Archive for October 4, 2017

Bogle’s Yearning

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Television with tags , , , , , , on October 4, 2017 by dcairns

If Laurel & Hardy in THE MUSIC BOX dramatise the sufferings of Sisyphus (that bloke condemned to roll a boulder uphill for eternity), W.C. Fields in IT’S A GIFT is comedy’s premier Tantalus, the chap tied up in the afterlife with food and drink perennially out of reach. Throughout this film, Fields strives to shave, eat, run a grocery store, sleep, win just one argument with his wife, control his son, stop his daughter crying, and start his car. It’s the comedy of frustration elevated to such an agonized pitch that the audience may feel inclined to gnaw its own limbs off to escape. Fortunately, it’s also very, very funny. I was sore afterwards from laughing.

A few stray observations.

Lots of Scottish references. Fields uses the name Charles Bogle to sign the story, and there are characters called Abernathy and Muckle. My theory is that Fields had a soft spot for Scotland, having first tasted whisky in Edinburgh while touring.

I first encountered this film when John Cleese showed the Mr. Muckle scene on a discussion show. This was probably soon after THE LIFE OF BRIAN so Cleese had become a kind of spokesman/counsel for the defence for edgy comedy. He said Fields had created the scene after a friend bet him he couldn’t make comedy about a blind person. “And he did something very clever: he made the blind man a THREAT.” So we’re not made serious by sympathy, and he don’t feel guilty for laughing at a disability.

My young self didn’t actually find the film clip funny at all. I wasn’t offended, but I was frustrated — Fields isn’t just an innocent victim in this, he’s a terribly incompetent grocer. So what I saw was a lot of painfully inevitable misfortune which made me itch to climb into the television and sort everyone out. Also, incredible as it seems now, Fields’ timing and delivery struck me as slack and shapeless. Of course, I was struggling to get to grips with his amazing naturalism, which incorporates hesitations, repetitions, sentences that fizzle out unfinished, and various other qualities of human speech rarely encountered in thirties comedy (never in the Marx Bros, for instance — and I loved the Marx Bros then as now). It would take me more than a three-minute clip to get in synch with Fields.

Fields’ young hellion of a son is played by Tom Bupp, brother of Sonny Bupp, who played Charles Foster Kane III, Orson Welles’ son in CITIZEN KANE. Thereby adding to the strange bond between Welles and Fields, who used the pseudonym Mahatma Kane Jeeves to sign THE BANK DICK.

About the only scene of family harmony is the picnic, where the Bissonettes wantonly destroy the grounds of a rich estate. Fiona, gasping for breath, wondered why Fields cramming crackers and a sandwich into his bulging face was SO funny. There doesn’t seem to be an answer.

Is this America’s first, mild gross-out joke?

The Simpsons suddenly seemed like a descendant of this. Homer is a more aggressive Harold Bissonette, Bart is a more charming Norman. Marge and Lisa are no Amelia and Mildred, but the sense of the central family as fundamentally blighted, which comes into play occasionally on Matt Groening’s show, feels connected to the glorious misanthropy here, particularly during the picnic, where Fields’ mild-mannered pop suddenly seems as much a force of destruction as his awful wife and offspring.

Nobody’s as apocalyptic in impact as Mr. Muckle the blind man, though, who sweeps through the grocery store like a hurricane (too soon?). He’s also profoundly deaf, of course, and this is merely more reason to fear him. Several things seem clear, and they all help Fields’ purpose in inspiring comedic rather than sympathetic reactions to Herr M.

  1. Muckle’s foul temper and rudeness have nothing to do with his handicap. He’s just an awful man who happens to be disabled. He seems only semi-aware that he’s disabled. His crotchetiness is more the result of age, but he was probably always kind of nasty.
  2. Bissonette’s terror on seeing Muckle’s approach tells us that these rampages are a regular, at least weekly occurrence. The grocery store plays Tokyo to Muckle’s Gojira (too soon?).
  3. Bissonette’s deeper terror when Mr. Muckle marches off into traffic shows his decency, and turns that into a pathetic comic trait also — a more normal response after what we’ve just seen might be to pray Muckle falls under the oncoming tyres and is extirpated at once.

A shame we never get to see Mr. Muckle chew his gum, and thus become unintelligible as well as sightless and unhearing, the full slapstick Helen Keller (too soon?).

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