Monday, December 19, 2005

Geoff Collins Salutes Sid Field: "What a Performance!"

For the benefit of our American readers - both of you! - let's clear up a misunderstanding from the start. Sidney Fields was a bald-headed American burlesque comedian who memorably portrayed Abbott and Costello's misanthropic, cigar-chewing, tightfisted landlord. A GENIUS. We'll talk about him later.

Sid Field, on the other hand, was English, a large lumbering man with dark wavy hair and wide-apart blue eyes. He didn't live very long, and he's almost impossible to find today as he only made three movies and a couple of 78rpm records - and you'd need to hire a private detective to find any of them.

Yet, in spite of being nowhere, he's everywhere. Hire that detective! Endure hours of ridiculous plot exposition and really painful musical numbers in order to view Sid's sketches in those long-buried movies. For there you will see all of Postwar British Comedy. Sid toiled away, efficiently but almost anonymously, in the British provincial variety theatres before becoming a West End Star in 1943, a movie star in 1946, and a corpse in 1950. But he influenced everybody. The evidence is all there: the plaintive, high-pitched innocence of the young Eric Morecambe (Sid's "I've never 'ad a GO yet, 'ave I?" sounds just like Eric); the crafty Cockney Spiv of Arthur English ("Play the music! Open the cage!") and, later, James Beck of Dad's Army, who had a similar-to-Sid long-overdue meteoric rise and drink-related early death ; the warmth and joy of Harry Secombe; Freddie Frinton's staggering yet curiously self-controlled drunk; any number of "camp" comedians, most conspicuously Larry Grayson; and Tony Hancock's astonishing facial range and deep inner sadness. So you don't need to "watch Sid Field" to see Sid Field.

Sid's first starring film, That's the Ticket, was made for Warner Brothers at Teddington in 1939 and was long thought to be lost because the Nazis bombed the studio in 1944 (maybe they'd seen it!). Apparently a print has recently turned up - which, due to the scarcity of Sid material, should be cause for great celebration - but where is it? Have you seen it? Where can anybody get to see it? Answers, please.

Sid's "first film" (but actually, of course, his second) London Town, runs for over two hours - that is, if you can get to see the complete print. Its last public appearance, on Channel 4 in 1985, lacked the "spiv" sequence and Sid's "Blizzard of the Bells" routine (which was cut anyway before the original release, although a chopped-up black-and-white version of it can be seen in To See Such Fun). London Town: my God, what horrors this title evokes. This ghastly fiasco didn't reach American screens until about 1953, in a much-edited version, as My Heart Goes Crazy. Tutankhamen must have been the Associate Producer on this turkey, as so many people associated with it were subsequently cursed with bad luck. It finished director Wesley Ruggles' career; Sonnie Hale never made another film and died in his fifties; character player W. G. Fay died in 1947, Alfie Dean in '48, Sid himself in '50; and co-star Kay Kendall, after disappearing altogether for four years (even her family don't know where she went) before her glorious but brief 1950s renaissance, died in 1959.

Yet despite all this, it preserves intact, and in glorious Technicolor, Sid's stage sketches. Here he is, with that wonderfully sharp and intolerant straightman Jerry Desmonde, trying to learn the rudiments of the game of golf, yet secretly yearning for his music lessons with Miss Fanthorpe ("Miss Fanthorpe's kind...she can play the piano and the [tongue flipping swiftly out and back in like an adder on the next syllable] flute!"); as an outrageously camp "society photographer"; as a top-hatted drunk tantalisingly encountering a long flight of stairs (as Leon Errol did in The Jitters - more on this movie later!); and as mega-overcoated barrow boy Slasher Green happily abandoning his market stall in order to demonstate his complete lack of talent as a would-be entertainer. He's heckled by Alfie Dean and seriously underencouraged by Jerry Desmonde, yet his self-confidence remains undimmed; it's a 1940s version of The X Factor.

Ironically, yet typically for this unlucky comedian, his best routine is the one they cut out (in order to retain all those godawful musical numbers), in which his excessively polite Professor of Music, clad in oversized tuxedo, medals ("Prizes!!!!!!") and bicycle clips, attempts to play "Sleighbells Across the Sahara" ("There's no such thing...you're having me on, aren't you ?") on the Tubercular Bells. Catch this if you can, or what's left of it, in To See Such Fun, and you'll have watched the definitive Sid Field sketch. And you'll also know what all the fuss is about, and why so many comedians worshipped this man.

Cardboard Cavalier, Sid's second movie (or third, if you've been paying attention) is a much better effort, a lot easier to sit through but they still didn't know what to do with Sid. He's again a barrow boy, this time in 1650s Cromwellian England - what possible appeal did they think this would have in 1940s America? - and, helpfully, he has his pals with him: Jerry Desmonde as Colonel Lovelace, and the final, brief appearance of Alfie Dean - but it all goes on far too long despite....hold on a moment, dear readers, I'm in danger of going on far too long myself.

In conclusion, I'll just say this: watch what you can of Sid on the Pathe website (there's not much and it's all silent, but it provides a clue) and if any of you have the power to do so, GET SID'S MOVIES BACK INTO CIRCULATION, especially That's the Ticket which, to me anyway, is the Holy Grail. You'll rediscover a lovable, wistful comedian with a beautifully mobile, expressive face. Sid's rare all right, much too rare; but he's worth the effort.

Sidney Arthur Field: April 1, 1904 - February 3, 1950.

Goodbye Sid - but we'll all see you soon, I hope.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous John Owen said...

Ok, you did say you'd get around to Sid FieldS, aka Mr. Fields, aka Officer Melonhead. Unless I've missed something, this hasn't happened. No rush, but just so you'll know that there are fans out here!

11:20 PM  

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