THE GOLF SPECIALIST (1930) – The lack of mise-en-scene of W.C. Fields

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Movie comedy is generally not noted for being “cinematic,” since it usually centers on particular personalities and doesn’t allow for what Charlie Chaplin once called “Hollywood chi-chi.” But from the so-called Golden Age of Film Comedy, there is probably no comedian with greater disdain for movie nicety than W.C. Fields.

While most of Fields’ movies are quite leisurely in the matters of exposition and plotline, there are two blatant examples where Fields seems to have just thrown things together moments before the camera turned. One is his final starring feature film, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), an intermittently funny but disjointed mess that my online writer-friend John Brennan aptly refers to as “The Bank Dick a few drinks later.” The other example is Fields’ first talkie, the short subject The Golf Specialist.

Much has been made of Fields’ celebrated golf routine in this movie, as it derives from a 1918 sketch that Fields wrote and performed for the Ziegfield Follies titled “An Episode on the Links.” Show-biz blogger Trav S.D goes so far as to state that the sketch, whose text was printed in Simon Louvish’s Fields biography, “proves to be the basis of the film almost in its entirety.” But that’s true only for the short subject’s second half. The movie’s first section that leads up to the golf sketch is so rambling and catch-as-catch-can, one could go so far as to claim that it’s Fields’ own Un Chien Andalou.

The movie begins with a quick opening title, followed by stock footage of a slow, slogging pan across the estate of a Florida hotel, as mournful music plays on the soundtrack. This is followed by a singularly weird establishing sequence in the hotel’s lobby.

A woman loudly complains to a man that she has been ignoring him, and she sits him down and sits on his lap to keep him put. Then the hotel’s house detective enters. The woman turns out to be the detective’s wife with a well-established reputation of, er, getting around. The detective grabs the man, while the woman nonchalantly hollers “Help, murder,” over and over, as though she had been getting assaulted against her will. Finally, the detective disposes of the man by — I can’t believe I’m writing this — wrapping the man’s legs around his shoulders and rolling him out of the lobby.

I don't think this was in the original Ziegfield Follies script.

I don’t think this was in the original Ziegfield Follies script.

The detective tells his wife not to let any more men get fresh with her (because, of course, she had nothing to do with it). The woman tries to make time with the lobby clerk and with a social group gathered in the lobby, but nobody wants to have anything to do with her. (One member of the group is inexplicably bandaged on the forehead and cheek, as though there’s some explanation of this to come, but there isn’t.)

Maybe he got beaten up when he asked for an explanation of the script.

Maybe he got beaten up when he asked for an explanation of the script.

Then a seafaring-looking guy wanders into the lobby and asks for J. Effingham Bellweather (Fields’ character). The clerk replies that Bellweather is out, and the guy asks the clerk to write Bellweather a note on his behalf. The guy then assertively dictates what he will do to Bellweather if he’s not paid the $40 that Bellweather owes him. Two seconds after the guy exits left out of the hotel, Fields enters right. Real observant guy, this seafarer.

Fields asks if he has any messages, and the clerk gives Fields the aforementioned note. Fields reads it, discreetly looks around to ensure that nobody will catch him in the ensuing lie, tears up the note, and says, “Silly little girl,” as the clerk rolls his eyes.

A very loud female toddler enters holding a bank box, tells Fields she’s five years old, and asks Fields if she’ll give him a dollar. Uncharacteristically generously, Fields says she’ll give her a dollar if she’ll sing a song for him. The girl replies that she wants the dollar first. Fields says, “You’re more than five, scram!” The girl tells him she doesn’t need the dollar as she already has $50 in her bank. Fields shows his true colors when he tries to steal the bank, but the girl wails whenever he grabs at it.

An old acquaintance comes up to the hotel desk and asks Fields what he’s up to. He replies, “I’m negotiating for a bank.” While Fields makes small talk with the man, the girl tells Fields over and over to lift her up by her hair. Fields doesn’t realize that the detective’s wife has reappeared next to him, and he is now fondling the wife’s fur that’s over her shoulder. Naturally, this doesn’t sit to well with the detective, who stares at Fields wide-eyed as he sheepishly walks away. Bet he’ll give the girl the dollar next time.

The detective leaves, and the woman goes to make time with Fields, telling him that her husband might have hit her if he hadn’t been there. By way of showing his sensitivity, Fields tells the woman, “Why, I’ve never struck a woman in my whole life, not even my own mother!”

It is at about this point that Fields invites the detective’s wife to join him on the course as he goes out for a game of golf. And in keeping with the ramshackle construction of this short, it is at this point I will end my review, stating only two things in conclusion: (1) Fields manages to make not shooting one single golf shot one of the funniest events ever recorded. (2) If you’re looking for a Fieldsian drinking game, take a drink every time Fields says some variation of the line, “Stand clear and keep your eye on the ball!”

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