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


(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!”

John Barrymore and the Bundy Drive Boys


The following is my entry in The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, being hosted Aug. 12-15, 2015 by the blog In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood to honor Ethel Barrymore’s 136th birthday. Click on the above banner, and read a wide range of blog entries related to several generations of “the royal family of Hollywood,” the acting Barrymores!


DISCLAIMER: The primary source for this article was the book Hollywood’s Hellfire Club: The Misadventures of John Barrymore, W.C. Fields, Errol Flynn and “The Bundy Drive Boys” (Feral House, 2007), by Gregory William Mank with Charles Heard and Bill Nelson. A more sobering (forgive the pun) and cautionary tale about the consequences of alcoholism you’ll never find. If you haven’t read the book, I’ll say what I always say with my movie reviews: Major spoilers ahead!

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Before there was a Rat Pack, there were the Bundy Drive Boys.

When it came to drawing similarly minded men into his alcoholic orbit, John Barrymore (above, center) was truly a celestial being. His pack of Bundy Drive Boys had amazingly similar dysfunctions: mother issues, misogyny, and endless self-loathing, which no amount of booze could ever extinguish (though heaven knows it wasn’t for lack of trying). Over the course of two decades, the following men fell into the circle of Barrymore idolatry:


artist John Decker, best known for both his cockeyed paintings of celebrities and for his masterful forgeries of Old Masters’ works, which he delighted in selling to pretentious Hollywood art collectors as though his paintings were the genuine articles. Decker’s home on Bundy Drive was the group’s meeting place, and its entranceway sported a Decker-painted coat-of-arms, underneath which read the phrase, “Useless. Insignificant. Poetic.”


Sadakichi Hartmann, a half-German, half-Japanese artist who avoided bathing on a regular basis and whose outrageous live shows presaged much of today’s performance art. One of Hartmann’s efforts was a “Perfume Concert” in which he attempted to waft Germany-related scents towards the paying audience. At one performance, when the audience responded negatively, Hartmann tried to burn the theater down.


Gene Fowler, a journalist and writer who had such disdain and distrust for Hollywood that he demanded to be paid daily for his work. He later chronicled the frolics of the Bundy Drive Boys in the book Minutes of the Last Meeting.


Alan Mowbray, a British actor who accumulated countless movie and TV acting credits, yet hated the sight of his face on-screen and never viewed any of his own work.


Roland Young, best known for his Oscar-nominated role as Topper in the movie of the same name. When he appeared with Barrymore in a silent-film version of Sherlock Holmes, Barrymore feared that co-star Young was getting lost in the shuffle, so Barrymore gave him bits of business to do. Later, upon seeing the finished film, Barrymore realized that Young had stolen every scene.


Thomas Mitchell, famed character actor of Stagecoach (for which he won an Oscar), Gone with the Wind, and It’s a Wonderful Life (as Uncle Billy).


John Carradine, who had a bad case of Shakespeare out the yin-yang, reciting The Bard’s work loudly at every opportunity (including one evening at an empty Hollywood Bowl, waking director John Ford out of a sound sleep). Carradine took Z-movie horror roles to finance his Shakespeare productions, which killed his chances of ever being taken seriously in Hollywood.


Ben Hecht, amazing writer (often with partner Charles MacArthur) of renowned plays and movies including The Front Page, Underworld, and the original Scarface.


Errol Flynn, swashbuckling movie hero whose sexual proclivities were no secret to anyone in Hollywood, nor to anyone else after a 1943 statutory rape trial from which he barely escaped conviction.


W.C. Fields, legendary stage and movie comedian and (next to Barrymore) surely the most famously alcoholic of the group. In one instance, Fields made his way to Bundy Drive shortly after enduring an unpleasant medical exam. “That nitwit doctor!” Fields complained to his friends. “The nefarious quack claimed he found urine in my whiskey!”


Anthony Quinn, the youngest of the group (he was only 27 when Barrymore died) and, at that point, mostly a supporting movie actor in “ethnic” roles. Perhaps Quinn’s primary value to the group was that, having the same blood type as Barrymore and Decker, he could be (and often was) relied upon to provide blood transfusions for them.

“These men lived intensely,” wrote Gene Fowler, “as do children and poets and jaguars.” And they often behaved as wildly as those three varied groups as well. They played pranks on each other (and on greater Hollywood), wept when Anthony Quinn recited Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to them, and caroused and drank through the night in their attempts to stave off Father Time.

