From the very first moments of The Golf Specialist, W. C. Fields' talkie debut, it's apparent that we're watching a technically primitive effort that can't hold a candle to The Great Man's best comedies. It's comparable to the Marx Brothers' first film The Cocoanuts in a number of ways, from the stilted pacing and uncertain camera work right down to the obviously bogus "Florida" location that looks suspiciously like it was staged in a cramped and stuffy East Coast studio. But, as with the Marxes' debut, there are stretches when the comedy transcends the antiquated technique and you find yourself laughing anyhow. This film features a prolonged opening sequence in a hotel lobby (again reminiscent of The Cocoanuts) that lurches from bit to bit without ever finding a consistent comic rhythm, although there are some amusing moments. Some of the actors-- especially the old guy playing the sailor --are downright amateurish, and when Fields finally makes his entrance it comes as a relief. He's still wearing that icky little mustache he wore in his silent comedies, but it's good to see him anyway. Almost immediately he's confronted by a little girl with an annoyingly shrill voice, and their run-in serves as a dress rehearsal of sorts for Fields' many battles with obnoxious children yet to come.
Again like The Cocoanuts this film, despite its technical limitations, stands as a valuable record of a popular stage act of the Jazz Age, for the second half preserves Fields' famous golf routine. Variously known as "A Game of Golf" and "An Episode on the Links," the act was introduced in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1918 and is a set-piece of gradually mounting frustration. The act features Fields on the golf links simply trying to cue up and hit a ball while his lady friend watches. He is thwarted at every turn by distracting sounds, a misplaced pie, errant wrapping paper that somehow winds up in his mouth, the misbehavior of his golf clubs, and most of all by the bizarre little man who serves as his caddy. Fields used a portion of the act in his silent feature So's Your Old Man but it lost some of its punch in the silent medium, what with so much of the comedy depending on sudden noises. Here at least we get to hear the appropriate sound effects and savor Fields' quips and murmured ramblings, although personally I find his over-reliance on the phrase "Stand clear and keep your eye on the ball!" wearisome after awhile. But unsung leading lady Shirley Grey provides a boost with a number of amusingly delivered Dumb Dora remarks, while a comic named Al Woods is a hoot as Fields' oddball caddy.
Actress Louise Brooks was a dancer in the Follies in the mid-1920s when Fields revived his golf act and she used to watch him from the wings on a nightly basis. Brooks later said that the routine was never as funny in the movies as it was on stage. That surely must be so, but we can only imagine how much funnier it was when Fields was working off the response of a live audience. In any case, having this record of the act is better than nothing, and in the meantime viewers who find The Golf Specialist disappointing will want to take a look at Fields' underrated 1934 feature You're Telling Me!, which offers a more satisfying version of the golf routine than the one found here.
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