Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: W.C. Fields: Six Short Films (Criterion Collection) (1933)
Studio Line: The Criterion Collection/Home Vision

W.C. Field's prolific career placed him at the forefront of slapstick comedy. Gathered here are all six gems that feature the comic genius at his peak: The Golf Specialist, Pool Sharks (Silent), The Pharmacist, The Fatal Glass Of Beer, The Barber Shop and, of course, the notorious The Dentist. This unique collection will delight new generations of viewers with Field's hilariously sardonic routines.

Director: Various
Cast: W.C. Fields
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Mono; subtitles English; single side - single layered; rated NR; 115 min.; $29.95; 8/22/00.
Supplements: Liner Notes Booklet.
Purchase: DVD | The Complete Films of W.C. Fields - Donald Deschner

Picture/Sound/Extras: See Text/See Text/D-

As is probably true of most members of my generation, I'm as well-acquainted with W.C. Fritos as I am with W.C. Fields. Most of my thoughts about the man's work tend toward the stereotypical: the bulbous nose, the hat, "my little chickadee", etc.

Since I'm always - or at least usually - happy to broaden my cinematic horizons, I was pleased to get a look at W.C. Fields: 6 Short Films. This DVD packs in six of Fields' little movies that he made between 1915 and 1933, though the spread isn't quite as broad as it sounds; one of the clips - "The Pool Sharks" - comes from 1915, but the other five appeared during the 1930s. Each of the shorts lasts between 11 and 22 minutes, with the oldest one being the briefest; of the additional five, none run less than 19 minutes.

Overall, I enjoyed these movies. I can't say they bowled me over, but they gave me a greater appreciation for the humor of the era. While some comedy is universal, a lot of it depends on so much era-related information that it loses power over time. For example, most topical humor loses effectiveness as the years pass.

For the most part, that's not an issue with Fields' work, at least as presented here. The first clip, 1915's "Pool Sharks", is the only one that comes across as truly dated and tiresome, which is something of a surprise, since it relies on no verbal comedy; physical humor should translate across the years better but in this case, it doesn't. Frankly, "PS" is a pretty lousy movie without a single laugh. It merits inclusion here simply because it marked Fields' first film appearance. By the way, is it just me or does anybody else think the young Fields look kind of like Steve Martin?

Much better but still not great is 1930's "The Golf Specialist". It starts well, especially as Fields interacts with a little girl (one of his favorite targets) but goes downhill after a few minutes. Much of the film shows the slapstick interaction between an exasperated Fields and an oddly dense caddy, and while this is funny for a few minutes, it meanders well past the point of usefulness. It appears "TGS" was another historical requirement; it was Fields' first "talkie" and probably earned its spot for that reason.

Next up is 1932's "The Dentist". I probably should have enjoyed this one; it shows a very harsh and sadistic Fields, and the DVD's case even calls it "notorious". However, it didn't do much for me. The piece felt like a lot of physical humor with little purpose, and I thought the results fell flat. Frankly, I felt this was the worst short after "Pool Sharks".

The next film - 1933's "The Fatal Glass of Beer" - is much more successful. In fact, it's absolutely terrific, if also extremely odd. As stated in the DVD's booklet, the short is a parody of Yukon melodramas of the period, and it provides some hilariously stiff and dry performances. The style shows a different Fields than the one to which we're accustomed, as he sort of plays it straight, though the intended effect is to get laughs, of course. And garner guffaws he does; "TFGOB" peters out a little before the end, but overall I really enjoyed this one.

1933's "The Pharmacist" also works well, though it's not as good as the prior film. It works from the point of view that Fields plays one of the world's worst businessmen; he runs a small store that can't get a break. I disagreed with the interpretation of this piece offered in the DVD's booklet, which indicates that it mocks the local yokels who patronize the business; I thought the harshest effect came down on Fields' character, who comes across as a desperate moron. After all, he gives away huge and expensive-looking vases with each purchase, even if the customer only buys a three-cent stamp. It's entertaining, in a pathetic manner.

Lastly, the program ends on a good note with 1933's "The Barber Shop". I also thought Fields played slightly against character here as well, if just because he seems so darned tolerant. In "The Pharmacist", he puts up with idiots because a) he's even more foolish, and b) he thinks he can build his business that way. However, in "TBS", Fields just seems like a more cheerful guy. He still comes across as a blowhard and a liar, but he displays genuine affection toward his son in the piece, something that rarely occurs in Fields' work.