Women were the bane of the group, and vice versa. The men’s wives and girlfriends despised this all-boys club, and between various issues of parental desertion and sexual abuse, the men had enough female-related issues to rationalize their drinking for decades. Thus much of the social life of Barrymore & Co. revolved around the comings and goings at Bundy Drive — as if, like a dementedly happy ending from a W.C. Fields comedy, they could drink their way out of psychic misery.

Indeed, the group seemed to feel that the only cure for alcoholism was to give themselves over to it freely, resulting in an inordinate amount of black humor. One example was Decker’s drawing of Barrymore and Fields, lying side by side as they received an intravenous drip from the same container — a bottle marked “Gin.”

Barrymore’s descent into alcoholism was like a mudslide, starting slowly but picking up momentum as it went along. From being a mesmerizing stage and screen actor who drew crowds of feverish fans in the 1920’s, he spent the next decade and beyond devolving into a boozy caricature of himself.

Left to right: John Barrymore, in 1920 and 1940.

Left to right: John Barrymore, in 1920 and 1940.

As Barrymore’s Bundy Drive friends were in similar straits, they had no recourse or resources to help him turn his life around. Indeed, the only person who dared to even point out Barrymore’s sharp decline was Diana, Barrymore’s estranged daughter from his second marriage. She came to Hollywood four months before Barrymore died and chastized Decker for assisting Barrymore in his decadent lifestyle. In turn, Barrymore (at least by Diana’s own account) asked Diana to go to bed with him. She never saw him again after that.

In May of 1942, Barrymore was rehearsing for a radio show when he had his final collapse. He spent 11 days in a hospital where Decker, Fowler, Mitchell, and Mowbray were always nearby, and Quinn visited as well. Fields, uncomfortable with dying and the dead, simply sent Barrymore a telegram stating, “You can’t do this to me.”

On Barrymore’s final day of life, when Fowler saw Barrymore deliriously tearing at his eczema-inflamed skin, he couldn’t take anymore and left. Decker, ever the inspired artist, did a famous drawing of Barrymore in his twilight hours (shown below).


Shortly thereafter, Barrymore died. The primary cause of death was cirrhosis of the liver. Barrymore’s medical examiner did some figuring and conservatively concluded that, based on Barrymore’s 40 years of drinking, he had consumed 3,200 gallons of alcohol in his lifetime.

Hartmann, Fields, and Decker died within five years after Barrymore — cirrhosis of the liver was a prime or related cause of Fields’ and Decker’s deaths, and it would be for Flynn’s — and the boys’ club began to disband from there. The last surviving member — and the one who seemingly achieved the most success — was Anthony Quinn, who died in 2001 at age 86 after a (two-) Oscar-winning career.


Strangely, the macabre story of John Barrymore doesn’t quite end there. In his will, Barrymore stated that he wished to be cremated upon death, but his brother Lionel vetoed that request and opted for burial. 37 years later, in a caper worthy of the Bundy Drive Boys, Barrymore’s son, John Drew Barrymore (“Johnny”) decided to carry out his father’s wishes, and he enlisted his son, John Blyth Barrymore (“John III”) to assist in the project. (Both are shown above.)

Through a series of elaborate machinations (none of them involving “my insane Barrymore relatives,” as John III put it), the junior Barrymores exhumed the body from the Main Mausoleum in Whittier, CA.’s Catholic Calvary Cemetery and took it to the nearest crematory. Johnny decided that he had to have a last look at his father (while John III declined, the body’s decaying stench having repulsed him from the idea). When Johnny left the crematory, he was pale and crying. “Thank God I’m drunk,” he told his son. “I’ll never remember it.”

Make me laugh!


This week, one of my favorite bloggers, TV scripter and novelist Ken Levine, asked: “Can comedy stand the test of time?” As an example, Levine cited Steve Martin’s once-famous catchphrase, “Ex-cuse ME!”, and posited that a current teenager wouldn’t have any idea why someone from the 1970’s would laugh at such a thing. Levine also mentioned how the Marx Brothers enjoyed a 1960’s and ’70s revival that seems to have dimmed down considerably since then.

Well, can comedy stand the test of time? My answer is:

If it’s comedy that you’re still talking about, then yes.

