pseudopodium
. . . Fatal Glass of Beer

. . .

The 100 Super Movies au maximum: The Fatal Glass of Beer

  It is a sad song
"It is a sad song...."

Nonsense is what closes before the theater gets rented. I've read folks who claim that's because nonsense is an anarchistic blow against the rigid patriarachy, but they usually have such poor taste that I can't trust them. More likely, not that many people enjoy nonsense. Even to achieve decent cult status, it has to hide beneath a pretense of parody: Andy Kaufman's and Steven Wright's contrasting parodies of stand-up comics, Robert Benchley's parodies of inarticulate bureaucrats, Marcel Duchamp's parodies of gallery art, Ulysses's parodies of all kinds prose, The Simpsons' parodies of The Simpsons....

And once that small degree of success is attained, the pressure to eliminate all irrational thought really starts to build. Nonsense is not anti-form (good nonsense has beautifully controlled tone and structure), but it is in some ways anti-narrative, particularly the sort of transparent identification-friendly narrative that publishing and other entertainment industries are set up to provide. Sense holds together and makes "natural" what nonsense interrupts, distracts, and makes an arbitrary mess of. For the crafters of transparent narrative, nonsense's disruptions are most easily explained as toothless villainy: a generator of conflict and a delayer of the inevitably sensible resolution.

"In the theatre, he was a make-believe character playing in a make-believe world. In films, he was a real character acting in real stories.... If he must play a nasty old drunk and be publicized as a nasty old drunk in order to work on the Edgar Bergen radio show, then so be it.... it was after Fields escaped realism and returned to his world of make-believe that he made his best films."
-- Louise Brooks, "The Other Face of W. C. Fields"

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is a return from exile, all right, but it's the return of a very tired 61-year-old in more dire need of Mrs. Hemoglobin than he might realize. And so my own favored glimpse of the ancient Fieldsian kingdom comes from the 1933 short, The Fatal Glass of Beer, a relatively straightforward filming of a well-honed stage parody of Yukon melodramas: there's little room for him to show off his physical grace, but the deadpan purity of his nonsense is all the more bracing.

"Long shot, medium shot, two-shot, or closeup, Bill performed as if he were standing whole before an audience that could appreciate every detail of his costume and follow the dainty disposition of his hands and feet.... As he ignored camera setups, he ignored the cutting room."
-- Louise Brooks

Moonlight
"It's certainly a bright moonlit night tonight."
  Although most of the attempts at "opening out" the sketch are typically Sennett -- the over-literal illustrations of Mr. Snavely's ballad and the close-ups of his dogsled's team plop in about as amusingly as a cowpie in the face -- one segment suggests what Fields might've achieved if he'd been (or been allowed to become) as engaged with the mechanics of film as he was with the mechanics of performance.

After Mr. Snavely goes out to milk the elk, we're treated to typical stock footage of a herd. Which then turns into badly done rear projection. And then (as the herd begins to gallop and the camera moves closer to them and Fields reproaches the loss of any possible suspension of disbelief with his usual mildness) goes on to turn into utterly absurd rear projection -- a cinematic approach to the legendarily polished ineptitude of his juggling act.

"The Fatal Glass of Beer" by Charlie Case, as adapted by W. C. Fields

MR. SNAVELY: You won't consider me rude if I play with my mitts on, will you?

OFFICER POSTLEWHISTLE: Not at all, Mr. Snavely. Not at all.

MR. SNAVELY: There was once a poor boy,
And he left his country home
And he came to the city to look for work.

He promised his ma and pa
He would lead a civilized life
And always shun the fatal curse of drink.

Once in the city,
He got a situation in a quarry
And there he made the acquaintance of some college students.

He little thought they were demons,
For they wore the best of clothes,
But the clothes do not always make the gentleman.

They tempted him to drink
And they said he was a cow'rd
And at last he took the fatal glass of beer.

  When he'd found what he'd done,
He dashed the glass upon the floor
And he staggered through the door with delerium tremens.

Once upon the sidewalk,
He met a Salvation Army girl,
And wickedly he broke her tambourine.

All she said was "Heav'n --" [RAISES HAND] "-- Heaven bless you,"
And placed a mark upon his brow
With a kick she'd learned before she had been saved.

Now, as a moral to young men
Who come down to the city:
Don't go 'round breaking people's tambourines.

OFFICER POSTLEWHISTLE: That certainly is a sad song.

MR. SNAVELY: Don't cry, constable. It is a sad song... My Uncle Ichabod said, speaking of the city: "It ain't no place for women, gal, but pretty men go thar."

. . .

WAS HE MAN ENOUGH FOR HIS JOB? WAS HE MAN ENOUGH FOR HIS WOMAN?\

Close Traduction

A plot only tells so much about its telling. And where better to exhibit the gap between narrative line and narrative effect than the cinema, at twenty-four gaps a second?

The most horrifying such exhibitions are start-to-finish misreadings like Adrian Lyne's Lolita and Joseph Strick's Ulysses. The most satisfying are burlesques like Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, Altman's The Long Goodbye, Fields's Fatal Glass of Beer, Rohmer's Dangerous Liaisons (AKA Claire's Knee), and Gilligan's Island's Hamlet. Most alienating are the mob actions.

