W. Fields Critical Essays

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.