Thursday, June 4, 2009

Comedy: The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933, Clyde Bruckman)

The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)
USA, 21 min
Directed by: Clyde Bruckman
Written by: W.C. Fields

They say that W.C. Fields was unique among comedians, and I'm not going to argue. The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933), generally ranked among his best efforts, wasn't as consistently hilarious as I'd been hoping, but one does certainly recognise that Fields had a style that was all his own. The film opens in the frozen Yukon goldfields, where a prospector sits huddled in the primitive shelter of a wooden hut – I immediately thought of Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1925), but then the characters started speaking and the spell was broken. The loose plot concerns a simpleton prospector whose son travelled to the city and was consumed by the bottle, eventually winding up in prison for three years. It all unfolds in mock seriousness, with every character shamelessly hamming their lines to the camera in broad, ridiculous accents. From Fields' apparent contempt for his own storyline, I'd say he was satirising a type of film that was relatively common in the early sound era, the sort of sombre morality tale about the corruption of the Big City on impressionable rural minds.

Perhaps Fields' type of comedy takes some getting used to, and his absurdist style of wit might easily be misconstrued as sloppy or stilted. Are those rear projections supposed to look so ridiculously fake? I'd like to think so, but, then again, I've seen many movies where obviously-bogus backgrounds have been used with a completely straight face. A lot of the time, Fields' lack of subtlety works perfectly. There's absolutely no reason why getting hit in the face with snow after saying "and it ain't a fit night out for man nor beast" should be funny the sixth time around, but I laughed every time it happened. There's also a droll self-referential moment when Fields chokes on the artificial snow and declares, "tastes more like cornflakes." Even so, while good for the occasional chuckle, The Fatal Glass of Beer feels oddly sparse in terms of laugh-out-loud jokes, and I certainly wasn't rolling in the aisles. Straight afterwards, I watched Buster Keaton's Cops (1922), and that actually did have me laughing my head off – but that'd be opening a whole new can of worms, wouldn't it?

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