Fields, W. C. 1880-1946
(William Claude Dukenfield) American actor, comedian, and screenwriter.
Actor and comedian W. C. Fields constituted a singular presence in American entertainment during the 1930s and 1940s. In an era known for its lighthearted and usually wholesome comedies, Fields distinguished himself with his cynical, misanthropic, and hard-drinking persona. He primarily played two roles, either the henpecked husband or the cunning cheat. He portrayed both characters in The Old-Fashioned Way (1934); the former in It's a Gift (1934), The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935), and The Bank Dick (1940); and the latter in You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939) and My Little Chickadee (1940). Whatever the guise, he claimed more or less the same set of dislikes—wives, mothers-in-law, children, pets, bankers, doctors, the law—and the same likes. The latter, a much shorter list than his dislikes, consisted chiefly of alcohol, tobacco, and cards. Like a character from Dickens, whose Mr. Micawber he portrayed in a memorable role for the 1935 production of David Copperfield, Fields was well-known for his physical attributes, including a bulbous red nose and a raspy voice that came from a side of his mouth. Fields, who wrote or at least conceived many of his screenplays, created a curmudgeonly persona that closely resembled his real self, according to the accounts of many who knew him. His cynical humor, which often placed him at odds with the attitudes of his era, has made him at least as popular in the decades after his death as he was during his lifetime.
Fields was born William Claude Dukenfield in Philadelphia in 1879. The son of a Cockney immigrant, Fields was put to work selling vegetables at an early age. His childhood was by most accounts not an easy one: his trademark nose, which many assumed to be the product of his heavy drinking, in fact took on its shape from being broken in numerous fights during his youth, and his raspy voice may have resulted from the many colds he suffered. At the age of nine, he saw his first vaudeville show, and resolved to become a juggler. In his teens, he began to perform on stage under his newly adopted name of Fields, and by the age of twenty, he was a vaudeville star. Around the turn of the century, he took part in a European tour, during which he performed at Buckingham Palace, and by 1905, he was appearing on Broadway. Greater success followed with a role in the Broadway production of Watch Your Step by Irving Berlin in 1914, and with the signing of a seven-year contract with the Ziegfield Follies starting in 1915. By then, Fields had added a comedy routine to his juggling act, and had attracted the attention of the growing film industry. After several experiments with motion pictures during the silent era, Fields began his career as a film actor in 1930—just when sound had replaced silent pictures—with a short called The Golf Specialist. Later he would appear in four two-reel movies he wrote himself. It's a Gift in 1934 marked the first feature film conceived by and starring Fields. He followed this with a number of acclaimed roles, but a bout of illness in 1936 incapacitated him for some time. During his recovery, Fields began a secondary career as a radio personality, engaging in a celebrated "rivalry" with Charlie McCarthy, the dummy operated by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. There followed a second series of films written and/or conceived by Fields, who also starred in them: You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, which also starred Bergen and McCarthy; My Little Chickadee, cowritten with Mae West, his co-star; The Bank Dick (1940), and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. Fields died on Christmas Day in 1946.
"Bill had only one story," recalled director Eddie Sutherland. "It wasn't a story at all, really—there was just an ugly old man, an ugly woman, and a brat of a child." The Fatal Glass of Beer, one of four short films Fields wrote during 1932 and 1933, did indeed center around an absurd story involving a father, mother, and their long-lost son; but in The Dentist, The Pharmacist, and The Barber Shop, Fields's character confronted institutions or professions rather than family members. With It's a Gift, he began to develop the henpecked persona in the form of a grocer consumed by his dream of starting an orange grove on a worthless plot of land in California. Ambrose Wolfinger in The Man on the Flying Trapeze is similarly hapless, as is Fields's character in The Bank Dick, a bank security guard who repeatedly escapes his family to drink at the Black Pussy Cat Café. By contrast, Larson E. Whipsnade, the protagonist of You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, is typical of Field's other persona, the cynical and conniving rascal. That persona reappeared in My Little Chickadee, with Fields and West playing types they had already made famous in their careers. Fields wrote under a variety of unlikely sounding pseudonyms such as "Mahatma Kane Jeeves." The years since Fields's death have seen the appearance of numerous books containing his witticisms, as well as a volume edited by grandson Ronald Fields, entitled...
