A key difference between W.C. Fields and Charlie Chaplin in their respective approaches to comedy is demonstrated in this short film The Pharmacist, which Fields made for Chaplin's former boss Mack Sennett. For most of his career Chaplin was careful to orchestrate audience sympathy for his character, so that even when the Little Tramp does something underhanded or naughty, we still like him. But Fields frequently aimed for something very different, and chose to embody mean, petty, blustery characters whose behavior can be inexcusable. (Perhaps this explains why Fields could be so deeply moving when he did periodically play a likable guy, or when he made an especially noble gesture, as in the finale of Poppy and a few similar instances.) The Pharmacist marks one of those occasions when Fields practically defies us to like the character he portrays. I tend to enjoy the Great Man's movies no matter what, but for newcomers to the world of W.C. Fields viewer discretion is advised: this time around, our star comic is not a nice man.
Fields plays a man named Dilweg who runs a drug store in a small town. He makes his entrance sourly ordering some children who are playing in front of his store to get lost. Dilweg lives over the store with his wife and two daughters, and while his older daughter seems pleasant enough, the younger daughter is a brat, and Mrs. Dilweg is pompous and stuffy. When he's upstairs with his family Dilweg is loud and crude, constantly fuming at the little girl and grousing about his job, but when he's downstairs with the customers he turns ridiculously deferential and accommodating, practically groveling for business -- which, on this particular day, is lousy.
That, in essence, is The Pharmacist. The humor derives from Fields' hellish depictions of family life and his workday, and although there are plenty of laughs the tone is bitter. For me, the funniest bits come in the downstairs sequences in the store, as Dilweg deals with a procession of difficult, uncommunicative, and demanding customers, such as the man who wants a postage stamp but insists on getting a clean one from the middle of the sheet, or the two ladies who insist on speaking to a female attendant . . . and, ultimately, want only directions to the washroom. One of the best gags is a throwback to silent comedy days: when an unfamiliar gent comes in asking about the availability of some under-the-counter booze, Dilweg holds up an oscillating fan that blows back the man's lapel and reveals his badge, then righteously delivers a pious speech disavowing such illicit activity. Fields first used this gag in his silent feature It's the Old Army Game, back in 1926.
Somewhat surprisingly, the climax of this low-key short is a violent gun battle between bandits and police that spills into Dilweg's store: the End of a Perfect Day for the proprietor, whose stock gets riddled with bullets. Whether or not you find Mr. Dilweg a sympathetic figure will probably depend on whether you already liked W.C. Fields in the first place. For those of us who appreciate him, there is much here to enjoy. Mr. Dilweg the beleaguered pharmacist may not be an admirable guy, but The Pharmacist is a treat for Fields connoisseurs.