A Note: The Fatal Glass of Beer is an extremely funny short subject. If you haven’t seen it, I’d highly recommend watching and savoring the film before reading my synopsis below. Analysis tends to kill comedy, and my description is no exception.
Relegated to secondary roles at Paramount Pictures, W.C. Fields made a deal with comedy kingpin Mack Sennett to create and star in a series of shorts based on his popular stage sketches. The Sennett films gave the Great Man an opportunity to showcase his considerable comic skills and to present his humor in pure, undiluted form. After producing The Dentist (1932), a risqué comedy classic that sent censors into apoplectic spasms, Fields chose to base his second short on “The Stolen Bonds,” a sketch that skewered stilted stage melodramas. In adapting the sketch for the screen, W.C. stretched the satire even further. The Fatal Glass of Beer not only lampooned the leaden dialogue and wooden acting of histrionic theater; it made fun of the film-making process that went into producing the short itself.
The film is set in the frozen north of the Yukon territories, where a prospector, Mr. Snavely (Fields), prepares to return home. Before Snavely is able to depart, he receives a visit from an officer of the Mounties (Rychard Cramer), who requests that the prospector sing him a morally instructive song that Snavely has written about his son Chester (George Chandler). Mr. Snavely obliges the officer with a temperance ballad detailing how drinking a single glass of beer led to Chester’s downfall and eventual imprisonment. The prospector then bids his friend adieu and heads “over the rim” to his cabin home and the arms of his wife (Rosemary Theby). It isn’t long after the couple have been reunited that they receive a surprise in the form of their son Chester. The prodigal has returned to the nest.
The plot of The Fatal Glass of Beer (what little there is of one) hardly matters, because all of the humor lies on the surface. Field’s artificial, mannered line readings and off-key warbling of the temperance song are hilarious. Even funnier are the many jabs the film takes at studio movie making, including Field’s attempts to interact with bad back-projection, cheap props, and the obviously artificial snow that is thrown in his puss each time he declares, “It ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast.” Ironically, although The Fatal Glass of Beer poked fun at temperance sermonizing and wooden theater of past decades, the short turned out to be ahead of its time. The audiences and critics of the day complained about the poor production values of the short, not understanding the self-referential humor.
Luckily, the film has survived for new audiences to appreciate, and many today (this critic included) consider it the funniest short subject ever made. I could go on singing the superlatives, but this review could likely grow longer than the short is itself. Just watch and enjoy.
USA/B&W-18m./Dir: Clyde Bruckman/Wr: W.C. Fields/Cast: W.C. Fields, Rosemary Theby, George Chandler, Rychard Cramer
If You Like: Fans of the in-jokes and fourth wall-breaking of the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby Road pictures, may like this as well.
Video: The best quality version of The Fatal Glass of Beer is available from Flicker Alley as part of
The Mack Sennett Collection, Vol. One [Blu-ray], which also contains The Dentist.
Streaming: Above, on YouTube, and elsewhere.
More to Explore: If you like the satire of temperance melodramas, check out Fields’ The Old Fashioned Way (1934). If you like the fourth-wall-breaking surrealist jokes, see Fields swan song, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941). And if you just want to see a couple of near-perfect comedy masterpieces, watch It’s a Gift (1934) and The Bank Dick (1940), which feature Fields at his Fieldsiest.
Trivia: George Chandler was not enthused with Fields’ scene-stealing ad-libs and physical business (such as stepping in the bucket when greeting Chester at the door) during filming; but in hindsight, he had to admit that it was damn funny.