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The Dentist (screenplay) 1932
The Fatal Glass of Beer (screenplay) 1932
The Barber Shop (screenplay) 1933
The Pharmacist (screenplay) 1933
It's a Gift [as Charles Bogle] (screenplay)* 1934
The Old-Fashioned Way [as Charles Bogle] (screenplay)* 1934
The Man on the Flying Trapeze [as Charles Bogle, with Sam Hardy] (screenplay)* 1935
You Can't Cheat an Honest Man [as Charles Bogle] (screenplay)* 1939
My Little Chickadee [with Mae West] (screenplay) 1940
The Bank Dick [as Mahatma Kane Jeeves] (screenplay) 1940
Never Give a Sucker an Even Break [as Otis Criblecoblis] (screenplay)* 1941
W. C. Fields by Himself: His Intended Autobiography [commentary by Ronald Fields] (autobiography) 1973
*Fields conceived the story for this work, and other writers received credit for writing the actual screenplay.
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SOURCE: An essay in The Nation, New York, Vol. 132, No. 3419, January 7, 1931, pp. 24-5.
[In the following essay, Broun offers his appraisal of Fields's performance in the film Ballyhoo.]
To me this seems a year in which the musical comedies distinctly show the way to so-called legitimate attractions. My quarrel with that word "legitimate" is deep and of long standing. I have never been able to understand why entertainment becomes more important simply because no one sings. In recent years I begin to sense a new point of view among critics. When I held a reviewer's post on a morning paper, it was practically treason not to choose a comedy or a farce if it happened to open on the same night as a musical show. Now there are heretics who abandon the old principle. It would be folly to do otherwise.
For instance, there came a night not so long ago in which the choice lay between W. C. Fields in Ballyhoo at Hammerstein's Theater and a comedy drama entitled Life Is Like That. Some few of the pundits insisted on being faithful to the memory of Shakespeare and passed up Mr. Fields to witness Life Is Like That. The loss was theirs. I found Fields to be at the very top of his glorious best, and I liked the story in which he is set.
A satire on C. C. Pyle, the sporting promoter, has long seemed one of the neglected spaces in the American drama. I will not...
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SOURCE: "W.C. Fields," in The New Statesman and Nation, Vol. XXXIII, No. 828, January 4, 1947, p. 8.
[In the following essay, Priestly eulogizes Fields.]
So now there is another cold gap, for W. C. Fields is dead. I wrote the rough treatment of a film for him once—and kept my family all winter in Arizona on the proceeds (those were the days)—but the film was never made, chiefly, I think, because even then Fields could no longer sustain a leading rôle. It was a story about an itinerant piano tuner wandering round the ranches in the South-West, and had, I think, some good Fieldsian situations in it. In one of them Fields, in despair and after some desperate bragging, decides to get tough and hold up a car, but the car he chooses is full of old Western sharpshooters on their way to a rodeo and delighted to find a little target practice on the way. If you remember Fields, you can imagine him in that situation.
I saw him long before he found his way to Hollywood, before 1914, when he was touring the halls here with his juggling and trick billiard table act. He was very funny even then, and I seem to remember him balancing a number of cigar boxes and staring with horror at a peculiar box, in the middle of the pile, that wobbled strangely, as if some evil influence were at work. All his confidence, which you guessed from the first to be a desperate bluff, vanished at the sight of this one...
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SOURCE: "The One and Only," in The Time of Laughter, Little, Brown and Company, 1967, pp. 171-95.
[In the following excerpt, Ford offers his personal recollections of Fields.]
W. C. Fields is generally acknowledged to be the supreme comic artist of his time, in my own opinion the funniest man who ever lived, and he was even funnier offstage than on. His drawn-out rasping voice was the same, of course, but he had an infectious giggle, a falsetto he-he-he-he-he like the chirp of a cricket, which I never heard him use in his professional work. His everyday speech was extravagantly florid. "Methinks," he would intone, "there's a Nubian in the fuel supply." Due to his zealous reading of the eighteenth-century English romanticists, their stilted phraseology came naturally to his lips—"Betwixt" or "Forsooth" or "Hither and yon"—and he was the only person I've known to start a sentence with the word "Likely."
