Sunday, March 11, 2007

When Bill Met Phil

by Kevin Kusinitz

I don’t know what I’d do without YouTube. I’ve saved a fortune in DVD purchases thanks to the generosity of people who are way more computer-savvy than me. Recently, some thoughtful movie fan posted the long-lost W.C. Fields segment from Tales of Manhattan. In the first two-and-a-half minutes, Fields is corralled into buying a too-small tuxedo coat by a couple of fast-talking tailors.

That alone would be enough. But the big shock is that one of those sharpies is played by Phil Silvers! My brain did backflips as it desperately tried to accept what I was seeing on my monitor. The brash, motormouth up-and-comer strong-arming the old vaudevillian – you might as well have Adam Sandler and Bert Wheeler going at it. The only thing that could top it is if Ted Healy & His Stooges had shared their scene with Laurel & Hardy in the messy yet underrated Hollywood Party. And while Phil Silvers’ character may be named Santelli, he’s not fooling me: this is Ernest T. Bilko not long before being drafted and shipped off to Ft. Baxter, where he could run his scams in peace.

The clip is a fascinating study of two radically-different comedic styles, one developed in the 1920s and the other strictly rat-a-tat 1942. It’s poignant, in a way, to see Fields pushed around at this stage of his life. There was a time when he would’ve been the conman selling this coat to a confused customer. And we would have loved him for it. Here, it’s hard not to feel some pity for the guy – the last thing he wanted from an audience.

By the time of Tales of Manhattan Fields was becoming something of a relic. Classics they may be now, his last two starring movies, The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, were financial flops. This is certainly more of a statement of the times than Fields himself, since today he seems wholly contemporary and, quite possibly, funnier than ever. In a way, it’s astonishing that he was popular enough in his time to have left such a great body of work. Something like the Karl LaFong sequence from It’s Gift feels positively Monty Python. No wonder John Cleese taught a seminar on Fields at UCLA some years ago.

Physically, Fields is past his prime in Tales from Manhattan. Compare his appearance here to the similar If I Had a Million from 1932. Not even Buster Keaton aged so quickly in a decade’s time. (Keaton was supposedly one of the uncredited gagmen of Tales of Manhattan. One can only guess the conversations he and Fields might have had over a Thermos of martinis.)

At times like this, speculation tantalizing thing. If only Fields hadn’t been such a drinker… lived a few more years… starred in a few more classic movies… and even appeared on early TV. Probably opposite Milton Berle.

Yikes. Better not speculate after all.

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