. . . W. C. Fields

. . .

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

"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."

. . .

The Road to Son of Paleface, 2

This writer, not knowing Hope, can only conjecture what goes on inside the man. He has seen horrible things and has survived them with good humor and made them more bearable, but that doesn't happen without putting a wound on a man. He is cut off from rest, and even from admitting weariness. Having become a symbol, he must lead a symbol life.
- John Steinbeck

Bob Hope starred on radio before starring in movies.

Radio popularity is based on voice. It's an authorial role, and enjoys some of the same freedom. On the blank face of it, Edgar Bergen's radio stardom made no sense. The comic lead of the team, however, was Charlie McCarthy: a little wooden boy who'd somehow acquired the clothing, impulses, and experiences of an Edwardian roué, and was somehow always accepted in all particulars by those around him. Radio was the creature's home; filmed, he became only a ventriloquist's dummy.

Writers are drawn to radio as a medium, and purportedly Bob Hope was the first stand-up comic to openly acknowledge his stable of gag-writers. When he wanted a more spontaneous feel, he'd phone them to rush the gags. Hope's "live" performances were as anti-improvistatory as Mel Blanc's: reliably identifiable no matter how extreme the setting or guise.

Which, in turn, gave them both liberty to step away from setting and guise entirely. Tex Avery's one-shot "Screwy Squirrel" short gets special attention from theorists because the unestablished and unappealing lead doesn't ground the experiment. His self-awareness attracts the eye, whereas audience asides like Bugs Bunny's "He don't know me very well, do he?" are close to invisible.

For radio stars, there's no question about breaking the fourth wall. You've already invited 'em right into your living room. (That's what made radio horror so spooky. When I was seven years old, the prefatory whistle of "The Whistler" and the basso profondo molto legato announcement of "Suspense" provended sufficient nightmare fodder in themselves. No need to wait for the plotline.) Advertisers made the turn to the audience a routine running gag.

Hollywood's openness varied. Relieved from the need to position Hope as a romantic lead, able to give his bloat and stubble free rein, the best "Road" pictures were especially relaxed in their anti-realism, incorporating such absurdities as talking camels and Robert Benchley without strain. You couldn't manage that with Crosby alone, but Hope loosened the reins. Even in his stiffer vehicles, moments of nonsense sometimes tear through the conventional surface. The Princess and the Pirate's highlight comes before the action even begins (which is why I don't feel terribly guilty about spoiling it):

Many, many years ago there sailed the Seven Seas the most bloodthirsty buccaneer in history. Ruthless and daring he was, and, though his soul was black with foul deeds, he feared no creature, living or dead.
Ingratiating Bob Hope inset
"That's not me, folks, I come on later, I play a coward."

Buster Keaton and W. C. Fields drift mildly upwards into their personal unreal, tethered by rude tugs of slapstick and abuse. The Marx and Ritz Brothers drive reality squealing like a moneylender from the temple. Approaching sometimes the misanthropic babble of Groucho and sometimes the nightmarish openness of Fields, Hope is the first movie comedian to attain enlightenment by the road of skepticism: an absolute distrust that undercuts narrative drive, filmic convention, and his own part. On the other hand, he's not a delicate instrument; like a cartoon star, you know that if a bomb dropped on Hope, he'd be nervously wise-cracking in Hell next scene.

Only two things keep Hope's character among the earthly. First, a sensuality which distinguishes him from his colder and more self-conscious (if more consistent) disciples. I can't imagine Bill Murray or Woody Allen matching the delirious canine abandon of Hope as he applied Dorothy Lamour's hand against his face in Road to Morocco. (Allen needed a multiple-orgasm stimulator to come close.) Older burleykyoo types like Chico, Harpo, and Jimmy Durante were too goal-oriented to even notice the species of their objects of desire, much less such particulars as touch, scent, and taste.

And foremost, lack of motivating force. As blatantly untrustworthy as his surroundings and roles are, he sees no alternative.

Lacking other convictions, Hope staked his soul on glibness. If he wasn't "on", he'd vanish completely. No wonder he looks anxious.

... to be continued ...


Is that signpost at the end pointing to a detour into writing about blogging again?

I'd say you just covered that angle.

. . .

The Song of the Wimpy

Occasioned by ComicsComics' mini-anthology

Jack Mercer found a voice which could encompass all the many ways of Popeye. Olive was easy once the talkies uncorked ZaSu Pitts. Rough House, Castor, King Blozo, Mister Geezil, and zo on never presented difficulty. But the most articulate of Thimble Theatre's stock company has never been heard. The Fleischers' Wimpy was so colorless that I can't even bring him to mind; Altman's Wimpy was a bland villain.

For the role of shabby middle-aged con artist, a "W. C. Fields type" would be the obvious casting call and would be disastrous. Fields takes comfort in his own invention; his soliloquies murmur of feelings too rich for this wicked world; his outbursts are their own reward.

J. Wellington Wimpy is more damaged and more efficient, a shell of mimicry around a core of sub-mammalian hunger. Wimpy demonstrates Behaviorist Man: someone in whom language developed by pure reinforcement, one hamburger pellet at a time, with any formula which occasioned a reward forever recalled and forever replayed, no matter how inappropriate its audience may be. In extreme circumstances, Wimpy might show something resembling normal emotions shame, fear, pity but they're sloughed from his surface with horrifying ease.

When I read long passages of Wimpy aloud, I find myself striving for a clipped, over-precise tone which lacks the contempt of Clifton Webb or the throbbing repression of other great cinema prisses. Among stars, perhaps only Alec Guinness could have emptied himself sufficiently.