That occurred one night when Fields and I were having dinner at Chasen's. We were in one of the semicircular booths along the wall, and Bill by preference was facing the rear of the restaurant. Over his shoulder I could see Sabu, the Elephant Boy, making one of his elaborate entrances, clad in Indian robes and followed by two tall Sikh bearers (probably from Central Casting) with white turbans wound on their heads. The chokras stood with arms folded while Sabu seated himself in...
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SOURCE: "The Confidence Man," in National Review, Vol. XX, No. 16, April 23, 1968, pp. 399-400.
[In the following essay, Kenner presents Fields as a critic of the society in which he lived.]
"The buyer tries to come back with a lower counter-offer. "You're crazy!' retorts Fields. "And you're drunk!' snaps the buyer. "Yes,' agrees Fields, "but I'll be sober tomorrow, and you'll be crazy for the rest of your life!'
—A detail from It's a Gift (1934), and in many ways an epitome of Fields, whose logic could be strangely difficult to fault. The reader who scents a fallacy will be wiser when he has tried to put a clear statement of what it is into, say, 200 words.
Fields coped in picture after picture with people—a whole population, except maybe an innocent girl or two—who would be crazy the rest of their lives and to lose them in syllogistic thickets was his most benign tactic. They had passed the Volstead Act, a deed as impenetrable to this day as the heart of Nero or the smiles of the Etruscans, and their business in life was to be prim and vigilant and very greedy, pending some mutation that should free the human species from maintaining its body temperature, thus opening to all the paradise of the toad.
They brought forth monstrous children whose affinity for molasses, than which blood is...
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SOURCE: "Suckers and Soaks," in The Crazy Mirror: Hollywood Comedy and the American Image, Horizon Press, 1970, pp. 142-9.
[In the following excerpt, Durgnat compares Fields and Mae West in terms of their careers and of their antipathy to the mores of their time.]
Mae West and W. C. Fields came to the cinema from the regions where theatre interbreeds with vaudeville, and top the bill among the early 30's influx of vaudeville and radio comedians. Ken Tynan described Wheeler and Wolsey as the only American cross-talk comedians whose films will never have a season at the National Film Theatre, but it would be interesting to see more of the comedies of Joe E. Brown and Jimmy Durante (almost the last of the race comedians, indifferently Jewish, Italian, or East European), which may well possess consistently what they possess in extract: the kind of zany fidelity to grass roots reality which one finds in the corresponding English tradition, of Will Hay, George Formby, Lucan and McShane, Norman Wisdom and the Carry On series. Victor Moore, Jack Oakie and others bring to 30's movies something of the brash, down-to-earth, briskly accurate character vignettes which are as vivid as they are limited, and catch much of the snap-crackle-pop of the American style.
Mae West smilingly acknowledges the applause for her fairground shimmy in I'm No Angel, and happily gurgles under her breath:...
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SOURCE: "W. C. Fields," in Great Movie Shorts, Crown Publishers, 1972, pp. 81-84.
[In the following excerpt, Maltin contrasts Fields's popularity with 1970s audiences to the often disapproving response he received in his own day.]
In the 1920s and 1930s, one of the most interesting parts of several motion-picture trade magazines was a department in which small-town theatre owners across the country sent in brief comments on the films they had played; this was done for short subjects as well as feature films. Today, these comments are invaluable as a barometer of what the mass movie audience really thought of the films that were being made—unaffected by critical reactions, and uncolored by modern reassessments.
Concerning the W. C. Fields comedies, most exhibitors were unanimous. They stank. Of The Fatal Glass of Beer, a Michigan theatre owner wrote, "Two reels of film and 20 minutes wasted," and a North Carolina manager added, "This is the worst comedy we have played from any company this season. No story, no acting, and as a whole has nothing."
Moviegoers today are just as unanimous in their opinions of the shorts: they are among the funniest films ever made.
The reasons for this discrepancy are not difficult to discern. Fields went against the grain of what was then popular humor; in an age when audience sympathy was always with the Little...
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SOURCE: "The Latter-Day Falstaff," in The Golden Age of Sound Comedy: Comic Films and Comedians of the Thirties, London: The Tantivy Press, No. 1973, pp. 166-72.
