||3 Biopics - Reviews Of W.C. Fields: The Great Man, Charlie Chaplin: The Forgotten Years, And Right To Exit: The Mock Trial Of Jack Kevorkian
Sometimes an evening can conduce one to a certain way of feeling, and one evening I felt like watching biographies. The three I chose were W.C. Fields: The Great Man, Charlie Chaplin: The Forgotten Years, And Right To Exit: The Mock Trial Of Jack Kevorkian. Two of the films on silent era film comedians, three on controversial figures, and two on figures who were punished by the United States legal system. Chaplin was all three.
W.C. Fields: The Great Man
The first film I watched was director Phillip Dye’s 2005 documentary W.C. Fields: The Great Man, a rather straightforward documentary which clocked in at 52 minutes in length (all three films were under an hour long), and is about one of my favorite comedians from the early days of American film. Nowadays few people recall W.C. Fields, as his death in 1946 (on Christmas Day, a holiday he loathed) seems to have buried him in the age before television and the Internet. But he mastered vaudeville- as a comedian and juggler extraordinaire, silent and talky films (he was one of few silent stars to survive the transition, as his raspy voice perfectly suited his look and demeanor as an irascible and misanthropic curmudgeon) and even radio (famously feuding with Edgar Bergen’s ventriloquist’s dummy Charlie McCarthy- yes, I know, a ventriloquist act on radio seems sort of silly). There is a nice array of movie clips, and especially compelling is the one from My Little Chickadee, with Mae West, wherein the two famous saucy wits shared a film and billing, but little screen time, due to a rivalry of egos.
Commentary is provided by a number of people who knew Fields, but the best comes from an actor who was the closest thing to a successor to Fields’ curmudgeonly characters onscreen: Walter Matthau. Matthau expresses a sentiment that he would have loved for Fields to have gotten more serious, dramatic roles, along the lines of his role as Micawber in the 1935 film David Copperfield. Fields leapt at the role, as he adored Dickens. Fields is also revealed to be a man of substance, stating of Negro blackface comedian Bert Williams, that he was both the funniest man Fields ever saw, as well as the saddest man he ever knew. Quite a statement from a white man in those days.
But Fields (born William Claude Dukenfield, in 1879 or 1880) paid his dues and produced some of the best pure comedy sketches ever conceived in early film, including pre-Production Code risqué humor that is still saucy today. Need proof? Watch the clip from his film, The Dentist, wherein he tries to pull the tooth of a woman who wraps her legs around him and seems to be simulating sex with him in midair. But, the film also details Fields’ inevitable fall, from alcohol, which gave him cirrhosis of the liver, and sent him to his premature death. While not a compelling documentary, W.C. Fields: The Great Man is certainly a compendial documentary, and when the subject is as immanently interesting as Fields, well, that’s more than enough to recommend something. Interestingly, the film reveals that Fields did not like the subject of the next documentary I watched: Charlie Chaplin, whom Fields labeled a ‘damn ballet dancer.’
Charlie Chaplin: The Forgotten Years
Compendial is certainly not a term applicable to Beat Hirt’s and Felice Zenoni’s 2003 documentary Charlie Chaplin: The Forgotten Years, which checks in at 54 minutes, and was made in 2003. This film is more a hagiography made by Chaplin’s family and admirers, and detains the last quarter century of the great silent comic’s life, from his 1952 leavetaking of America, during the McCarthy hearings, to his death in 1977, and even his subsequent grave robbing. The film is a cornucopia of movie clips and interviews with Chaplin’s offspring: Eugene, Michael, and Geraldine, with whom Chaplin had relationships that varied from close to strained. In the case of Michael, the feeling of anger and estrangement was mutual, and even is displayed in his interview segments. It also has commentary from Peter Ustinov and Petula Clark, whose comments are directed at Chaplin’s little known songwriting endeavors. She had a number one hit with Chaplin’s song, This Is My Song, from his last film, 1968’s A Countess From Hong Kong.
