W. C. Fields (January 29, 1880 – December 25, 1946) was an American juggler, comedian, and actor. Fields created one of the great American comic personas of the first half of the 20th century—a misanthrope who teetered on the edge of buffoonery but never quite fell in, an egotist blind to his own failings, a charming drunk; and a man who hated children, dogs, and women, unless they were the wrong sort of women.
This characterization that he portrayed in films and radio was so strong that it was generally identified with Fields himself. It was maintained by the then-typical movie-studio publicity departments at Fields's studios (Paramount and Universal) and further established by Robert Lewis Taylor's 1949 biography W.C. Fields, His Follies and Fortunes. Beginning in 1973, with the publication of Fields's letters, photos, and personal notes in grandson Ronald Fields's book W.C. Fields by Himself, it has been shown that Fields was married (and subsequently estranged from his wife), he financially supported their son, and he loved his grandchildren.
There was some truth to the misanthropic persona, however. Madge Evans, an actress who appeared in several films during the 1930s and who was later married to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sidney Kingsley, told a visitor in 1972 that her friend Fields so deeply resented intrusions on his privacy by curious tourists walking up the driveway to his Los Angeles home that he would conceal himself in the shrubs by his house, firing BB pellets at the trespassers' legs. Groucho Marx told a similar story, in his live album An Evening with Groucho.
Fields left home at age 11 (according to most biographies and documentaries) and entered vaudeville. By age 21 he was traveling as a juggling act (The Eccentric Juggler), and eventually introduced amusing asides and added increasing amounts of comedy into his act, becoming a headliner in both North America and Europe. In 1906 he made his Broadway debut in the musical comedy The Ham Tree.
Fields was well known for embellishing stories of his youth, but despite the legends he encouraged, the truth is that his home seems to have been a relatively happy one and his family supported his ambitions for the stage: his parents saw him off on the train for his first real stage tour as a teenager, and his father visited him in England while Fields was enjoying success in the music halls there.
W. C. was known to his friends as "Bill". Edgar Bergen also called him "Bill" in the radio shows (Charlie McCarthy, of course, called him by other names). In films in which he was portrayed as having a son, he sometimes named the character "Claude", after his own son. In England he was sometimes billed as "Wm. C. Fields", presumably to avoid controversy due to "W.C." being the British abbreviation/euphemism for "Water Closet", although it might be safely assumed that the earthy Fields was amused by the coincidence. His public use of initials instead of a first name was a commonplace formality of the era in which Fields grew up. That "W.C. Fields" more easily fit onto a marquee than "W. Dukenfield" undoubtedly was a factor in his choice of a stage name.
At the time Fields was away from Hattie on tour in England. By 1907, however, W. C. and Hattie separated; she had been pressing him to stop touring and settle down to a respectable trade, while he was unwilling to give up his own livelihood. Until his death, Fields would keep up both correspondence and the sending of voluntary child-support payments to Hattie.
Back in America, Fields found that he could get more laughs by adding dialogue to his routines. His trademark mumbling patter and sarcastic asides were developed during this time. He soon starred on Broadway in Florenz Ziegfeld's famous "Ziegfeld Follies" revues. There he delighted audiences with a wild pool skit, complete with bizarrely shaped cues and a custom-built table used for a number of hilarious gags and surprising trick shots. His pool game is also reproduced, at least in part, in some of his films.
He also contributed to the films' scripts, under unusual pseudonyms such as "Otis Criblecoblis", which contains an embedded homophone for "scribble". Another, "Mahatma Kane Jeeves", is a pun on mahatma and a phrase of an aristocrat walking out: "My hat, my cane, Jeeves". He also used the ordinary-sounding pseudonym "Charles Bogle" several times.
In his films, he often played hustlers such as carnival barkers and card sharps, spinning yarns and distracting his marks, as with this gem from Mississippi: "Whilst traveling through the Andes Mountains, we lost our corkscrew. Had to live on food and water for several days!" Fields had an affection for unlikely names and many of his characters bore them. Among the prime examples are:
The carnival fraud was not the only character Fields played. He was also fond of casting himself as the victim: a hapless householder constantly under the thumb of his shrewish wife and/or mother-in-law. His 1934 classic It's a Gift included his stage sketch of trying to escape his nagging family by sleeping on the back porch, and being bedeviled by noisy neighbors and traveling salesmen.
Although lacking formal education, he was well read and a lifelong admirer of author Charles Dickens. He achieved one of his career ambitions by playing the character Mr. Micawber, in MGM's David Copperfield in 1935. In 1936, Fields re-created his signature stage role in Poppy for Paramount Pictures.
A notable quote regarding alcohol is attributed to Fields: "I can't stand water because of the things fish do in it." Fields expressed his feelings in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break: "I was in love with a beautiful blonde once, dear. She drove me to drink. It's the one thing I am indebted to her for."
On movie sets, Fields kept a vacuum flask of martinis handy; he referred to it as his "lemonade". One day a prankster switched the contents of the flask, filling it with actual lemonade. Upon discovering the prank, Fields was heard to yell, "Who put lemonade in my lemonade?"