[In the following excerpt, McCaffrey examines Fields's comic technique as displayed in his films.]
As if he were a gift from some ancient muse, a successful vaudeville juggler underwent a slow but sure metamorphosis to become the outstanding comedian of the sound age. W. C. Fields, like some reincarnation from the past, reminds us of a comic type who has weathered the test of the ages. There is something of the braggart soldier from Roman comedy, a strutting Capitino from the commedia dell' arte or Falstaff from Shakespeare's plays. But he has more than these facets. He becomes a bungling husband, harassed by his wife—a comic type that ranges from the classical Greek stage through the medieval tale, the restoration and Eighteenth century comedy, down to modern times. In short, Fields ran the gamut of humour with a multi-faceted character of his own creation—with, of course, some help from his directors. Next to him all other comics of the sound age remain two-dimensional. Appreciated in his day, he now receives praise close to adoration. While this acclaim may seem only a "camp" trend—a temporary fad of those who have recently rediscovered the artistry of this unique comedian—there is enough sober evaluation to establish his...
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SOURCE: "Toward the Black Pussy Cafe," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 21, October 31, 1974, pp. 23, 26-28.
[In the following essay, Sheed presents Fields in an unsentimental light, and faults Ronald Fields for his attempts to sanitize his grandfather's autobiography.]
Of all the subjects that don't need de-mythologizing, one would have thought W. C. Fields was pre-eminent. With comedians in general it seems important that their life and their work be taken as one. "I hear he writes his own lines" is a phrase that echoes from childhood. The lot of the gag-writer is a bitter one: unless he consents to be a performer himself, like Mel Brooks or Carl Reiner, we don't want to know about him.
Hence, most books about comedians tend to be unsatisfactory. Either they service the myth and give the clown a brain he doesn't deserve ("The trouble with Groucho is he thinks he's Groucho," says one of his old writers) or they tell the truth, as John Lahr did of his father Bert in Notes on a Cowardly Lion, leaving us with a somewhat shrunken functionary, barely worth a book, though Lahr got a good one. Comedians are actors, and in dealing with such there is rarely anything between fan magazine falsehood and terrible disillusionment.
Books about W. C. Fields, on the other hand, tend to be satisfactory even when they're bad. For instance, his mistress's book about him,...
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SOURCE: "In Search of the Grampian Hills with W.C. Fields," in The American Scholar, Vol. 48, No. 1, Winter, 1978/79, pp. 101-5.
[In the following essay, Prior explores the origins of a line from You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, in which Fields refers to "the Grampian Hills."]
Toward the end of You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, W.C. Fields, as Larsen E. Whipsnade, attends a reception for his daughter in the mansion of the Bel-Goodies, where he turns on his charm and succeeds in ruining his daughter's prospective marriage to wealthy young Bel-Goodie, and in consequence his own last hope of saving the insolvent circus of which he is the proprietor and chief con artist. Turned out by his hosts, Fields picks up his top hat and cape with injured dignity, and as he makes his exit he calls out to his son and daughter, "On to the Grampian Hills, children." They flee from failure and rebuff in a Roman chariot that Fields has appropriated from the circus, with the sheriff in hot but futile pursuit. "Where are those Grampian Hills, Dad?" his daughter asks as the chariot careens along a country road. "I wonder, I wonder," says Fields.
No one in the audience would be likely to wonder, and if by remote chance someone in the darkened theater was startled by what sounded like a literary echo, he would have dismissed the thought. The Grampian Hills, along with Whipsnade and Bel-Goodie, had to...
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SOURCE: "Never Give a Sucker or Yourself an Even Break," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, Winter, 1985, pp. 225-237.
[In the following essay, Galligan examines Fields's psychohistory, with emphasis on ways that Fields overcame the misery of his childhood and the self-pity that might have arisen from it.]
What a shame that someone can't put a bullet through the Pagliacci myth and bury it once and for all. It tells a lie: that though clowns are laughing on the outside they are crying on the inside; that they are wallowing in self-pity. They do not; they dare not. Clowns and all others who would live by the comic vision are obliged to strive to survive—more accurately, to live as themselves until they actually die—and self-pity, warm and sticky sweet as it is, will do anybody in long before the undertaker comes. So forget Pagliacci and contemplate the life and works of W. C. Fields where you will find a flamboyant, no-holdsbarred attack on self-pity.
