I’ve never been one for old movies. I mean, when I’m channel flipping and I see something in black and white, unless it’s Young Frankenstein, I charge right on through until I find something with far less redeeming social value. And more explosions.
But I have one soft spot for the old films. And it all started with pizza.
When we lived in Columbus, my parents used to take us to this Italian place named “Franco’s.” While as Steeler fans, the name resonated with us immediately, our appreciation for the place went beyond our ball-carrying paisan. They used to show old black and white movie shorts on a blank wall, while you and your family munched on pizza. And one of the recurrent stars was WC Fields.
After getting some giggles over WC Fields’ anti-social, alcoholic exploits, I looked into some more of his work and became a big fan.
There were a lot of qualities that got me hooked. I was drawn to the rascally attitude… his sticking it to the conventions of the times. He drank too much, gambled, cheated at cards, hustled billiard games, told tall tales and had no tolerance for children.
I wanted to grow up to be him.
But the thing I loved the best was simply the cadence of his speech and love for funny-sounding words.
Later, when I was in college, a buddy gave me a record album he had in his family. It was a series of vocal snippets from various WC Fields movies. It was a goldmine of material for me. I used it to drop sound bytes in between songs, during my air shifts on our college radio station. All the cool radio stations of the time were using drop-ins. There was a lot of movie lines, cartoons, maybe some Three Stooges. But no one was using WC Fields.
At a very early age, it helped mold me into the ne’er-do-well raconteur I am today.
These were some of my favorites. (Now you have to imagine them in the Fields voice and cadence.)
Bar customer: Squonk Mulligan tells me you buried your wife several years ago.
WCF: Ahh, yes, I had to… She died.
(That was on the clip above.) A perfectly obvious observation, and so devoid of sentimentality. This one ties in as well:
Guy: Mr. Wiffin tells me your wife has passed away…
WCF: Yes, the poor dear was killed in Upper Sandusky… run over by a pie wagon…
Woman: Do you like children?
WCF: I do if they’re properly cooked.
That was one of his most famous lines and his signature attitude. With “most” children, that is…
Girl: Why didn’t you ever marry?
WCF: I was in love with a beautiful blond once, dear. She drove me to drink. That’s the one thing I’m indebted to her for.
That’s perhaps my favorite line of all. I wish I could find the YouTube clip of it.
WCF: Sleep! The most beautiful experience in life… except drink!
Lady: Don’t be so free with your hands!
WCF: Listen honey… I was only trying to guess your weight… You take things too seriously…
His love of drink was legendary. Sometimes the jokes were obvious. This one was somewhat more subtle:
WCF: During one my treks (he pronounced it “treeks”) through Afghanistan, we lost our corkscrew. We had to live on nothing but food and water… for several days…
The beauty of that exchange was that this was the 1940s… $20 was an obscene amount of money to blow in a bar at the time.
To get past the movie censors, he had to invent his own brand of profanity:
He was also a master juggler and billiards trick-shot artist. These skills fed into his gift for physical comedy.
I don’t really have a point to this post… I was remembering some old lines and felt like talking about it. If you’ve found any of this even remotely interesting, there is a wealth of WC Fields movie clips on YouTube. If not… I’ll be back with a new post on Sunday.