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W. C. Fields

[feeldz]

W. C. Fields (January 29, 1880December 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.

Biography

Birth and early career

He was born William Claude Dukenfield in Darby, Pennsylvania. His father, James Dukenfield, came from an English-Irish family and it is claimed they were descendants of the lords of the manor of Dukinfield, Cheshire (now Tameside) although no proof has ever been provided. Contrary to widely held belief there was never a Lord Dukinfield although some later members of the family were baronets. Fields's mother, Kate Spangler Felton, was also of British descent. James Dukenfield arrived in the USA in 1857 from Ecclesall Bierlow in Sheffield, South Yorkshire with his father John (who was a comb maker), mother Ann and his siblings. James was identified as a "baker" in the 1860 U.S. census and a "huckster" in the 1870 census, an enterprise in which the young William later assisted.

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.

Marriage

Fields married a fellow vaudevillian, chorus girl Harriet "Hattie" Hughes, on April 8, 1900. Their son, William Claude Fields Jr., was born on July 28, 1904.

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.

Fields on stage

Fields started as an "eccentric juggler" in vaudeville, appearing in the makeup of a genteel "tramp": scruffy beard and shabby tuxedo, for instance. He juggled cigar boxes, hats, and a variety of other objects in what seems to have been a unique and fresh act, parts of which are reproduced in some of his films. Fields confined his act to pantomime, so he could play international theaters and overcome any language barriers. Fields toured several continents and became literally a world-class juggler and an international star.

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 starred in multiple editions of the Follies and in the Broadway musical comedy Poppy, where he perfected his persona as an oily, small-time confidence man.

Movies

Fields starred in a couple of short comedies, filmed in New York in 1915. His stage commitments prevented him from doing more movie work until 1924. He reprised his Poppy role in a silent-film adaptation, retitled Sally of the Sawdust (1925) and directed by the legendary D.W. Griffith. Fields wore a scruffy-looking, clip-on mustache in virtually all of his silent films, discarding it only after his first sound feature film, Her Majesty Love.

Screen stardom

Fields made four short subjects for comedy pioneer Mack Sennett in 1932 and 1933. During this period, Paramount Pictures began featuring Fields in full-length comedies, and by 1934 he was a major movie star.

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:

  • "Larson E. [read "Larceny"] Whipsnade" (You Can't Cheat an Honest Man);
  • "Egbert Sousé" [pronounced 'soo-ZAY', but pointing toward a synonym for a 'drunk'] (The Bank Dick);
  • "Ambrose Wolfinger" (Man on the Flying Trapeze); and,
  • "The Great McGonigle" (The Old-Fashioned Way).

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.

Fields and alcohol

Fields’s screen character was often fond of alcohol and this trait has become part of the Fields legend. In his younger days as a juggler, Fields himself never drank, because he didn’t want to impair his functions while performing. The loneliness of his constant touring and traveling, however, compelled Fields to keep liquor on hand for fellow performers, so he could invite them to his dressing room for companionship and cocktails. Only then did Fields cultivate a fondness for alcohol.

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.

Radio

While Fields was inactive, he recorded a short speech for a radio broadcast. His familiar, snide drawl registered so well with listeners that he quickly became a popular guest on network radio shows. One of his funniest routines had him trading insults with Edgar Bergen's dummy Charlie McCarthy on "The Chase and Sanborn Hour". Fields would twit Charlie about his being made of wood:

  • FIELDS: Tell me, Charles, is it true your father was a gate-leg table?
  • McCARTHY: If it is, your father was under it!

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?

Movie comeback

Fields's new popularity earned him a contract with Universal Pictures in 1939. His first feature for Universal, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, carried on the Fields-McCarthy rivalry. In 1940 Fields made My Little Chickadee with Mae West, as well as The Bank Dick, perhaps his best-known film (in which he asks bartender Shemp Howard, "Was I in here last night, and did I spend a $20 bill?" "Yeah!" "Oh, is that a load off my mind... I thought I'd lost it!").

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.

Unrealized movie projects

W. C. Fields was the original choice for the title role in the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz. One rumor was that he believed the role was too small. Another alleged that he was asking too much money: his asking price was $100,000, while MGM offered $75,000. However, his agent asserted that Fields rejected the role because he wanted to devote his time to writing You Can't Cheat an Honest Man. In any case, the Oz role was certainly tailored for Fields: Frank Morgan played the carnival mountebank "Professor Marvel" with the florid speech and pompous fraudulence typical of Fields.

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.

