Taradiddles and Pear-shaped Ideas

W.C. Fields in The Bank Dick (1940)

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For reasons only my therapist should ponder, I’ve been on a W.C. Fields jag during middle-age, compulsively watching DVDs of the films and pondering the great man’s grandiloquent humbuggery, sly misanthropy and impeccable timing. That, and his vocabulary. After watching My Little Chickadee (1940), a western co-starring Mae West, I was struck for the umpteenth time by the poetic breadth of Fields’ language.

A devout fan of Dickens–Fields portrayed Mr. Micawber in a 1935 film adaptation of David Copperfield–Fields valued the sound, as well as the sense, of words. He used highfalutin’ nomenclature for comic purpose and delighted in creating lilting tumbles of consonants, vowels and syllables. When introduced to West’s character “Flower Belle”, the magnanimous charlatan has this to say in response to her name: “What an euphonious appellation!”

“Euphonious appellation”. Take a moment and relish the phrase’s musicality. Then there’s this lovely run of cautionary nonsense from The Bank Dick (1940):

“Don’t be a luddie-duddie, don’t be a moon-calf, don’t be a jobbernowl, you’re not one of those, are you?”

A “jobbernowl” is an idiot. I had to look it up.

Fields’ lines weren’t always florid or high-flown. When his Indian companion Milton asks if Flower Belle is Fields’ “new squaw”, Fields replies:  “New is right. She hasn’t been unwrapped yet.” But did I mention that Fields’ character goes by the name “Cuthbert J. Twilley”? Or that he wrote films under the pseudonyms Mahatma Kane Jeeves and Otis Cribblecoblis? Dickens, in heaven, must have smiled at Fields’ ornate word-play.

My Little Chickadee contains several brilliant bits by Fields, providing ample recompense for a creaky plot and a peculiarly mannish Mae West, whose double entendres don’t survive her mugging or Father Time. The Bank Dick, a loping indictment of middle-class values, is the best place to sample Fields. It’s a shambles of a movie, but the film’s poky, dithering rhythm suits the Fields’ persona. Talk about an euphonious marriage of form and content.

© 2011 Mario Naves

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