Poker & Pop Culture: The Films of W.C. Fields
The image of W.C. Fields, stealthily peering out from under a stovepipe top hat over a carefully-protected hand of cards, is one of the more iconic images of poker playing to come from American cinema. Indeed, for many, poker-playing scenes from Fields' films stand out as the most memorable — and most uproarious — ever to appear on the silver screen.
After having established himself on the vaudeville stage as one of the country's top comedic performers, Fields moved over to motion pictures during the industry's infancy, making several silent shorts and features, then successfully transitioning to the talkies in the early 1930s. Over the course of his film career, which spanned more than three decades, Fields frequently portrayed variations of the con man character, often appearing as circus carnies, traveling confidence men, or the like. And every now and then, poker would be the means by which Fields' tricksters would try to take advantage of their hapless victims.
Interestingly, while there are stories of Fields having perhaps been something of a pool hustler in his youth, in real life Fields was highly averse to gambling. Having endured poverty as a child, Fields was notoriously cautious with his money. Being afraid of uncertain investments, Fields largely escaped the effects of the 1929 stock market crash (although he'd sometimes claim otherwise afterwards, say, during contract negotiations). In fact, during his days on the vaudeville circuit, Fields was said to have opened bank accounts in every city he visited. The comedian once claimed to have opened over 700 accounts, although that figure — like many other examples of Fields' embellishing his life story — was likely exaggerated.
"The truth is that he practically never gambled on anything," writes Fields biographer Robert Lewis Taylor. "He felt that there was an ugly element of chance in gambling which made it possible for somebody other than himself to win." In fact, when one looks at poker scenes from Fields' movies, one realizes that the element of chance has been summarily eliminated in every case. To look at a few examples, let's see how poker is portrayed in three of Fields' films.
Tillie and Gus (1933)
In Tillie and Gus, the first feature-length talkie in which Fields had a starring role, Fields played the conniving Augustus Q. Winterbottom. We first meet Winterbottom on trial for having shot a man — over a game of draw poker, it turns out. "Have you anything to say before I find you guilty?" the judge menacingly asks him on the stand.
"So you're going to deal from a cold deck, eh?" comes the reply.
Gus then attempts to defend his actions by explaining that during the game he had dealt himself four aces, only to find his opponent (and soon-to-be shooting victim) had drawn five aces. "I'm a broad-minded man, gents," he says. "I don't object to nine aces in one deck. But when a man lays down five aces in one hand... and besides, I know what I dealt him!"
Rather than toss him under the jail as he deserves, the judge absurdly rules Winterbottom must leave town, something he is more than glad to do once he receives a letter suggesting his ex-wife's brother has recently passed away, leaving him part of his estate. As it happens, Gus finds himself reunited on the train with his estranged wife, Tillie (played by Alison Skipworth), who has received a similar letter.
While Tillie and Gus are scheming how to get themselves appointed her niece's guardians and thus claim the greater share of her dead brother's estate, a man stops to ask Gus if he would be interested in a game of poker.
"Poker?" Gus answers uncomprehendingly. "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?"
"Yes," the man replies. "Oh, you'll learn the game in no time," he adds, eagerly directing Gus to the rear car.
Gus joins three others around a crowded table, and they explain to him the process by which they will cut the cards to see who will deal. The others draw a queen, ten, and king, then Gus picks up the . "Ace," he says, holding the card so it cannot be seen by the others, then quickly reconstituting the deck. When the others object, he sorts through the deck, pulls out an ace, and shows it proudly as his card.
The game is draw poker. Gus deals, and Tillie appears to the side looking over one player's shoulder to see his hand: . "By the way, I saw those two sailors off the ship today," she says disinterestedly to Gus. She then leans over to inspect another player's hand: . "See anybody else?" asks Gus. "Not a soul," she replies.
The players draw, and we watch as Gus examines his hand, one card at a time. First he sees the . Next, the . Then, the . "Godfrey Daniel!" he mutters, a favorite expression often used by Fields as an approximation of an expletive otherwise disallowed by censors. He turns up the fourth card — the ! "Goodness gracious," he exclaims. The fifth card is the . "Shucks," he says.
"What happened to the two sailors?" he asks Tillie. "Three more sailors joined them," she replies. "Three more?" says a confused Gus. "I mean two," she corrects herself.
The betting commences, and all four players stick around for the showdown. The first shows four jacks, the second four queens, and the third four kings. "It'll take four aces to beat me," says the latter.
"What a coincidence," says Gus, fanning out his hand.
Fields plays a supporting role in this musical comedy starring Bing Crosby as Tom Grayson, a role which finds the popular crooner singing a number of Richard Rogers-Lorenz Hart penned songs. Crosby's character winds up getting a job as a performer on a Mississippi riverboat piloted by Commodore Orlando Jackson, played by Fields, and at one point the Commodore gets involved in a game of draw poker with some passengers. The idea for the scene can be traced back to a similar scene from the Broadway play Poppy in which Fields starred back in the mid-1910s. (Poppy was later adapted into a film in 1936, though the scene does not appear in the film version.)
