While not to be taken seriously, seeing as how its attempts at verisimilitude result in campy superficiality, the showbiz biopic W.C. Fields and Me is watchable by virtue of a brisk pace, interesting subject matter, and lush production values. As for the acting, that’s by far the film’s weakest element—ironic, since both leading characters were actors in real life. But then again, star Rod Steiger delivers an over-the-top caricature while playing a man who spent his life cultivating a larger-than-life persona, and costar Valerie Perrine delivers an underwhelming turn while playing a woman who, for 14 years, was overshadowed by her more talented companion. So, in a weird way, the mixture works for creating mindless entertainment, even if W.C Fields and Me is hardly a dilligent replication of history.
Based on a memoir by Carlotta Monti, a bit player who caught the real Fields’ eye and then spent a decade and a half as his assistant, companion, and occasional lover, W.C. Fields and Me depicts Fields’ trajectory from the end of his vaudeville career to the last days of his life. When he’s introduced, Fields (Steiger) is already a stage star, but his arrogance and drinking alienate him from employers including the legendary Florenz Ziegeld (Paul Stewart). In a weak attempt to portray Fields as psychologically complex, the picture asserts that he used onstage shock tactics (such as risqué humor) to compensate for offstage anxieties, and the filmmakers accentuate Fields’ jealous feelings toward fellow comic Charlie Chaplin. After a financial turnaround, Fields sets out for Hollywood accompanied by his only real friend, a little-person actor named Ludwig (Billy Barty). By writing comedy scripts and submitting them to studios, Fields eventually wins the patronage of studio boss Bannerman (John Marley), who gives Fields his first shot at performing on camera. Stardom follows, as does an excessive lifestyle defined by drunken adventures with pals including John Barrymore (Jack Cassidy). Eventually, Carlotta (Perrine) enters the mix, but her endeavors to wean Fields off booze fail, so she ends up bearing witness to the legendary funnyman’s decline.
Itemizing all the things that are unsatisfying about W.C. Fields and Me would take an inordinate amount of time, so a few key complaints will have to suffice. The central relationship is inconsequential. Fields never evinces any growth as a character. Every showbiz type presented onscreen is a one-dimensional cliché. Steiger’s performance never achieves liftoff, because the actor wobbles between mimicking Fields’ gimmick of speaking from one side of his mouth—making the character seem like Burgess Meredith as the Penguin on the old Batman TV series—and because Steiger’s few moments of effective nonverbal pathos seem like Steiger peeking through the characterization, rather than the other way around. Worse, director Arthur Hiller can’t seem to decide whether the film is a comedy or a drama, so while some scenes include broad farce, others are mawkishly sentimental. Having said all that, the movie looks gorgeous; cinematographer David M. Walsh uses a glamorous combination of painterly angles, romantic filters, and sweeping camera movement to make Old Hollywood look seductive. Furthermore, the movie zips along at terrific speed, never losing clarity.
W.C. Fields and Me: FUNKY