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Tv Reviews : Comedies, From Sublime To Likable

March 07, 1986|LEE MARGULIES | Times Staff Writer

Staying home Saturday night? Television will be serving up two new comedy films--a PBS tribute to one of the silver screen's great comedians, W.C. Fields, and a lightweight diversion from CBS about dating through the classified ads.

"W.C. Fields Straight Up" (airing at 8:35 p.m. on Channel 28) is a laugh-filled celebration of the man who made a career out of playing characters who either were outlandish, cantankerous, heavy-drinking con-men, or were downtrodden, well-intentioned but meek victims, preyed upon by women, children and the fates.

Fields, who died in 1946, was an original--from his appearance and voice to his amazing physical dexterity to his sense of how to wrest humor from the dark side of human nature. "Mr. Fields is a great comedian because he traffics in high and cosmic matters relating to man's eternal helplessness, frustration and defeat," critic Andre Sennwald wrote in 1935.

The unique components of his art are richly displayed in Saturday's documentary, which features a delicious assortment of clips from such films as "It's a Gift," "My Little Chickadee," "The Old Fashioned Way," "Bank Dick" and "You Can't Cheat an Honest Man." Narrated by Dudley Moore, the program also profiles Fields and explores how his movies and screen personality mirrored his own turbulent life.

While it's far from a blemish-free portrait--taking note of his alcohol problems, his estranged family relationships and his creative battles with professional associates--the film makers, who include his grandson, don't subscribe to the notion put forth by some critics and biographers that he was genuinely misanthropic. They view his foibles with affection and seem content to let the film clips stand as testament to the man.

"W.C. Fields Straight Up" was directed and edited by Joe Adamson and produced by Robert B. Weide. Ronald Fields wrote it with Adamson, served as co-producer and also appears on-camera as one of the interview subjects.

Of a far lighter and decidedly more transitory nature is "Classified Love," airing at 9 p.m. Saturday on Channel 2, a romantic comedy that gets farther than it should on the flimsy premise of following the lives of three friends who decide to find dates through the classified ads.

At times the movie veers perilously close to the edge of looking like an extended episode of the excruciatingly silly "New Love American Style," as when one of the characters "double dares" a friend to run an ad. "Oh, what'd you have to go and do that for?" the friend says, unable now to resist.

But writer Diane English and producer-director Don Taylor steer it back from the abyss by focusing on the underlying reason that people resort to placing such ads--the pain and frustration of dating. The story is predictable, but it has a certain charm, thanks mainly to the likable presence of its three principles: Stephanie Faracy, Michael McKean and Dinah Manoff, who bring credibility and vulnerability to their characters.

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