Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"So's Your Old Man" (1926)

For many years, "So's Your Old Man" was one of the hardest W.C. Fields films to see (when I inquired about it on an online newsgroup in 2000, I was informed that only a single print of it existed in the Library of Congress). Apparently the film was recently restored by the LOC, and within the last year, it has been making the rounds at a couple venues, including the W.C. Fields exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. I was able to catch a screening of it at Film Forum, where it was shown in a pristine 35mm print (looking as good as it must have back in 1926!) and accompanied with a live piano score by Steve Sterner. It was shown as part of the "Hollywood on the Hudson" series, showcasing films made in the New York and New Jersey areas.

What's remarkable is just how closely the film was remade by Fields in 1934, as "You're Telling Me". This silent film suffers in parts, as many late-silents do, by being a film that practically cries out for dialogue. This isn't even necessarily the case with Fields himself, but rather the expository scenes that rely heavily on dialogue to set up key plot points (there are several scenes that seem to go on too long, with the actors even talking to eachother in shot/reverse shot!) This tendency mars a lot of late-silents for me (Milestone's "The Racket" being another key example), and it's interesting to note that the 1934 sound remake might even be a more visual film than this one!

The premise is rather complicated: Sam Bisbee (Fields), a crackpot inventor, has perfected his latest wonder: a shatter-proof windshield. His daughter (Kittens Reichert) is engaged to be married to Robert Murchison (Charles "Buddy" Rogers, a year before his breakthrough performance in "Wings"). Mrs. Murchison (Julia Ralph) comes to call on Mrs. Bisbee (Marcia Harris, in a really funny performance) and is horrified when she meets her bumbling, coarse husband. The engagement is called off, and Bisbee heads off for Washington DC to make good by selling his shatter-proof glass to an auto company.

Once there, he proceeds to create disaster when his car is moved from the no-parking zone without his knowledge, and he proceeds to hurl bricks at the windows of an identical car that has parked nearby. With the police, and two angry auto owners, out to get him, Bisbee takes off and catches the train home. While on the train, he attempts to commit suicide, but fails repeatedly. This is one of the best-played scenes in the picture, with Fields reactions to his fellow traveler shaving with a dangerously sharp razor being some of the funniest moments in the film. On the same train is Princess Lescaboura of Spain, whom Bisbee meets when he believes she, too, is about to commit suicide. After talking her out of it, and explaining his own problems to her, she decides to help him by showing up in his hometown and restoring his standing in the community, saving the day for Fields' business deal as well as securing the happiness of his daughter.

Now comes the film's best scene: the golf tournament. This routine was filmed two other times by Fields, once in 1930 as "The Golf Specialist" (in which Al Wood played the caddy) and again in "You're Telling Me", this time with the great Tammany Young as his stooge. Here, though, Fields plays the scene with William "Shorty" Blanche, who'd appeared with Fields onstage in the sketch from which this scene was taken, and it's a real treat to see the two perform together. The scene works surprisingly well in the silent film format, and in some ways works even better because of the heightened emphasis on the visual nature of the scene, although one does miss Fields' muttering as he struggles with every conceivable obstacle.

The final scene, which was repeated in "You're Telling Me" and was later copied by Rodney Dangerfield in "Easy Money", has Fields bidding farewell to his family, who now look up to him as something of a hero, then sneaking off to the garage for a drink with his buddies. It's a delightfully satisfying conclusion to the film, and neatly wraps up this little comedy of wish-fulfillment very nicely.

This film was directed by the talented comedy director Gregory LaCava, a good personal friend of Fields'. It's tempting to view the film in light of the 1934 remake, because that version is one of Fields' best vehicles from that period, and works very creatively with sound in a number of scenes, including the shaving scene on the train, and the final golf tournament. Interestingly, one of the best scenes from the "You're Telling Me" that is totally absent from "So's Your Old Man" is the opening sequence in which Fields comes home, drunk, and uses one of his inventions to guide his key into the keyhole. This is a purely visual scene that would have worked well in a silent comedy, but it only goes to show the ways in which Fields was continually adapting and maturing his own cinematic style over the years. Even though Fields never took directing credit, he was heavily involved in all aspects of the construction of his films, and it's not an exaggeration to say that Fields' films improved as he had the opportunity to develop and expand on ideas he'd worked with before. A minor difference, too, is that in the remake, Fields' invention becomes puncture-proof tires rather than the shatter-proof windshields of the original. Another difference is in the pet that Fields picks out to bring home to his wife as a peace offering: in this film, it's a pony; in the remake, it's an ostrich. Frankly, the ostrich is much funnier, and the scene where Fields and the ostrich both bury their heads in the ground works much better than the scene in this film in which he and the pony munch on grass. One other delightful bit that is present in the remake, but not the original, is another highly visual scene in which Fields rolls a tire along the sidewalk, followed by a bunch of neighborhood kids. It's a fun, spontaneous kind of scene that adds a real dimension of sympathy to Fields' character.

It's perhaps unfair, though, to criticize any aspect of this film in relation to its sound remake. As a piece of silent comedy, it alternates between good moments of visual and physical humor (and Fields was still quite capable of rough physical comedy at this point in his career) and scenes that go on just a bit too long without the aid of spoken expository dialogue.

In "The Silent Clowns", Walter Kerr discusses Fields under his chapter on "The Demiclowns". He points to a key problem with Fields' work in silent films when he notes that "the comedian could not become whole-or a star of the first magnitude-until the visual and the verbal in him stopped interrupting each other, ceased occupying separate frames" (Kerr, 295). Fields may not have been an inherently silent comedian like Chaplin or Keaton, but his unique style of comedy was visual enough that many of his best sequences work in silence, such as the golf routine here, or the sleeping porch sequence in "It's the Old Army Game" (also 1926).

If Fields' comic persona only became whole with the added dynamic of sound, it could be said that Fields' whole cinematic art only achieved its mature style with sound, too. His silent comedies are delightful films in their own right, however, and "So's Your Old Man" works as a real crowd-pleaser, if tonight's screening at Film Forum is any indication. It was a rare treat to see America's greatest screen humorist in a tailor-made vehicle, in a splendid print with an appreciative audience.


Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

I hope to be able to see this one someday.

Unknown said...

I'm a fan of Cronenberg's work and my favorite works of his are Crash and Naked Lunch -- in part for some of the reasons you've described. His clinical approach to Crash is very much in keeping with Ballard's style, and his grotesque approach to Naked Lunch complements Bill Burroughs' outre imagination. Interestingly, Ballard and Burroughs admired each other's work. Cronenberg is the only filmmaker alive who could've tackled their work. Classic cutting edge entertainment.