Speaking of blowhards, look at me - I've watch a couple of hours of the guy's stuff and I think I'm an expert! Well, that last statement is based on Fields' classic reputation as much as I take it from the material I saw on this DVD. In any case, W.C. Fields: 6 Shorts provided a nice introduction to the man's work. I can't say it makes me want to buy everything he committed to film, but I found it to offer a generally fun and interesting experience.

The DVD:

All of the pieces on 6 Short Films appear in their original aspect ratios of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions.

"Pool Sharks" (B-/C) is by far the oldest of these films, but surprisingly, it looks the best, especially if I "curve" my grade. The piece starts with some outdoor shots that look quite nice. It's a crisp image that presents a solidly gray tone with strong contrast, and only moderate speckling mars the presentation.

The second half of the short goes indoors, where the picture goes downhill. Contrast seems more problematic, as faces appear excessively white, while some slight fuzziness interferes as well. Additional print flaws arrive; I noticed some grain, plus scratches, tears and more speckles. Nonetheless, considering the extreme age of the material, it looks quite good.

The original release of "PS" featured no sound, of course, other than musical accompaniment that would have been played live at a cinema. That "score" is replicated here with a monaural track of undetermined origin. It sounds clear and smooth, but without much range. Still, it seemed to deserve a very average "C".

"The Golf Specialist" (C+/C+) presents a decent but inconsistent image. Sharpness appears fairly clear, though it can become moderately soft at times. Black levels seem a little mushy but are acceptable, and the contrast tends to be somewhat overly gray. Print flaws appear to a moderate degree, as I witnessed various examples of speckles, grain and scratches. Overall it looks a little above average for its age.

The same applies for the film's monaural soundtrack. I thought the audio appeared clear and distinct for the most part, though it could sound fairly brittle and edgy. Some modest background noise occurs throughout the film.

For "The Dentist" (D+/C), the image takes a turn for the worse. The picture seemed excessively bright and washed out, and it looked rather hazy and fuzzy most of the time. Print flaws appeared frequently but not at a horrendous rate; for the most part, the level of speckles, scratches and grain seemed moderate.

The monaural audio appeared very average for the era. It sounded bright and crisp but betrayed some edginess and harshness throughout the movie. It also offered a fair amount of clicks and pops in the background.

"The Fatal Glass of Beer" (C/D+) starts out well and remains that way for most of the piece, but it does decline during the second half. Initially, it offers some solid black levels and gray tones. The image seems slightly fuzzy but not radically so, and relatively few print flaws appear; just some general speckling and grain without anything terrible, though the "outdoor" scenes use rear projection photography and come across as dirtier and messier.

The second half of the film appears generally fuzzier and darker than the first segment. It also shows more speckles and scratches. The overall image remains acceptable, but it seems disappointing since this fine short started off so well.

The film's monaural audio sounds disappointing from start to finish. Throughout the movie, it appears rather harsh and shrill, with dialogue that appears intelligible but can be awfully edgy and distorted. Moderate background noise further interferes with the soundtrack.

"The Pharmacist" (C+/C+) offers a generally nice package. The picture looks fairly sharp and crisp throughout the film, and it maintains a relatively low level of print flaws; we find a mild display of the usual scratches, grain and speckles, but nothing out of the ordinary. Black levels seem a bit bland and muddled, and the movie presents a generally flat gray tone, but it appears acceptably well-defined.

The monaural soundtrack seems similarly decent. Although the audio can come across as slightly harsh and edgy much of the time, it lacks the excessively shrill tone of "Fatal..." and appears clear and relatively smooth. Light background noise can be heard throughout the movie.

Finally, "The Barber" (D+/C-) presents a fairly unsatisfying image. It resembled "The Dentist" in that it appeared too bright and also came across as fairly soft and fuzzy. The print betrayed a moderately high level of scratches, nicks, speckles and grain.

Also relatively weak is the film's monaural audio. While the sound remained fairly clear, it seemed excessively flat and muddled, without any brightness or liveliness. I also heard a relatively high level of background noise on this track.

6 Short Films offers almost no supplemental features. All we find are some good liner notes from writer Dennis Perrin in the booklet. Criterion often include audio commentaries from film historians, and one would have been especially valuable here since it could have given neophytes like myself a nice look at Fields' career.

More than half a century after his death, W.C. Fields remains quite famous, even though folks like myself don't know all that much of his actual work. The movies of 6 Short Films provide a good overview of his oeuvre and gave me a better appreciate of Fields' talent. The DVD provides generally decent picture and sound when one considers the age of the material, although it includes almost no extras. Both established fans of classic films and curious neophytes like myself should give this package a look.

Menu: DVD Movie Guide | Archive | Top