By Richard Winters
My Rating: 6 out of 10
4-Word Review: Fields had a girlfriend.
Based on the memoirs from Carlotta Monti who was W.C. Field’s (Rod Steiger) companion for 14 years this film looks at their relationship as well as W.C.’s alcoholism and difficult personality.
This biography is highly romanticized and very light on the details. Apparently only one scene from the book is actually used in the movie. If one watches this in hopes of learning more about Field’s the man they will be disappointed. The tone seems similar to Oliver Stone’s The Doors where the intent is more on perpetuating the myth of its subject instead of tearing it down and showing the complete person. Just about everyone is familiar with Field’s drinking and cantankerous behavior, so having the film dwell exclusively in this area for the entire time is not interesting, or captivating.
The story would have been better served if it had been a complete bio beginning with Fields life as a child and then going all the way through to his death. Apparently he was born to an alcoholic father who beat him forcing Fields to run away from home at the age of 11 and live in a hole in the ground where he became dependent on stolen food and clothing for survival. He was in many fights and in and out of jail for most of his youth. Showing this could have been quite revealing, but instead the film skips past all of it and starts instead with Fields already in vaudeville and recreating a lot of corny comedy routines before having him drive off to Hollywood where his ascent to stardom seems much too easy and superficial.
Things improve during the second act when he begins his love-hate relationship with Carlotta (Valerie Perrine). Part of the reason this works is because Perrine is excellent. Her down to earth sensibilities really help balance the flamboyant ego’s around her and fit the character well. She is the one, not Steiger, who carries the movie and it was worthy of an Oscar nomination.
Steiger thought for sure that he would nab his second Oscar for his portrayal here, but instead didn’t even get nominated. His mimicking of Fields voice comes off as too rehearsed and effected. At times it gets annoying and just makes one want to watch a movie with the real Fields instead. His dialogue is too cutesy using lines borrowed from many of W.C.’s famous jokes and punch-lines. As expected he does induce the character with his famous Steigerisms and manages to not make it a complete misfire that it otherwise is. The scene, near the end, where Fields meets his now grown son that he hadn’t seen since he was three is his best moment.
Jack Cassidy is great in support as actor John Barrymore. The scene where he dies and his friends prop his dead body up into a chair and have him holding a liquor glass is amusing. Dwarf actor Billy Barty is good as Ludwig one of Field’s long-time friends. Some of the scenes the two share together are actually quite touching.
The film does a commendable job of recreating the period atmosphere. The music has a nice soothing quality to it and on the charm level it scores a bullseye. Despite my reluctance I found myself entertained by it, but as a biography it is flimsy, fictional and irrelevant.
My Rating: 6 out of 10
Released: March 31, 1976
Runtime: 1Hour 51Minutes
Director: Arthur Hiller
Available: Amazon Instant Video