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(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 617 words.)