Tuesday, January 21, 2014

W.C. Fields Forever

Early in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” course I show the students what I believe must be the oldest poker movie ever made, A Cure for Pokeritis (1912). I’ve written here about that short silent film starring John Bunny more than once -- click here for the most involved discussion of it (including clips of the entire film).

Soon after showing Pokeritis I usually share with them a clip from Tillie and Gus, a 1933 film starring W.C. Fields. Fields is one of my all-time favorites from the early era of cinema. He plays poker in several of his films, and even in ones where he doesn’t, many have titles that sound like they were somehow derived from poker (Six of a Kind, You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break).

Fields actually wasn’t that big of a poker player himself, I believe, but the game nonetheless became intertwined in some respects with the trickster persona that tied together many of his crazily-named characters like Augustus Winterbottom in Tille and Gus.

I once wrote a lengthy “Poker & Pop Culture” piece for PokerNews about W.C. Fields in which I summarized some of the poker-playing scenes in his films, including Tillie and Gus. Click and read for a more thorough discussion.

Unfortunately most W.C. Fields stuff has been scrubbed away from YouTube, or I’d include the clip from Tillie and Gus here for you to enjoy. Instead I’ll just share a few screen shots with some dialogue from the scene in which some passengers on a train invite Augustus Winterbottom to join their poker game.

“Pardon me, folks. We have a poker game going. Would you care to play?” asks a man whom we come to learn is named Mr. White.

“Poker?” answers Winterbottom. “Is that the game where one receives five cards and if there’s two alike that’s pretty good, but if there’s three alike that’s much better?”

“Oh, you’ll learn the game in no time,” assures White, not realizing he’s the one about to be hustled.

Winterbottom joins three others and they cut for the deal. They explain to him that the ace is high. “You must forgive the ignorance of a novice,” he says. The others successively draw a queen, a ten, and a king. Then Winterbottom makes his cut. “Ace,” he says, showing his card so that we can see it but his opponents cannot.

When the others note they weren’t able to see his ace, he apologizes, sorts through the deck to find an ace, and shows it around.

He begins to deal a hand of five-card draw while his ex-wife Tillie (played by Alison Skipworth) -- a fellow con artist -- positions herself behind White so she can see his cards as well as those of his neighbor.

“By the way, I saw those two sailors off the ship today,” she says casually after spotting two jacks in White’s hand.

“See anybody else?” asks Winterbottom, and she looks at the other player’s nine-high hand. “Not a soul,” she replies.

They chat about other games. “I prefer Pinochle,” says White. “Pinochle?” asks Winterbottom. “That’s the top of something, isn’t it? The pinochle of a hill, for instance?”

When Winterbottom looks at his hand, he sees he’s dealt himself four aces and a deuce. “Shucks,” he says at the sight of the deuce, rapping the table with his fist as though it disappoints him.

They draw. “What happened to the two sailors?” asks Winterbottom of Tillie. “Three more sailors joined them,” she says. “Three more sailors?” asks Winterbottom, eyebrows raised. “I mean two,” she corrects herself.

There are bets and raises, with all four players staying in to the showdown. White has four jacks, the player to his left four queens, and the third player four kings. Winterbottom then turns over his four aces.

It’s a fun, goofy scene, with Fields singing “Bringing in the Sheaves” as he leaves the befuddled players adding a satisfying touch of lunacy to the proceedings.

Tillie and Gus isn’t as consistently funny as some of Fields’s other features. My faves are his great quartet of later titles You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, My Little Chickadee, The Bank Dick, and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, which verge on the surreal sometimes with the all-out wackiness of their loosely-connected, howlingly-hilarious set pieces. But Tillie and Gus still has plenty of grins throughout its short running time.

Like I say, for more on Fields and poker, see that old PokerNews piece.

(Post title from a Firesign Theatre track from their first LP, Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him.)

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