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W C Fields And Me
USA 1976
Directed by Arthur Hiller
Running time 111 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars


W.C.Fields And Me is both very much in the traditional “print the legend” style of authorized biography such as that of Fields’ own one-time boss, Florenz Zeigfeld, in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and symptomatic of the era’s fascination with the Art Deco period, unapologetically romanticized in films such as The Great Gatsby (1975) and The Day of The Locust (1976).  Yet although it was heavily criticized in its day for its lack of realism and has largely disappeared from view it remains a entertaining film due largely to the well-known character of Fields himself.

Rod Steiger plays the famous curmudgeon who we follow from his time as a headlining vaudevillean in the Ziegfeld Follies through (briefly) bankruptcy in the aftermath of  ’29 stock-market crash to re-found stardom in Hollywood where only Chaplin was more popular, an ascendancy which apparently galled Fields grievously.  

Loosely based on a memoir by Fields’ mistress, Carlotta Monti (played by Valerie Perrine), the film largely plays to Fields’ well-known screen persona with Steiger despite looking like Van Johnson playing Fields, making for a reasonable facsimile of the star. The script by Bob Merrill, mainly known as a composer and lyricist for stage and film (suggesting perhaps that the film was at one time intended to be a musical) carries over the screen image into Fields’ private life and achieves some success in humanizing the caricature, showing us a profoundly lonely individual concealed behind the booze-bolstered cynicism with Steiger handling the shifts from one to the other with credibility.  The main problem with the film is that in terms of narrative there is little development and hence we are left us with an excess of Fields’ drunken bouts with his "locker room" cronies.

FYI: Apparently the film has never been released on a home entertainment format due to the successful efforts of Fields' grandson to suppress it (on what grounds I know not) but the misanthropy on display is well suited to our modern sensibility and it deserves to be better known.

 

 

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