W. Fields Essay - Critical Essays

Fields, W.

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

"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 W.C. Fields by Himself: His Intended Autobiography (1973).

Principal Works

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.

Criticism

Heywood Broun (essay date 1931)

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...

(The entire section is 826 words.)

J. B. Priestley (essay date 1947)

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...

(The entire section is 1085 words.)

Corey Ford (excerpt date 1967)

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...

(The entire section is 7430 words.)

Hugh Kenner (essay date 1968)

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...

(The entire section is 1867 words.)

Raymond Durgnat (excerpt date 1970)

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...

(The entire section is 3261 words.)

Leonard Maltin (excerpt date 1972)

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...

(The entire section is 2143 words.)

Donald W. McCaffrey (excerpt date 1973)

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...

(The entire section is 6615 words.)

Wilfrid Sheed (essay date 1974)

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...

(The entire section is 3999 words.)

Moody E. Prior (essay date 1978)

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...

(The entire section is 3421 words.)

Edward L. Galligan (essay date 1985)

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...

(The entire section is 4085 words.)

Wes D. Gehring (essay date 1985)

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...

(The entire section is 4272 words.)

Wes D. Gehring (essay date 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 5479 words.)