The film is rife with home movies shot on Chaplin’s Swiss estate, and one cannot help but be reminded of scenes from The Sound Of Music while watching it. Details are provided on the life of Chaplin and his fourth wife, Oona O’Neill Chaplin, as well as the day to day details of a life in seclusion. However, Chaplin was quite active in the local community, often appearing at or sponsoring the local events. He also seemed to relish in tweaking U.S. authorities by consorting with Eastern European artsy types while under constant surveillance by the CIA, FBI, and their proxy, the Swiss police.
The film also makes use of docudrama re-enactments of minor moments of recognition described by the narrator. The highlight of the years in exile, for Chaplin, seem to have been his return to America, in 1972, to accept his Lifetime Achievement Oscar. His children, who initially did not want to leave America, actually tried to persuade him not to return to accept the award. They were even more incensed when he only got a visa for ten days. But Chaplin was delighted, as he believed this proved that America still feared him and his political views.
Overall, Charlie Chaplin: The Forgotten Years is an interesting film, but only for Chaplin and silent film buffs like me. For the general public it is too specialized on the man’s life and not enough on his art.
And Right To Exit: The Mock Trial Of Jack Kevorkian
Art was never the purview of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, star of the 52 minute documentary from 2004, titled, Right To Exit: The Mock Trial Of Jack Kevorkian, and directed by Anna Tearen. Of the three films it is clearly the most political, polemical, and unabashedly pro-its subject, the doctor and his decade long crusade to legalize euthanasia in America. However, once you accept that the film takes sides, what it says is damning about the corrupt Michigan ‘justice system.’ It follows the aftermath of Kevorkian’s 1998 60 Minutes airing of his euthanizing a man dying of Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), and Michigan’s mock trial, wherein the state froze Kevorkian’s assets so he could not hire a proper legal team, and the ADA constantly shouted him down. The portrait of the judge, Jessica Cooper- who did not allow Kevorkian to call the dead man’s wife and brother as witnesses, the weasely DA- David Gorcyca (who, at film’s end, and heard only on tape, admits that a hospital les than five miles from where Kevorkian was tried, does the same things Kevorkian did- but remain unprosecuted because the DA chooses to use his prosecutorial discretion not to; thus proving Kevorkian was singled out for political reasons alone: i.e.- he embarrassed the DA), and the cowardly jury shows, as a Kevorkian supporter describes, how America first destroys its cultural icons and heroes, then lauds them. The DA’s comments even back up comments from the doctor’s supporters that he was prosecuted because he was the only doctor respectful enough of the law to attempt to change it.
One of Kevorkian’s lawyers, Jefferey Fieger, gives a searing and accurate description of the trial and outcome, while the doctor’s legal assistant give insight in to the man, who stayed with her and her family in the days leading up to the trial. He also details how the state planned to deny Kevorkian access to the media- to, in effect, silence him as well as imprison him. Kevorkian, however, does speak to foreign reporters and claims that the right to die is part of the 9th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which reads: The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people. To the doctor, this is an unenumerated right, and it’s a compelling argument. Another compelling argument, overlooked in euthanasia cases, is the economic incentives that doctors and hospitals have to keep patients alive so that they can extravagantly overbill insurance companies and Medicare and Medicaid.
Perhaps the most interesting comments on Kevorkian come from 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace, who describes the doctor as the most courageous man he’s interviewed, yet also a zealot. The insights about Kevorkian are reinforced by the still photos his legal assistant proffers, along with tales of his stay with them. The film ends in 2004, with Kevorkian still in jail, but provides a brief addendum on his release.
None of these three films- W.C. Fields: The Great Man, Charlie Chaplin: The Forgotten Years, And Right To Exit: The Mock Trial Of Jack Kevorkian - is a great film nor a great work of journalism, but they are excellent equivalents of an encyclopedia entry, and have just enough entertainment value that those who might be turned off by their educational aspects will watch anyway. And that’s the whole point of film, right?