I doubt that anyone ever felt the temptations of self-pity more strongly than Fields did or ever went to such extravagant lengths to ward them off. As William Claude Dukenfield, born 1879 or 1880 in Philadelphia, he seems to have had the sort of battered, impoverished childhood that sends people to insane asylums; unquestionably he emerged from it with a massive load of grudges against his father, his relatives, and his society....
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SOURCE: "Fields and Falstaff," in Thalia, Vol. VIII, No. 2, Fall-Winter, 1985, pp. 36-42.
[In the following essay, Gehring equates Fields's persona with that of Shakespeare's Falstaff.]
In writing a book on America's greatest native-born comedian (see W. C. Fields: A Bio-Bibliography, Greenwood Press, 1984), the author happened upon occasional fleeting comparisons to Shakespeare's Falstaff. For example, New Republic film critic Otis Ferguson, the most poetically articulate of Fields's critical champions, described the comedian as a "natural resource .. . a minor Jack Falstaff on the sawdust of the twentieth century."1Fields, a self-taught student of literature, was not beyond comparing himself humorously with Falstaff. Author Gene Fowler, Fields's friend, drinking companion and later biographer, remembers the comedian observing: "If Falstaff had stuck to martinis [Fields's favorite drink], he'd still be with us. Poor soul!"2
Unfortunately, no one ever pursued this comparison. Yet today, one argument for the ongoing popularity of W. C. Fields is that he has become a universal symbol as important in today's age of mass communication as the celebrated literary characters of the past.
The most analogous argument is probably film theorist André Bazin's interrelating of Chaplin's Charlie with epic characters of literature: "For hundreds of...
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SOURCE: "W.C. Fields: The Copyrighted Sketches," in Journal of Popular Film and Televisen, Vol. 14, No. 2, Summer, 1986, pp. 65-75.
[In the following essay, Gehring provides a review of two dozen short comic sketches written and copyrighted by Fields during a twenty-year period.]
While doing research on America's greatest native-born comedian (see W. C. Fields: A Bio-Bibliography, Greenwood Press, 1984), the author happened upon Fields's seemingly forgotten copyrighted sketches at the Library of Congress.1
Between 1918 and late-1930, Fields copyrighted twenty-three separate comedy documents on sixteen subjects (some sketches were copyrighted more than once when changes were made). While generally written for the stage, several of the sketches, or variations of them turned up later in the comedian's films.
Though once housed individually by title in the Copyright Division of the Library of Congress, the documents are now available as one collection, the "W. C. Fields Papers," in the Manuscript Division of the Library (Madison Building).
These sketches, with their frequent variations on a single theme, provide a unique opportunity to examine the misplaced evolution of an American comedy giant. For example, Fields's classic sketch "An Episode at the Dentist's," which was copyrighted three times (February 1919, 12 July and 2 November 1928),...
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Gehring, Wes D. "Bibliographical Checklist of Key Fields Sources." In W. C. Fields: A Bio-Bibliography, 192-200.
Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.
Extensive listing of Fields's work, and of Fieldsrelated writings.
Rocks, David T. W. C. Fields—An Annotated Guide: Chronology, Bibliographies, Discography, Filmographies, Press Books, Cigarette Cards, Film Clips and Impersonators. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1993, 131 p.
An exhaustive guide to publications and paraphernalia relating to Fields, along with a twenty-page chronology of his life.
Brooks, Louise. "The Other Faces of W. C. Fields." In Lulu in Hollywood, 71-84. New York: Knopf, 1982.
Brooks, who performed with Fields in the Ziegfield Follies of 1925, remembers the man behind the curmudgeonly persona.
Edelson, Edward. "Uncle Bill." In Funny Men of the Movies, 71-79. New York: Doubleday, 1976.
Brief and lighthearted chronicle of Fields's life and performances.
Monti, Carlotta with Cy Rice. W. C. Fields & Me. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971, 227 p.
Fields's longtime companion offers an intimate portrait of her fourteen years with him.
Taylor, Robert Lewis. W. C....
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