~By Norm Robins~
There are many kinds of love in the world
Love of a son for a mother
Love of a brother for a brother
But there is no love as strong
As one drunken bum for another
That little bit of anonymously written doggerel describes the milieu in which W.C. Fields (Rod Steiger) lived, and into which memoirist Carlotta Monti (Valerie Perrine) allowed herself to be inserted. Monti co-wrote this memoir after living with Fields the last 14 years of his life as his secretary and lover.
Fields was a complex man. He was haunted by insecurity. While on his death bed his doctor tells Monti Fields said he drinks one bottle of gin a day. She replies that’s not true. He drinks two a day. It makes this very funny man physically sick to his stomach to be in the presence of Charlie Chaplin, a man he considers film’s top banana, a term that came from vaudeville and burlesque describing the main comedian. To Fields there is no other banana. You are either the top banana, or you aren’t a banana at all.
Fields is a successful vaudevillian, but vaudeville is fading into history. He decides to try his luck in Hollywood in the budding film industry. During his vaudeville years he has a financial manager who leaves him flat broke with nothing left. In Hollywood Fields tries screenwriting. He is desperate. He approaches studio head Bannerman (John Marley) with a script or two for sale. Owing to his circumstances he will let one script go for a few hundred dollars. Bannerman demurs, but he offers Fields a part in a movie. Fields says he charges $5000 a week. Bannerman balks. A minute ago Fields offered the script for a few hundred, but now wants a disproportionate amount to act. That doesn’t compute. Fields explains he need $5000 a week because a comedian needs his self-confidence to be funny. If he doesn’t get the $5000 he will lose his confidence. Outraged at this affront Bannerman offers $2500. Fields wryly smiles and says he’ll take it. Success is at hand, perhaps.
Field’s family is a collection of heavy drinkers including the famous and notorious thespian John Barrymore (Jack Cassidy). Field tells Monti he doesn’t have a mother and father. He wasn’t born. He was fermented. She suffers this group patiently. She falls in love with Fields and wants to marry him. He won’t address the question. Late in the movie we find he is still married and has a grown son. The son shows up. All he wants is to get to know his father. Son sits on one end of a long couch. Fields sits at the other end feeling secure for the distance between them. His son tells him he is proud of his dad because he is so funny. As the son feeds his ego Fields moves closer and closer.
At the end of the movie Fields is on his deathbed. He has trouble sleeping. He always liked the sound of rain on the roof because in his native Philadelphia rain used to wash away the horse manure. He hears rain on the roof and passes peacefully away. The camera moves from the bedroom to outside the house, and we see it isn’t raining at all. It is Monti with a garden hose aimed at the roof over his bedroom. His insecurity is gone.
Rod Steiger is a powerful actor. He has a stage presence like Marlon Brando’s and an ability to make you see what is going on inside his character like Richard Burton’s. The directing by Arthur Hiller was perfect. It is a sensitive and introspective look at one of our greatest comedians. He was a man who was funny because he was an iconoclast and a curmudgeon at a difficult time in our history when those attributes were valued. The movie got panned by the cocksure but deficient Vincent Canby of the always overrated New York Times. So, what else is new. There’s no accounting for taste, said the old lady as she kissed her cow.
The movie is available for rent or purchase for a pittance on Amazon Prime Movies, Vudu, and others.