something that is most unique.  What isn’t unique is that the film is very funny.

You’re Telling Me! (1934):  Fields plays a hapless inventor of a puncture-proof tire.  No one believes he can do this until he meets a nice lady who believes in him…and she also is hiding an interesting secret.

Why I love it:  This film is not only funny but very charming.  It’s among Fields’ best and, uncharacteristically, he’s a nice guy and not the usual shiftless guy.

The Old Fashioned Way (1934):  The Great McGonigle is the leader of a cheap traveling troop of actors.  They spend much of the film staying just a few steps ahead of bill collectors and the sheriff.

Why I love it:  While several of Fields’ films were ruined by being overly sentimental, this one works very well because of this.  Additionally, this is only one of two films I am aware of where you can see Fields’ amazing talents as a juggler!

It’s a Gift (1934):  Fields plays a henpecked husband who puts up with a lot of abuse from her and his children.  When he decides to sell his store and move out  west to an orange ranch, lots of unpredictable things occur.

Why I love it:  This is the best Fields film…period.  It’s extremely funny and just works so perfectly.  A rare treat.

The Bank Dick (1940):  Fields’ last great film.  He plays a guy who accidentally foils a bank robbery and is in gratitude made a bank guard.  However, when the next robbery occurs, he’s obviously in way over his head.

Why I love it:  Fields often wrote or co-wrote his film using various pseudonyms.  You can tell his touch by the bizarre names of the characters and the bizarre name he uses in the credits as the writer, Mahatma Kane Jeeves!  Full off laughs, though the chase scene late in the film could have been better.

If you only wanted to see one film, I’d make it It’s a Gift or, perhaps, If I Had a Million.  However, I strongly suspect that after you do the either of them, you’ll most likely want to see some more!  His humor is hard to describe but one of a kind!

You’re Telling Me?