In 1936 Fields became gravely ill, his health worsened by his heavy drinking. Fields’s film series came to a halt while he recovered; he made one last film for Paramount, The Big Broadcast of 1938. The comedian's all-around cussedness kept other producers away, and Fields was professionally idle until he made his debut on radio.
Charlie would fire back at Fields about his drinking:
McCARTHY: Is it true, Mr, Fields, that when you stood on the corner of Hollywood and Vine, 43 cars waited for your nose to change to green?
Fields often fought with studio producers, directors, and writers over the content of his films. He was determined to make a movie his way, with his own script and staging and his own choice of supporting players. Universal finally gave him the chance, and the resulting film, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, (1941) is a masterpiece of absurd humor in which Fields appeared as himself, "The Great Man". Universal's singing star Gloria Jean played opposite Fields, and his old cronies Leon Errol and Franklin Pangborn served as his comic foils. But the film Fields delivered was so nonsensical that Universal recut and reshot parts of it and then quietly released both the film and Fields. Sucker turned out to be his last starring film.
Fields also figured in an Orson Welles project. Welles's bosses at RKO Radio Pictures, after losing money on Citizen Kane, urged Welles to choose as his next film a subject with more commercial appeal. Welles considered an adaptation of Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers starring Fields and John Barrymore, but Fields's schedule would not permit it. The project was permanently shelved, and Welles went on to adapt The Magnificent Ambersons.
With a presidential election looming in 1940, Fields toyed with the idea of lampooning political campaign speeches. He wrote to vice-presidential candidate Henry Wallace, intending to glean comedy material from Wallace’s speeches, but when Wallace responded with a warm, personal fan letter to Fields, the comedian decided against skewering Wallace. Instead, Fields wrote a book entitled Fields for President, humorous essays in the form of a campaign speech. Dodd, Mead and Company published it in 1940 but declined to reprint it at the time. It did not sell well, mostly because people were confused as to whether it was meant to be taken seriously. Dodd, Mead and Company reprinted in 1971 when Fields was seen as an anti-establishment figure. The 1940 edition includes illustrations by Otto Soglow; the 1971 reprint is illustrated with photographs of Fields.
Fields's film career slowed down considerably in the 1940s. His illnesses confined him to brief guest-star appearances in other people's films. An extended sequence in 20th Century Fox's Tales of Manhattan (1942) was cut from the original release of the film; it was later reinstated for some home video releases. He performed his famous billiard-table routine one more time on camera, for Follow the Boys, an all-star entertainment revue for the Armed Forces. (Despite the charitable nature of the movie, Fields was paid $15,000 for his appearance, and he never was able to perform in person for the armed services.) In Song Of The Open Road (1944) Fields actually juggled for a few moments, remarking "this used to be my racket". His last film, the musical revue Sensations of 1945, was released in late 1944.
He also guested occasionally on radio as late as 1946, often with Edgar Bergen, and just before his death that same year he recorded a spoken-word album, delivering his comic "Temperance Lecture" and "The Day I Drank A Glass Of Water". Fields was too ill to go to a recording studio, so Les Paul brought the equipment to him. Fields's vision had deteriorated so much that he read his lines from large-print cue cards. It was W. C. Fields's last performance and, despite his frail health, one of his most charming.
Fields spent his last weeks in a hospital, where a friend stopped by for a visit and caught Fields reading the Bible. When asked why, Fields replied, "I'm checking for loopholes". In a final irony, W. C. Fields died in 1946 (from a stomach hemorrhage) on the holiday he claimed to despise: Christmas Day. As documented in W.C. Fields and Me (published in 1971, the book was made into a 1976 film of the same name starring Rod Steiger), he died at Las Encinas Sanatorium, Pasadena, California, a bungalow-type sanitarium where, as he lay in bed dying, his longtime and final love, Carlotta Monti, went outside and turned the hose onto the roof, so as to allow Fields to hear for one last time his favorite sound of falling rain. According to the documentary W.C. Fields Straight Up, his death occurred in this way: he winked and smiled at a nurse, put a finger to his lips, and died. Fields was 66, and had been a patient for 14 months.
Fields was cremated and his ashes interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, in Glendale, California. There have been stories that he wanted his grave marker to read "On the whole, I would rather be in Philadelphia", his home town, which is similar to a line he used in My Little Chickadee: "I'd like to see Paris before I die... Philadelphia would do!" (In the same film, he made a point of referencing "Philadelphia cream cheese". Given his fondness for words, maybe he just liked the sound of his home town's name.) This rumor has also morphed into "I would rather be here than in Philadelphia". The anecdote that Fields often remarked, "Philadelphia, wonderful town, spent a week there one night" is unsubstantiated. It is also said that Fields wanted "I'd rather be in Philadelphia" on his gravestone because of the old vaudeville joke among comedians that "I would rather be dead than play Philadelphia". Whatever his wishes might have been, his interment marker merely has his name and birth and death years.
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