Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

In The True Adventures Of The Rolling Stones, Stanley Booth writes of choosing a London hotel because it looked like the sort of place "where W.C. Fields would stay when he was in town." Though that sentiment isn't as resonant now, at the time of the event (the late '60s) it meant quite a bit. Fields' popularity has had two peaks: the first as a film star in the late '30s and early '40s, the second as a counterculture icon in the '60s, a sort of comic counterpoint for the same crowd that embraced Humphrey Bogart as an outlaw role model. Though nostalgia has moved on, that phenomenon says a lot about Fields' timeless appeal, on generous display throughout two new DVD titles. Not quite a misanthrope, Fields' most enduring quality is his utter disdain for social propriety; his characters don't wander drunkenly out of weakness so much as contempt and a never-articulated sense of rebellion. However many shrewish wives and mothers-in-law he's given, he's incapable of being civilized. Fields is at his best when placed in situations that ask him to behave in ways for which he's fundamentally unequipped: In "The Pharmacist," from 6 Short Films, he plays the title character, whose attempts to live up to the motto "the customer is always right" couldn't be more doomed. An uneven collection, 6 Short Films doesn't always feature Fields in top form, but it's a consistently compelling look at his evolution from the surprisingly thin slapstick comedian of 1915's "The Pool Sharks" to the more familiar ne'er-do-wells of "The Barber Shop" and "The Dentist," with a bizarre side trip into absurdist Yukon fantasy ("The Fatal Glass Of Beer," directed by Keaton collaborator Clyde Bruckman). The Bank Dick (1940), on the other hand, is pure gold from start to finish. In his penultimate starring role, Fields plays a small-town idler and regular of the Black Pussy Cat Cafe (tended by Shemp Howard). Thanks to a tendency to exaggerate his accomplishments, Fields, in the film's best sequence, inadvertently lands a job as a movie director. After failing to implement his own vision—"Instead of it being an English drawing-room dray-ma, I've made it a circus picture"—Fields wanders off the set only to foil a robbery, landing him another job as a bank detective. The script by Mahatma Kane Jeeves (Fields, of course) places little emphasis on coherence and instead merely allows him to be his funniest, a waddling negation of everything right and proper who, decades later and after falling in and out of fashion, has lost none of his power to amuse.

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