W.C. Fields, who was as contemptuous of reporters and biographers as he was of everyone else, spread so many wild falsehoods about himself that it's impossible to know exactly what his story was. It does seem to have been verified, to the general satisfaction of scholars and aficionados, that he was born William Claude Dukenfield in Darby, Pennsylvania in 1880. His father was a carnival huckster, and may or may not have descended from one Lord Dukinfield of Dukinfield, Cheshire. Fields gravitated toward the stage at an early age, initially as a juggler. He was, of course, an avid drinker, and many of his most famous witticisms addressed this ("I lost my corkscrew. I had to live on food and water for days"). Long after the passing of the Twenty-third Amendment, he kept hundreds of cases of liquor in his attic, in case Prohibition returned. He was antisocial to the point of open hostility ("Any man who hates dogs and kids can't be all bad"), and when tourists came to gawk at his Hollywood home, he would hide in the bushes and shoot them with a BB gun.
He was a comic genius, and in the Golden Age, he was just about the only great comic anarchist whose surname was not Marx. Like Jackie Gleason and Peter Sellers, Fields used his remarkable physical grace and coordination to project awkwardness and clumsiness. He was a master of slapstick choreography. But his greatest contribution, and the thing that makes him a Modern Comic Hero of the highest rank, is his voice. Fields' mannered, lilting Yankee drawl was a unique instrument, capable of wringing laughs out of just about any sentence he uttered. His style of speech, like Groucho's or Johnny Carson's, has become part of the expressive currency of our language; people impersonate him all the time without even knowing it.
The Fatal Glass of Beer, a satirical two-reeler Fields made at the Mack Sennett studio in 1933, is just one of the best things ever. Fields adapted the screenplay from his sketch "The Stolen Bonds," which he had premiered on Broadway in the 1928 edition of Earl Carroll's Vanities. The sketch -- which essentially consisted of all the indoor scenes in the short -- was a parody of Victorian "temperance melodrama," set in a cabin in the Yukon. For the film, Fields conceived the outdoor scenes, which add another layer, making the piece a parody of silent film melodramas too. The self-conscious use of rear projection footage, the tiny sled dog whose feet don't reach the ground, and Fields' remark upon getting a mouthful of snowflakes ("Tastes more like cornflakes") are all ahead of their time in parodying the conventions of the medium; they're the kind of jokes that made Mel Brooks and Monty Python look like visionaries decades later.
Two other delights in this film:
The title song, whose lyrics are hilariously unlyrical, and which Fields croons over a dulcimer to priceless effect:
They tempted him to drink,and they said he was a coward,til at last he took the fatal glass of beer.When he found what he had done,he dashed the glass upon the floor,and staggered through the doorwith delirium tremens.
And the celebrated running gag in which Fields, upon entering or leaving the cabin, holds the door, gazes off in the distance, and intones, "It ain't a fit night out for man or beast," only to be pelted in the face with what is obviously a handful of fake snow tossed by a stagehand.
But the best thing about The Fatal Glass of Beer is the fact that Fields' signature speaking style meshes so beautifully with the kind of melodrama he's satirizing. The supporting players -- all of whom are spot-on -- are not lampooning melodrama as much as impersonating Fields. The dialogue in this film is a treat, and some exchanges, like the endless saying goodnight (forty years before The Waltons), are sublimely ridiculous. It's a movie in which every single character talks like W.C. Fields.