I had picked Never Give a Sucker an Even Break for our movie last night because it was relatively short (71 minutes), but afterwards I went elsewhere on the DVD for what was billed as a “Vintage Documentary” on W. C. Fields but turned out to be a 52-minute Canadian TV program from 1964 hosted by a then-popular (I’m taking imdb.com’s word for this because I’d never heard of them, then or now) Canadian comedy duo named Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster, titled Wayne and Shuster Take an Affectionate Look at W. C. Fields. The show was interesting in that it came on the cusp of the counterculture generation’s rediscovery of Fields — Judith Crist wrote an article in the New York Herald-Tribune in 1967 about how the rebellious kids who had previously embraced Humphrey Bogart as their hero from classic Hollywood were turning their attention to Fields because his devil-may-care attitude towards authority and propriety mirrored theirs. Wayne (obvious why he picked the diminutive form of his first name — he didn’t want to be confused with that other guy named Wayne!) and Shuster emphasized Fields the lovable rogue, saying that unlike previous movie comedians — Chaplin, Keaton, Harry Langdon, Harold Lloyd — he hadn’t gone out of his way to be lovable. Quite the opposite; he insulted children, kicked dogs, cheated at cards and did all sorts of ugly things, and yet people loved him enough to laugh at him. That’s certainly a side of Fields, but it’s not the only one; as much as he ridiculed Chaplin (“That ballet dancer,” Fields reportedly said while someone was screening him Chaplin’s 1917 Mutual film Easy Street), Fields had his own sort of rough-hewn pathos. Wayne and Shuster emphasized the films in which Fields played his “carnie” character — in the 1930’s carnivals were still a major form of entertainment and the “best people” warned their proletarian audiences that a lot of people in carnivals were there to fleece them (and of course the working classes went anyway!) — and showed less from the movies like It’s a Gift and Man on the Flying Trapeze in which Fields cast himself as the victim of a nagging wife and unpleasant (to say the least!) in-laws.
One thing that was nice about this special was it showed clips from Fields movies that aren’t that well-known today because he wasn’t the star, including his sequence from the all-star portmanteau movie If I Had a Million (the gimmick is that a filthy-rich man on his deathbed decides that none of his family members deserve his money, so he’s going to give it all to 10 strangers randomly picked out of the phone book) in which he and his companion Alison Skipworth use their windfall to buy a fleet of cars and use them to drive all the road hogs off the road; and several clips from the 1935 film Mississippi, an attempt by Paramount to combine two of their biggest attractions, Fields and Bing Crosby. It was set in the 19th century South and cast Crosby as the son of a plantation owner who is disgraced when he refuses to fight a duel and runs away to a show boat Fields captains; Fields is only in the middle third of the film but he’s the one everyone remembers even though Mississippi had a score by Rodgers and Hart which generated the beautiful standard “It’s Easy to Remember.” (It also had a less famous but almost as good song called “Soon” which, alas, started life under the shadow of the Gershwin song of the same title and has never been able to emerge.) The bits from Mississippi shown here include a few scenes with Bing and a great poker game in which Fields keeps dealing himself five aces and can’t get rid of them even though he knows that the other gamblers, suspecting him of cheating (while, of course, cheating themselves!), will shoot him dead on the spot if he throws down a hand containing one more ace than a regulation card deck has. Wayne and Shuster don’t seem all that funny themselves, and I could have done without the added underscoring they put under some of the clips (particularly annoying was the use of the “Lone Ranger” strain of Rossini’s William Tell Overture as Fields and Skipworth, along with the drivers they’ve hired, lead their army of clunkers against the road hogs of L.A.), but the documentary was a welcome bonus even though I hadn’t expected it to be as long as it was and it did start to pale a bit towards the end.