"horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people" - w.c. fields
i have never known of a funnier man than w.c. fields. i have my dad to thank for passing along his abiding affection for the golden age greats - fields, the marx brothers, laurel and hardy, buster keaton and many others - to me. it's one of the greatest gifts i was ever given. out of them all, w.c. fields is nearest and dearest to my heart for a number of reasons. chief among those reasons is his obvious love of language. an avid reader, he was known to carry trunks full of books with him as he toured the vaudeville circuits in his youth. no other comedian of the era benefitted as much from the conversion from silents to talkies. his voice was one of the most unique instruments in comedy history. his verbal skill was unmatched by his peers. a master of the stinging aside, his throwaway lines were ten times better than bits others labored over for weeks. he took great joy in the sound of language as well as meaning, evident from just a quick glance at some of the character names in his scripts:
eustace p. mcgargle
j. effingham bellwether
j. pinkerton snoopington
t. frothingill bellows
larson e. whipsnade
cuthbert j. twillie
and, my favorite, elmer prettywillie
of course, reading them here doesn't do any of them justice. when he says them, though, with the proper amount of venom, lasciviousness, malice, wonder or mirth, it's like music.
he was also a world class curmudgeon. and you know i can heartily endorse that platform. we share a number of the same views on child rearing.
but the best thing about what he did is that you simply never knew what to expect. like all the greats, he always surprised you. and that's the main reason i brought us all here today. most folks are only aware of the work he did toward the end of his life but that was just the tip of the iceberg with him. the films most people know him for came in what was, essentially, the third act of his career. as a young man he developed a number of skills that would serve him well in later life when he portrayed a series of raconteurs, roustabouts, carnival barkers and snake oil salesmen. in his vaudeville days, when he worked at fortescue's pier in atlantic city, new jersey, one of his primary jobs was drowning. if the matinees were slow he would swim out, feign drowning and be "rescued" (during which he would be conveniently taken into the theater). once a large enough crowd had assembled he would be revived and the show would begin. he sometimes "drowned" three or four times a day.
what he did best in those early days, though, was juggle.
no joke. he was billed as "the world's greatest eccentric juggler". and he had formidable skills. if you only are aware of his work from the late 30s/early 40s you might never be able to imagine that this oddly shaped man, renowned as one of hollywood's great drunkards (highly exaggerated, i think), would have ever been able to juggle at all, much less be one of the best. this is where you would be surprised. this clip is from the old fashioned way (1934) and his creativity and dexterity are remarkable, especially for a man of fifty-four.
the guy just slays me. every time.
if you'd like to see all of the old fashioned way you can find it in the w.c. fields comedy collection, vol. 2 along with several other films. i highly recommend it. thanks for reading/watching.