As evidenced not only by Guinness's George Smiley but by Guinness's Gulley Jimson the "heroic artist" as justified sociopath, a stereotype I loathe but whom Guinness, for good or ill, portrayed effectively. Wimpy is no painter, but there's an abstract artistry to his con: his compulsive deployment of language as machine rather than as communication, his disregard for human context, associate him with a certain post-Romantic concept of "poetry" one I hold myself; one we might find, for example, in Ashbery....

. . .

The Monkey Puzzle by Veronica Hull

I draw most of my reading from a decades-old compost pile of decontextualized recommendations. But shuffle play establishes its own narratives, and somehow Eddie Campbell's lifework was followed with a series of forgotten books by great wasters.

First came Saturnine by Rayner Heppenstall, precious documentation of bad behavior in England's finest hour. Then The Crust on Its Uppers by Derek Raymond (all flash and no trousers), La Fanfarlo by Charles Baudelaire (sad stuff), An Anecdoted Topography of Chance by Daniel Spoerri (a less plot-driven Robbe-Grillet), and Minutes of the Last Meeting by Gene Fowler, purportedly a mean-spirited biography of a grotesque old fart once justly loathed by Whitman and Debussy, but more sincerely a shelf of humble-brags honoring the author's parasitism during John Barrymore's and W. C. Fields's terminal declines.

(That last formed a twofer posthumous-character-assassination setlist of its own with Nollekens & his Times by John Thomas "Antiquity" Smith, projected as friendly tribute but executed as vengeance for Nollekens's will.)

Then The Bohemians by Anne-Gédéon Lafitte, Marquis de Pelleport, a 1790 proto-novel formally closer to Thomas Nashe than to Ann Radcliffe. And now The Monkey Puzzle by Veronica Hull a female waster at last!— and, in a way, probably that very way, my favorite of the lot.

* * *

What with The Golden Notebook and The Bell Jar and so on, and between Piper Laurie and Julie Harris and Liza Minnelli and so on, the post-Home-Front pre-feminist era seems like a bloody golden age of feminine breakdowns, bottoming out alongside the post-feminist pre-suffragette era of Alice James and Clover Hooper Adams.

Hull's "Catherine" hits familiar marks: a questing young woman isolated in an aggressively male academic environment (here, the philosophy department of University College London); emotional collapse followed by traumatic institutionalization; substance abuse; joyless sleeping around; unplanned pregnancy; unsupportive marriage; fag-haggery; an old-school try at governessing; and a first experience of political demonstrations, teaching her the first lessons taught by all political demonstrations in every time and place:

‘But what I don’t understand,’ said Catherine, rubbing her head and feeling a bit better for the whisky, the crisis extravagance was still on, ‘is why. Why they charged us. What were we doing?’

‘Existing dear,’ said John, ‘if there are too many people existing in the same place at the same time they have to be removed. On a big scale it’s done by war. On a small scale by the police.’ [...]

‘I find it so extraordinary, when all one’s doing is trying to stop war, and people spit at you.’

What distinguishes The Monkey Puzzle from title onwards is its classically waster attitude, as if the whole mess has been redeemed by providing so many good-humored bar stories and flaring bar rants. It's the Paula Prentiss of young-woman-goes-insane novels.

* * *

Veronica Hull's recoverable literary career consists of a few months in 1958, during which she provided four (unsigned) reviews for the TLS:

The publishers have spared no pains to produce a book that is easy on the eye and has every appearance of scholarship. The writing is often good. But it is as if an intelligent, expert artist were commissioned to paint the portrait of an eminent but stupid general. Unable, for fear of hurting his sitter's feelings, to reproduce the complete vacuity of expression, the artist has instead concentrated on other aspects. The portrait that emerges is a curious one. The man has no face; but on his ample chest is a row of medals depicted, down to the last tedious detail, with the utmost care and accuracy.

This association ended around the time Hull's own book was blasted by (unsigned) Peter Myers in a group review:

Mrs. Hull, however, has succeeded only in being cynical in a juvenile way; she is inclined to rely too much on the merely crude (the dust-jacket delicately describes it as 'outrageous') to create an effect, and the reader, having been suitably shocked, as intended, in the first thirty pages or so, will find the repetition wearisome as he works his way towards the end. The story is told jerkily, in one sudden gush of effusiveness, and this style does not make the heroine's chaotic happenings any easier to follow. Characters are unpleasant and unsympathetic (doubtless they are meant to be) while the occasional flashes of mature wit do little to relieve these loosely packed trivia of an unattractive adolescence.

Mr. Richard Charles, in his enchanting novel, A Pride of Relations, has succeeded in full measure. He writes with real humour of three Great-Aunts, Betty, Frances and Jessica, of Grandfather Quincey Charles, and especially of Great-Uncle Justly....

Others provided kinder blurbs: Time and Tide with "the most promising first novel from a new English writer that I have read since the night I stayed up reading Iris Murdoch's Under the Net," Angus Wilson with "remarkably amusing, frightening, and intelligent," and young V. S. Naipaul with "shrewd, barbed, lit up with delicious perceptions" (albeit including reservations about her punctuation).

The book was not reprinted, however, nor published overseas, and its title lived on only among analytic philosophers. With the "rightly confident" blinkeredness so characteristic of the breed, Lord Quinton even declared her "a pseudonym."

It always puzzled Catherine that they should be able to indulge in this mysterious study of the meta without any reference to the science in question. She supposed she would understand one day, in the meantime the whole business seemed unimportant.

The final word I've found on her (or her editor-bookseller husband Tristram) was dropped in a boast by the aforementioned trouserless fellow.


UPDATE, December 28 2015: Last year I was completely at a loss as to how to find the novel's current rightsholder. Almost exactly one year later, Richard Hull, Veronica Hull's son, sent a very kind email mentioning his hope to find a house who will finally give The Monkey Puzzle the second (and longer-lived) edition it deserves. Go to, publishers!


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.