Final years

Fields occasionally entertained guests at his home. Anthony Quinn and his wife Katherine DeMille (daughter of famed Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille) called on Fields one afternoon, which became a nightmare when the Quinns' two-year-old son, Christopher, drowned in Fields’s lily pond. Fields was hit hard by this incident, and brooded about it for months. Generally, Fields fraternized with other actors, directors, and writers who shared his fondness for good company and good liquor. John Barrymore, Gregory La Cava, and Gene Fowler were a few of his intimates.

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.

Caricatures

Fields, with his bulbous nose (as a result of rosacea), rotund body, and blustery, nasal voice, has often been caricatured. A few examples:

  • Several contemporary cartoons contained Fields characterizations.
  • The comic strip The Wizard of Id features an attorney called "Larsen E. Pettifogger", an obvious parody of Fields that borrows from the character "Larsen E. Whipsnade" that Fields created in You Can't Cheat an Honest Man.
  • Frito-Lay's controversial "Frito Bandito" in the late 1960s was retired in favor of a Fields lookalike called "W.C. Fritos".
  • In addition to the above "W. C. Fritos" ads, Fields was mimicked and caricatured in a great many animated cartoons and commercials, ranging from classic Looney Tunes shorts to an ad for Cocoa Puffs (in which Sonny disguised himself as W. C.).
  • On the TV show Gigglesnort Hotel, there was a puppet character named W. C. Cornfield which was an obvious caricature of Fields.
  • Fields was an easy target for impressionists and mimics. For example, Ed McMahon aped Fields on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and Family Feud host and Match Game panelist Richard Dawson frequently did imitations of Fields. Master impressionist Rich Little used a Fields characterization for the "Scrooge" character in his one-man presentation of A Christmas Carol.
  • Les Dawson's character Zebediah Twain was obviously an affectionate tribute.
  • Benny Hill mimicked Fields in sketches and musical numbers on The Benny Hill Show.
  • In the finale of 1970's TV series Gangsters, writer Philip Martin appeared as "W.D. (White Devil) Fields", a ninja assassin who adopted the appearance and mannerisms of Fields in order to lull his opponents into a false sense of security. His first line in the series was "Birmingham, eh? On the whole I'd sooner be in Philadelphia". Martin was credited as "Larsen E Whipsnade".
  • He was also caricatured in the Belgian comic strip Lucky Luke in the album Western Circus and the animated film La Ballade des Dalton.
  • The character of Horatio K. Boomer on radio's Fibber McGee & Molly, voiced by Bill Thompson

Fields in popular culture

Quotes

W.C. Fields had a gift for memorable phrases. A few are:

  • "I'd rather be in Philadelphia."
  • "I am free of all prejudice. I hate everyone equally."
  • In reference to Charlie Chaplin: "The son of a bitch is a ballet dancer. He's the best ballet dancer that ever lived and if I get a chance, I'll strangle him with my bare hands."
  • "If at first you don't succeed try, try again. Then quit. There's no use in being a damn fool about it."
  • When asked, late in life, if he believed that there was intelligent life on other planets, he remarked: "There better be, there's none on this one!"
  • "A thing worth having is a thing worth cheating for."
  • "Start your day with a smile and get it over with."
  • When the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, Fields brought a hand truck to a liquor store and bought 6 cases of gin. When a friend saw him returning, he asked why he bought 6 cases. Fields replied. "I think it's going to be a short war."
  • "A man's got to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another drink."
  • "It reminds me of my journey to the wilds of Afghanistan. We lost our corkscrew and had to survive on nothing but food and water for several days."
  • "The world is getting to be such a dangerous place, a man is lucky to get out of it alive."
  • "I never drink water because of the disgusting things that fish do in it."
  • "Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite. And furthermore, always carry a small snake."
  • "Never give a sucker an even break, or smarten up a chump."
  • Upon being asked "Do you like children?", he once replied: "I do if they're properly cooked."

Filmography

Features

Short Subjects

References

Further reading

  • Fields for President by W. C. Fields. Dood, Mead, 1940 and 1971. ISBN 0396064191. (Humorous essays about Fields's stance on marriage, politics, finance, etc.)
  • W. C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes by Robert Lewis Taylor. Doubleday, 1949; reprint edition: New American Library, 1967. ISBN 0451506537. (First book biography, with many firsthand quotes from Fields and friends)
  • The Art of W. C. Fields by William K. Everson. Random House, 1967. ISBN 0517012324. (First book-length examination of the Fields films)
  • W. C. Fields by Himself: His Intended Autobiography, edited by Ronald J. Fields. Prentice-Hall, 1973. ISBN 0139444629. (Collection of Fields's letters and scripts, with commentary)
  • Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W. C. Fields by Simon Louvish. Faber & Faber, 1999. ISBN 0393041271. (New biography, with new research)
  • W. C. Fields: A Biography by James Curtis. Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. ISBN 0375402179. (Comprehensive biography, with many firsthand quotes)

See also

External links

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