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64 of 67 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Marvelous showcases for one of comedy's transcendent talents, September 10, 2004
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This review is from: W.C. Fields: 6 Short Films (The Golf Specialist / Pool Sharks / The Pharmacist / The Fatal Glass of Beer / The Barber Shop / The Dentist) (The Criterion Collection) (DVD)
W. C. Fields is universally regarded as one of the greatest and most influential comedians in the history of cinema, but apart from THE BANK DICK and perhaps NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK, his films are wildly inconsistent, with utterly delicious moments sandwiched with large hunks of what feels like filler to stretch the action out to the length of a feature film. Even in one of Fields's better films, like IT'S A GIFT (with possibly the greatest comeback line I have ever heard; upon being told that he is drunk, Fields retorts, "And you're crazy. But I'll be sober tomorrow and you'll be crazy the rest of your life."), the dull or bad completely outweighs the good. In most of his films, we wait through the dross to get to the nuggets of pure gold. This is why in many ways these short films by Fields are quite possibly the best way to ingest Fields. There are just as many funny moments as in the feature films, and not as long to wait between jokes.

Unfortunately, this is quite probably the worst disc that Criterion has ever produced. I give the disc five stars based on the quality of the material, but the execution of the disc is simply terrible. The prints all seem to be minimally restored, if at all. Worse, the titles and even the music sometimes seem to come from other decades. I am perplexed. Criterion usually sets the standards for quality restoration of classic films. If I was grading the execution of the disc rather than the shorts, I would give this one star.

POOL SHARKS-Probably the best known of Fields's many silent reels, and the most successful. Despite his extraordinary facility with props of all kinds, Fields's act on both stage and screen depended to a large extent on his voice. Seeing him in a silent film is like watching a magician without his patter. It is not entertaining, but it is also not exceptional, and exceptional is what Fields was at his best. It is remarkable to see how young Fields looked in it. He wouldn't become a major success until he was in his fifties, so that it is sometimes hard to think of him as having been young. The titles seem to have been added in the 1950s.

THE GOLF SPECIALIST shows Fields at his finest, with his superb gift in effortlessly manipulating props in full flower. The premise is absurdly simple: a petty crook masquerading as a gentleman is going to show an excessively flirtatious married woman how to play golf. Nearly the entire skit consists of Fields attempting to hit the ball for the first time, with one thing or another preventing his doing so.

THE DENTIST-This short is rendered less enjoyable than it ought to have been by a highly annoying score that harms the film by its presence. Ironically, it actually has more golf played in it than in THE GOLF SPECIALIST, and one of the clubs seems to have come from the previous short. The scene where he is pulling the tooth of a female patient is hysterical, but the quality of the print is bad near the beginning, and gets even worse near the end.

THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER-This is the best short in the collection, as well as being containing some of Fields's best work anywhere. There is no story to speak of: a pioneer in the Alaskan wilderness first sings a song about "The Fatal Glass of Beer" to a Monty in a cabin before dog sledding through the wilderness to his other, slightly more civilized cabin where his wife is. Their son returns after a three-year stint in prison. But all this is a pretext for a string of brilliant one-liners (including the immortal, "'T'aint a fit night out for man nor beast"), sight gags, and stunts. A classic.

THE PHARMACIST shows how crucial Fields was to these shorts. This is a very funny film, but replace him with virtually any other comedian and it would be bland and uninteresting. In a way, nothing truly funny happens except what Fields himself makes it so. I can watch and rewatch the scene where a man walks up and down the counter, with Fields attempting to entice him with his various offerings. There are no great one liners, nothing that one could repeat to another person and make them laugh. You literally have to be there in front of the screen, listening to Fields's voice, watching his face. In a way, this is by far the least funny of all of these shorts, because there is virtually nothing intrinsically funny about any part of it. But Fields performs his comic alchemy and produced gold.

THE BARBER SHOP-- Next to THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER, this is my favorite short of the bunch. Fields is at his best, and he gets off some great one liners and memorable comic bits, including a great one about a dog hoping for an ear to eat. One of the joys of any Fields film are the names of the characters, and this one has one of my favorites, the appropriately named Mrs. Broadbottom. Again, as in his other shorts, replace Fields and you have an absolutely average film. The film provides additional evidence that Fields is without doubt one of the most inherently funny individuals in the history of film. He probably would have had an audience in stitches merely reading a company's annual report.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Oct 6, 2006 7:28:13 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 6, 2006 7:29:52 AM PDT
Charlie says:
I agree with you about the feature length fillms being kind of dull and padded. For instance, I thought "You Can't Cheat An Honest Man" was overall a somewhat uninteresting film, but the parts with Fields doing his thing were great. Like the part where he does the ventriloquist routine, hilarious!

The shorts are preferable to the films, you get more bang for your buck.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 16, 2009 4:34:04 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 16, 2009 4:34:21 PM PST
I dunno, while I agree that several of Fields' films focus way too much on some silly sideplot than the Great Man's business, I can't find many "dull" or "boring" moments in neither IT'S A GIFT, THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY, YOU'RE TELLING ME! or MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE...

Very good review btw. :)

Posted on Feb 18, 2016 10:54:49 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 18, 2016 11:23:01 AM PST
Thanks for remarking on the poor quality of Criterion's edition. I would have presumed that the Criterion brand guaranteed high quality. It's absurd that used copies of this disk are being offered for >$80! Three of these films are in the public domain, and can be found on the Web for free. I'll never buy another Criterion disk without first reading the reviews! Caveat emptor!

In reply to an earlier post on May 28, 2016 11:45:36 AM PDT
I don't think that's entirely fair. These shorts have had numerous re-released over the years and, at the time, the Criterion disc was probably the best release of this material on home video. This is changing now as restorations from high quality source material is being done (a pristine restored print of The Dentist is one of many highlights of Flicker Alley's Mack Sennett collection vol. 1 Blu-ray.)
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