It is the Commodore's turn to deal, and as he does he casts a wary eye at the brusque-looking man who has just sat down next to him and set a pistol on the table. Duly chastened, Fields' character will be playing this hand straight. In a reprise of sorts of the Tillie and Gus scene, we see Fields look at his cards one at a time, and again his hand is shaping up to be a good one, with the first four cards being . Then comes the fifth card — another .
The Commodore successfully distracts the table, tosses the fifth card, and draws a replacement. Another ace! He does this again and again, but each time finds himself having picked up yet another ace.
Finally, the time for the showdown comes. "Four aces," announces the first player.
"Huh?" says Fields, momentarily confused.
"That's funny, I've got four aces," says the second player.
"Oh, don't tell me," says Fields, a new understanding evident in his voice.
"There's only four aces in the deck," explains the first player. "What have you got?" he asks the Commodore. Mindful of the pistol on the table, the ship's pilot shows with his reply he has decided it prudent to steer cautiously through this troubled sea of cheaters.
"Ah, whaddya think of that?" he answers. "Ha ha, just a little pair of deuces," he says, and smartly mucks.
My Little Chickadee (1940)
After a lengthy tenure making films for Paramount, toward the end of his career Fields moved over to Universal where he starred in such films as You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939), The Bank Dick (1940), and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941). Hollywood icon Mae West, another vaudeville veteran, had also recently made the move from Paramount to Universal, and the studio decided it would be a good idea to pair Fields and West.
As is the case with several other of Fields' films, My Little Chickadee features a somewhat nonsensical plot that mostly exists to provide opportunities for comedic ad-libbing. Taking off from West's already well-established persona as a trouble-causing seductress given to sexually-suggestive double-entendres, here she plays a character named Flower Belle Lee who right away is shown being run out of the small town of Little Bend after having been suspected of having an illicit affair with a certain Masked Bandit. On the train out of town, Flower Belle immediately encounters a card cheat who tells her of his exploits. Eventually Fields arrives as Cuthbert J. Twillie and takes a seat near the "vision of loveliness" (as he calls her).
On the train, Twillie offers to show Flower Belle some card tricks, though gets interrupted. The real card-playing comes soon enough, though, once the train arrives at a town called Greasewood. We follow Twillie into a saloon where a poker game is a permanent fixture. He wanders over to the table and overhears table talk suggesting the game is for high stakes. ("I'll raise it $100,000," says one player. "I'll make it $200,000," says another.)
He then saunters over to a man playing solitaire at another table and asks him whether he'd like to "engage in a little game of cut, high card wins." They agree to play for $100, and when Twillie starts to write out an IOU his opponent places his pistol on the table while recommending the IOU better be good.
The opponent draws first. "King," he says, and when he starts to show the card Twillie objects, insisting they are playing a "gentleman's game."
Twillie then cuts, and — like in Tillie and Gus — we see he's cut to the . "Ace," he says, and when challenged once more repeats the trick of digging an ace out of the deck. "Here you are, Nosy Parker," he says. "Hope that satisfies your morbid curiosity."
A seat having opened up at the poker game, Twillie joins the table. "Give me a hundred dollars worth of chips!" he announces triumphantly, though is deflated somewhat when he finds his buy-in only gets him a single white chip. "That's my stack, eh?" he says, holding it up. "Well, from a little acorn grew the mighty oak." Cross-fade to a large stack of chips before him. "Beginner's luck, gentlemen!" he explains, deftly shuffling for the next deal.
Soon thereafter, Twillie is unceremoniously cast from the saloon as a cheat, although through another ludicrous turn finds himself having been named the sheriff of Greasewood. Down at the station, Twillie has the cards out once again, playing poker with his Indian servant for beads. The Indian bets, and Twillie calls, asking, "Whaddya got?"
"Three squaws," comes the reply.
"Three chiefs," says Twillie proudly.
Flower Belle's country cousin, Zeth, arrives. "Have you any of the elusive spondulicks on you?" Twillie asks Zeth.
"You mean money?" asks the confused bumpkin. When Zeth indicates he does, Twillie hastily instructs the Indian to go milk his elk, and ushers Zeth into the empty chair.
The scene ends with what is probably the most-quoted poker-related exchange of any of Fields' films, although often one sees it erroneously suggested that Fields' character is speaking to Flower Belle, not her cousin. As Zeth spreads his money on the table, he excitedly asks, "Is this a game of chance?"
"Not the way I play it, no," comes the reply.
Of course, in the films of W.C. Fields, poker never is.