Not long after our Marx Brothers film aired on PBS, Joe Adamson, who wrote and edited that film, asked me what I thought about making a similar documentary on W.C. Fields.
I was all for it, but it was a long while before I could propose such a film to PBS as I had taken a full-time position with Rollins & Joffe and had also begun production on The Great Standups for HBO. Furthermore, I learned that I would have to obtain authorization from the W.C. Fields estate, which consisted of the Great Man’s daughter-in-law and several grandchildren -- most of them lawyers! It took some time to gain the family’s trust and finally hammer out a deal, but eventually, everything fell into place. Around the spring of 1985, we began production on W.C. Fields Straight Up.
For me, one of the joys of this film was learning about Fields and his artistry during the course of production. By the time I had begun production on the Marx Brothers film almost four years earlier, I had already known everything one could possibly know about the Marxes, having been an obsessed fan since junior high school. Although I had a detached appreciation for Fields when we began production on his biography, I hadn’t yet fully immersed myself in his work. So the documentary provided a sort of on-the-job training in the art of a comic master. Needless to say, along the way, I became a huge fan.
(Let me take a moment here to go out a limb and say this: If you’ve been exposed to the best films of the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields -- while I’m at it, I’ll add Keaton, Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy -- and you do not consider yourself a fan, then you’re simply a big idiot.)
Straight Up benefited from the participation of two Fields aficionados: Joe Adamson and Ronald J. Fields. Ron was W.C.’s grandson and had become the archivist and historian of the family. His involvement helped our production tremendously as he made available to us vintage photos, memorabilia, home movies, audio recordings, correspondence and intensive research. He was a welcome part of the team.
As with the Marx Brothers film, Joe and I went out of our way to make certain we incorporated the best quality film prints in the documentary. This often meant utilizing 35mm nitrate and fine-grain prints. The extra effort was worth it, not just for the enhanced visual quality, but for the pristine sound quality as well. As familiar as Joe was with each of these films, even he was hearing some of Fields’ mumbles and asides which he’d never caught before. I heard from a number of people who were Fields fans who said they were grateful to finally see and hear these scenes the way they were meant to be presented. (Often, the television syndication prints are inferior 16mm copies with shoddy, hissy audio tracks.)
The show was originally broadcast on PBS in March of 1986. It received exceptional ratings for PBS and was a very successful fund raiser during their pledge period.
An odd thing happened around Emmy time: When nominations were announced, we were not on board for the Outstanding Informational Special award.
No big deal -- we hadn’t expected to be. We had taken out no ads and mounted no Emmy campaign. However, a couple of weeks before the ceremony, we were notified that we had received a belated nomination. It was discovered that one of the nominees in the Informational Special category (a Jacques Cousteau special) had aired on cable television prior to its network broadcast. (In those days, Emmys were available only for network shows. Cable programming was ineligibile.) The Cousteau special was disqualified from the list of five nominees and the Emmy officials decided to award a nomination to the show which would have been next in line. That show happened to be ours.
After all that, we went on to win the Emmy that year for Outstanding Informational Special. Talk about coming up from behind!
After the PBS rights expired, ''W.C. Fields Straight Up,'' like The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell, aired for a while on The Disney Channel and then American Movie Classics (AMC). I am currently working on a new cable deal to get both shows back on the air. Check back here for updates.
''W.C. Fields Straight Up'' is finally available for the first time on DVD, along with my film ''The Marx Brothers In A Nutshell.'' Click here to order directly.