But as a connoisseur of closure, my favorites reverse the end's polarity.

They do so within the small back wiggle room between fabula and reflector, that magical space in which we drop our cake and eat it too. A favorite hangout of Howard Hawks, who suffered from a morbid fear of unhappy endings for example, in Come and Get It, which has all the makings of a Greek tragedy and follows through on most of them, only to have the tragic lead decide, "Fuck this shit, I'm Edward Arnold!" It's as if Oedipus Rex closed on a shot of the retired monarch shrugging, twirling his cane, and shuffling a jaunty soft-shoe while being led down that lonesome road.

The Story of an Inadequate Man : I suddenly felt very tired and hopeless. It's odd that you think I don't try.
And while the fingers fumbled on the dread bomb, his woman waited, patiently, for Sam Rice to prove his manhood.

For conceptual purity, however, nothing beats Powell-&-Pressburger's reversal of The Small Back Room.

Midlist middlebrow mainstream novels don't win the twilit immortality of other genres, and Nigel Balchin never tipped into academic respectability. But I'm fond of this novel, and I suspect it might find fellow admirers among the Better Sort of science fiction readers it's the depressive alcoholic reclusive grandfather that Carter Scholz's Radiance never met.

You'll find it over there on the left, courtesy of Perkus Tooth's garage sale. Ah, the glory days of paperback publishing, when even impotence was titillating.

The come-on is, as always, a rip-off. Any attempted fucking in Sammy's and Susan's illicit cohabitation takes place offscreen and near-as-damn-it to unconsciousness. The come-on is understandable, though, insofar as our hero has had one foot cut off, has an aching stump, is relentlessly defeatist and drunk, and was authored by a psychologist.

So far, so midcentury mainstream. But these are just the generic handholds one sets to let oneself finish or publish a story. Try to focus past them, as you focus past the talking squids in a Margaret Atwood novel, and you find something very special: a novel about work. (The text excerpted on the paperback's front cover actually concerns career strategy.)

And not gangster work or cop work, but intellectual work, done with skill and for a good cause yes, even a better cause than Google, perhaps even better than open-source software for institutions of higher education! It's the appropriate day job that was denied to poor Denard and his poor president.

And it still sucks, because at the end of the day it's still a day job. The book's real titillation is having been published by an Army researcher during World War II, in the same year Churchill wanted to ban Powell-&-Pressburger's sentimentalized Colonel Blimp. It's a home-front geek's "Willie & Joe." If you thrill to this selected-at-random scene, you may be among the intended audience:

I was busy with the report for the progress meeting. Not that anybody would read it properly. No one ever did. But it kept things straight for me.

I said to Joe, "This colour filter thing. It's been on the books for about six months and nothing ever happens to it."

"There are four other outfits messing about with it anyhow," said Joe.

"Who?"

"Passingham. The doctors. Rea. The Staines Lab. And I think the R.A.F. are doing something themselves."

"Where did we get it?"

"God knows. The Old Man came back from a meeting full of it. The whole place was chucked on to it for about half a day, and then he got bored and it's never been touched since."

"Think we might write it off?"

Joe said, "I should think we might write off about two-thirds of the stuff you've got there."

I said, "I think I'll go through and do a grand scrap."

Till said, "That's a most extraordinary thing."

"What is?"

"According to this," said Till, peering at his figures, "the seventh round had a negative muzzle velocity."

"Oh come!" said Joe.

"Was there anything funny about the seventh round?" said Tilly to me.

"Not as funny as all that," I said.

That's weird... I thought it would work

In such fashion Balchin keeps the pages staggering downhill to a deservedly celebrated finale: Sammy somewhat arbitarily sets himself a near impossible goal which should conclusively decide his worth, most likely by erasing him utterly at the moment of failure, and then we watch him work it.

And god damn it all to hell, he doesn't quite meet his arbitrary goal and it doesn't kill him:

The facts were that Dick was dead, and Stuart was dead, and the Old Man was gone, and Waring was Deputy Director, and I was just where I had always been. The good chaps went and were killed, and the crooks got away with it. But I just stayed put. I tried to think of something concrete to do resigning and going to the Old Man, or something like that. But it wouldn't fire. I knew it really didn't make any difference where I went, or who I worked for. And I was too tired, anyway. I didn't like what I was, and couldn't be what I liked, and it would always be like that.

It'll be all right with Susan. She'll take it and make it into what she wants, just as Strang did. We shall all know, but I'm the only one who'll mind.

(Those who accuse Susan of fantastic saintliness might want to review Balchin's 1955 screenplay for Josephine and Men, which instead suggests a diagnosis of "perversity." Misery loves company, and Balchin's kind of woman loves misery.)

So how were Powell-&-Pressburger able to turn this downer into a tale of redemption and optimism? Their solution was elegant: don't include a voiceover. Because without Sammy's whine, the producer and the director and the cinematographer and the composer and the audience can, just as Susan and Strang did, take it and make it into what they want.

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.