I grew up in that hallowed era of the 1970’s. All around me, on TV and in revival movie theaters, were testaments to the eternal comedic appeal of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Fields, the Marx Brothers, and Laurel & Hardy. Then I got to witness the budding of comic masters such as Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, and Monty Python.

These days, my college-age son and daughter do the usual scoffing at their old man’s pop-culture tastes, yet they’ve managed to pick and choose things they like from that era. My daughter has enjoyed Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and the musical version of The Producers with me. I’m not the Cheech & Chong fan that I was as a teenager, but my son definitely enjoys their streetwise humor. And while neither of my kids is a die-hard Monty Python fan like me, my son is head over heels over Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and my daughter has let down her guard enough to let the “Fish Slapping Dance” and “Argument Clinic” sketches make her laugh like crazy.

Conversely, the kids enjoy comedy that doesn’t terribly interest me, such as Amy Schumer (daughter) and Louis C.K. (son). I’ve watched some of their work and don’t particularly “get” them, but I can appreciate why the next generation does.

The thing is, there’s nothing more subjective than comedy. If someone enjoys the same comedy that you do, you have had some measure of bonding with that person. And if someone doesn’t pick up on a comedian who makes you tear up with laughter, expect the very definition of “stony bitch face” from that other person.

Anyway, I’m in my mid-fifties, and I’ve long given up on trying to apologize for or rationalize my tastes in pop culture. Like any comedy fan, I like what I like, and if you don’t agree…

Well, ex-CUUUUUUUSE ME!!!!!!!!


W.C. Fields in THE BANK DICK (1940) – Don’t be a jabbernowl, watch this comedy classic!


Trying to review W.C. Fields’ The Bank Dick in cinematic terms is like trying to watch Christina Hendricks act while she’s wearing a string bikini — the talent is obviously there, but other distracting factors are also at hand.

Suffice to say that if you’re familiar with the Fields persona — a bellicose and verbose man, trying to make a name in the world while in a constant alcoholic haze — The Bank Dick will be just your pick-me-up. Here, Fields is Egbert Souse’ (“Accent grave over the ‘e’,” as an opening bit of exposition helpfully tells us). Souse’s sole goal in life is to make his timely daily visit to his favorite saloon, The Black Pussy Cat Cafe. (Souse and his cohorts helpfully say the saloon’s name over and over, leaving us to wonder if the censor was on a bender as well.) Souse is constantly thwarted in this goal by his extremely unloving family (all female), who vigorously demonstrate why Souse is always so eager to leave the house.

By turns, Souse becomes a robbery-thwarting hero, a movie director, a bank guard (the movie’s title has to have been another one-up on the censors), and a robbery-thwarting hero again. Along the way, Fields exchanges verbal gems with his regular bartender Joe (future Stooge Shemp Howard, as great a straight man as anyone ever had), drops non sequitors at every chance, and ends the movie with one of the movies’ funniest-ever chases, not to mention Souse getting rewarded far beyond his due. (Preston Sturges seemed to absorb this lesson two years later for The Palm Beach Story: If the studio wants a happy ending, give it to ’em in spades.)

Besides starring, Fields also wrote the movie’s, er, screenplay (under the pseudonym “Mahatma Kane Jeeves”), and the movie was directed by Fields’ good friend and drinking buddy Eddie Cline (whose resume included Buster Keaton’s early two-reelers), so this movie is about as close to auteurism as Fields ever got. One gets the impression that Fields’ idea of writing a screenplay was to tour the Universal lot with a continuity person, saying, “There’s a set for a bank — let’s have most of the action here. There, that thing’ll pass for a saloon — let’s give it a dirty name and I’ll do a lot of physical business there.”

But from such ramshackle origins, a great comedy is made. It’s Fields’ last great movie (though he had one more starring role, in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, and a few cameos before his sad death from alcoholism). And The Bank Dick obviously had some great stuff in it. Its finale was bodily lifted, 43 years later, for Rodney Dangerfield’s Easy Money. And Fields himself re-did the chase motif (and re-used BD‘s opening and closing theme music) in Never….

At one point, Souse leans back in his director’s chair and yells, “Quiet…we’re making cinema history here!” Nearly 75 years later, one is hard-pressed to argue with him.

Here’s a 17-second clip that tells you all you need to know about the movie: