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W.C. Fields, Comic Genius - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

October 2010

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Without a doubt, W.C. Fields can be considered one of the more unusual comedians of his time and of all times - basically because he never tried to be likeable, never tried to make comedies with heart. The characters he played (at least in his signature films) were always misanthropists, misogynists, child-haters, alcoholics, show-offs that had nothing to show off, over-confident con-men that were not too good at their game - and Fields wasn't even good-looking in the slightest. What makes the audience sympathize with such a guy nevertheless is that his bad qualities always come with their own punishment, despite his woman-hating ways he's nothing but a henpecked husband, is teased by children all the time who usually get the better of him, he doesn't like people but there's a kind heart somewhere inside him, when he boasts or tries to trick people, it invariably backfires, and his alcoholism is more often the cause of troubles than the solution. Yet Fields' characters always persevere, and it's the perseverance against all odds that attracts them to the audience.

 

Just like Fields' characters, his style of comedy is out of the ordinary: Sure, he had a vaudeville background and liked to include slapstick routines in his films, but they were never as sophisticated as for example Buster Keaton's slapstick setpieces [Buster Keaton bio - click here], and more often than not work because of their simplicity rather than their complexity. But while Fields' films almost invariably featured slapstick scenes, his comedy was more based on dialogue, and yet his weird speech patterns, his mumbling, his outbursts of overacting, his one-of-a-kind delivery of punchlines (often in the form of insults) all were pretty unusual, but also pretty to-the-point, and they usually corresponded perfectly with the characters he portrayed.

 

Having discussed all that, we also mustn't forget the unique narrative structure of Fields' films (and he usually had a hand in the writing of at least his signature movies): W.C. Fields movies don't necessarily follow traditional story structures, up to a point that several reviewers mistake that for an absence thereof altogether - which is not true, but it's true that Fields' films usually lack any kind of exposition, they throw the viewer right into a situation and it's left to the audience's intelligence to figure out the narrative set-up as the story moves along - and usually the audience gets the story remarkably well (and by the way, today's sitcoms work in a very similar way). It's also true that Fields' films are usually a series of comedy setpieces rather than a fully fleshed out story, but while Fields quite obviously puts more emphasis on his setpieces than on his plot, in the context of the film the setpieces make up the narrative nevertheless - plus it's of course the setpieces that make the movies funny in the first place.

 


 

Early Life and the Vaudeville

 

Information about W.C. Fields' early life is sketchy because Fields through all of his career resented talking about his private affairs on one hand, and on the other was very diligent in cultivating his onscreen image also offscreen, even if that meant altering parts of his biography to better fit the character he has created for himself.

W.C. Fields was born William Claude Dukenfield in 1880 in Darby, Pennsylvania, that much is for sure (though some sources claim 1879). But from here on, Fields' early youth seems to be covered in mist: While Fileds himself tended to describe his father as a no-good drunk who beat him up on a regular basis and claimed he run away from home at age 11, lived in a hole for a while surviving on stolen food before joining the circus at age 13 as a juggler, later findings suggest that W.C. actually had a reasonably happy childhood, started juggling at church and at local theatre shows at about age 15 and soon joined the vaudeville. However, he didn't leave home before age 18, and did so amically.

 

It's only concerning his vaudeville career that the 2 different biographical approaches start to converge: It is said that Fields, who assumed the shortened version of his birth name mainly because it read easier, started out as a gifted juggler (and there is a bit of juggling now and again in his movies if you look closely, especially in The Old Fashioned Way [1934, William Beaudine]), but was quick to notice that if he wanted to make himself a name, he had to do more than a mere juggle act, so he started including slapstick gags into his act, turning it more and more from a simple piece of artistry into an elaborate performance that would eventually also include a pool table (pool being one of his lifelong passions). Eventually, Fields became known as The Tramp Juggler (due to his outfits) and The Eccentric Juggler and became the headliner of his troupe when travelling North America and Europe. At first, the gags in Fields' performances were of a silent nature, so he could play them on international stages (which he did). Only later did he include speech in his act, mainly mumbled jokes that were the groundwork for his later trademark speechpatterns.

 

Fields met his soon-to-be wife, fellow performer Harriet 'Hattie' Hughes in his early vaudeville years and married her in 1900, aged 20. The couple conceived a son in 1904. In 1907 though the couple seperated (yet never divorced) because Hattie wanted W.C. to give up touring and settle down while he refused to abandon his lifestyle. According to several sources however, the two remained good friends until Fields' death in 1946, and he paid voluntary child support for his son (quite a contrast to his child-hating onscreen characters).

 


 

Broadway and Silent Cinema

 

W.C. Fields arrived on Broadway with the vaudeville musical The Ham Tree in 1905, which played for 90 performances, then it was back to touring. During this time, W.C. Fields worked on his routine tirelessly, and eventually put more and more focus on his pool skills he used to the funniest effect. He even had a pool table custom made for the sake of his act.

 


Over the years of vaudeville-touring, Fields' popularity grew more and more, so it was no surprise that eventually, he would end up on the big screen (remember, back in the silent days virtually all film comedians had vaudeville roots). The first film Fields made in 1915, the short Pool Sharks (Edwin Middleton), was hardly surprisingly a slapstick comedy about pool. The film was perhaps no masterpiece, but on par with most slapstick comedies from its day - what's disappointing about it though is the fact that you don't actually see Fields perform any of his pool tricks, the often absurd shots in this movie are done using stop motion techniques.

(Note: If you want to see Fields perform part of his pool routine, you might want to watch two later films of his, Fools for Luck (1928, Charles Reisner) and Six of a Kind [1934, Leo McCarey]. More about those below though.)

 

Pool Sharks was followed by His Lordship's Dilemma (1915, William F. Haddock), a film about an aristocrat (Fields) fallen from grace still trying to make it big. No pool at all in this one, but Fields does a little bit of juggling and a comic bit about golfing, a motive that would be picked up time and again in his later movies.

 

After these two shorts though, Fields' movie career already came to a (temporary) end. This is not so much due to the quality of the films (as mentioned above, they were no better or worse than many similar films of their time) but due to the fact that he got an offer from Broadway that was more interesting at the time, becoming part of the famous Ziegfeld Follies - and back in the day, this probably sounded the much more promising alternative.

Fields remained with Ziegfeld for about 10 years, adding what had now become his trademark humour to Ziegfeld's various revues. However he took the next step in his career away from Ziegfeld, when he co-wrote the musical George White's Scandals together with George White and Andy Dick, while the music was provided by George Gerschwin. The play played for 89 performances in 1922. Also, it gave Fields one of the first opportunities to evolve from a mere comic and prove himself as an actor.

 


Fields really came into his own as an actor the next year with Poppy, a circus-based musical by Dorothy Donnelly (script and lyrics) and Stephen Jones and Arthur Samuels (music), a play that ran for 346 performances from 1923 to 1924. What's even more important than that though is the fact that the play obviously impressed none other than D.W. Griffith, who adapted the play for the big screen in 1925, renaming it Sally of the Sawdust, but giving Fields the role he also had on stage, that of a conman who travels with the circus who takes care of an orphaned girl (Carol Dempster) from a well-respected family. True, the film as such was a rather cheesy melodrama (as was the play, as a matter of fact), but it provided Fields with a role that seemed to be tailor-made for him, and which also got most of the audience's laughs.

 

When Sally of the Sawdust became a hit, D.W. Griffith didn't waste much time to make another film with Carol Dempster in the lead and Fields as her father figure, That Royle Girl (1925), a melodrama based on a book by Edwin Balmer that's unfortunately considered lost nowadays.

Both D.W. Griffith films were produced by Paramount by the way, a studio Fields would remain fairly loyal to for the next almost 15 years.

 


As flattering as it might have been for Fields to star in a couple of D.W. Griffith films towards the beginning of his film career, the handful of films that immediately followed the Griffith-movies were more in tune with Fields' predilection for comedy, proved more indicative of things to come and helped to form W.C. Fields' soon famous onscreen-character.

In It's the Old Army Game (1926, A.Edward Sutherland), which also stars Louise Brooks and is based on a play Fields co-wrote, and So's Your Old Man (1926, Gregory La Cava) he can already be seen as the reluctant family man tormented by his nagging family, and his character immediately caught on with audiences - though from a later-day perspective, one can't but notice that these films simply lacked sound, a somewhat unfair point of critique of course, as sound was not an option in 1926, but nevertheless it is given at least some merit by the fact that So's Your Old Man was later remade as You're Telling Me! (1934, Erle C.Kenton) and It's the Old Army Game as It's a Gift (1934, Norman Z.McLeod), and especially a scene in which Fields desperately tries to get some sleep on his porch despite all the street noises in that movie seems to demand sound pretty much by design.

 

With The Potters (1927, Fred C.Newmeyer) and Running Wild (1927, Gregory La Cava) two more comedies with Fields playing a henpecked husband and father soon followed, but then someone had the less-than-brilliant idea to pair Fields with comedian Chester Conklin for a string of films, the circus-themed comedies Two Flaming Youths (1927, John Waters - not the John Waters) and Tillie's Punctured Romance (1928, A.Edward Sutherland), and Fools for Luck (1928, Charles Reisner), in which Fields plays a conman and is at least allowed to perform a lengthy pool routine. The problem with these films wasn't Chester Conklin, who was definitely a lesser comedian as Fields, as such, but the fact that Fields' comedy didn't leave room for a comic partner, and thus all efforts to pair him with other comedians (even really good ones) were doomed to fail.

 

In the late 1920's, Fields concentrated more on his stage career once more, something he had neglected a bit while in front of the camera, which is the sole reason why his career did not make a seamless change from silent to sound cinema - after all, his career on stage would have perfectly prepared him for handling dialogue, his unmistakable voice and diction made him a natural, and his own brand of comedy almost demanded sound ...

 

On a whole other note, it should be noted that W.C. Fields wore a fake mustache through all of his career in silent films (and his first two ventures into sound film). It eludes me why though, as it has no comical effect on its own, doesn't improve Fields' appearance and is so obviously fake it's not even funny - but maybe I'm just not getting the point here, and the mustache at least does not hurt Fields' performances ...

 


 

Early Sound Movies

 

W.C. Fields return to Broadway was a success, and as much was to be expected due to his talent and his popularity on the screen, so it's hardly surprising that soon again, he was invited back in front of the camera, first by RKO, which tested him in a short called The Golf Specialist (1930, Monte Brice), a part of the studio's Broadway Headliners series, which mainly consists of an extended routine of Fields playing golf without ever hitting the ball. The sequence itself is actually pretty hilarious, but the framing story (since when does a short need a framing story?) refuses to make too much sense and almost seems to be a little futile in connection with the film's central scene.

However, The Golf Specialist provided good groundworks for W.C. Fields' career in sound cinema, and the central golfing sequence would eventually find a deserved reenactment in 1934's feature You're Telling Me! (Erle C.Kenton).

 

In 1931, Fields had his debut in a sound feature, Her Majesty, Love (William Dieterle), a musical starring Marilyn Miller and Ben Lyon, but the film was hardly memorable, and gave Fields little screentime and thus little room to develop his character and his comedy.

Fields is given more room to do just that in Million Dollar Legs (1932, Edward F.Cline), a comedy about a small country triumphing at the Olympic Games just to get lead Jack Oakie together with his love Susan Fleming, who plays Fields' daughter ... too bad then that the film was far from great and its basic premise too far-fetched to really be a suitable basis for good comedy.

 


If I Had a Million (1932, James Cruze, H.Bruce Humberstone, Ernst Lubitsch, Norman Z.McLeod, Stephen Roberts, William A.Seiter, Norman Taurog) on the other hand is an omnibus movie starring among others Gary Cooper, Charles Laughton, George Raft, Jack Oakie, Charles Ruggles and Mary Boland. Fields' episode, which for the first time teams him up with Alison Skipworth, who would become a regular in his films, and was directed by Norman Z.McLeod, is pretty much the funniest of the movie, which vastly varies in quality.

 


Million Dollar Legs and If I Had a Million were both produced by Paramount, Fields' cinematic home since the silent days, but while back in the 1920's, the studio produced many a movie that would anticipate things to come, it now knew little to do with Fields and instead pretty much wasted him in ensemble comedies like International House (1933, A.Edward Sutherland), Alice in Wonderland (1933, Norman Z.McLeod) and Six of a Kind (1934, Leo McCarey), in which he was doomed to play second fiddle to other (not necessarily better) comedians and had only limited control over his scenes and thus only limited opportunity to shine - though for example the pool scene in Six of a Kind isn't only hilarious, it's also pure W.C. Fields.

 


 

Stardom at Paramount

 


Fields' appearances in these Paramount ensemble movies of course managed to boost his popularity, but they did little to help him further develop his own style of comedy, the basis of which can be witnessed in his silent comedies.

Enter producer Mack Sennett, who even in the 1930's, when the medium was not yet 40 years of age, was already a veteran concerning movie comedies. He saw what kind of comic genius Paramount had at their disposal and thus produced a quartet of shorts with Fields in the lead - The Dentist (1932, Leslie Pearce), The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933, Clyde Bruckman), The Pharmacist (1933, Arthur Ripley) and The Barber Shop (1933, Arthur Ripley) -, shorts that would come much closer to Fields' vision than any of his early sound features. Of course, in hindsight, Fields' Mack Sennett-shorts look a little crude and underdeveloped in comparison to his later masterpieces, but at the same time they form an excellent template for things to come.

 


The first sound feature that had W.C. Fields top-billed and in the lead, Tillie and Gus (1933, Francis Martin), was also the first film fields had a certain amount of creative control over, which shows in several hilarious sequences - but in all, the film is still based on a script that's too far-fetched and at the same time cheesy - the story of a Mississippi riverboat race Fields and Alison Skipworth help a nice couple to win - to really be regarded as a W.C. Fields-classic. I'd rather regard it as a transitional film.

 

Tillie and Gus was followed by You're Telling Me! (1934, Erle C.Kenton), a remake of his silent So's Your Old Man, and here finally Fields' signature role of the henpecked husband reemerged, as he plays a man under the thumb of pretty much everybody, especially his own wife (Louise Carter) and his daughter's (Joan Marsh) future mother-in-law (Kathleen Howard), who in trying to do right accidently loses his car and even an ingenious invention that would have made him rich - but ultimately, he meets a princess (Adrienne Ames) he mistakes for a fraud but who is so impressed by his sincerity that she fixes things for him again.

You're Telling Me! is a mostly incredibly funny film, but like its silent counterpart it suffers from a story (the princess-fairy tale) that's a bit too far-fetched and at the same time pretty unnecessary for W.C. Fields' kind of comedy. Still I would argue that You're Telling Me! is his first signature film of the sound era.

 

With The Old Fashioned Way (1934, William Beaudine), Fields presented the audience with another favourite character of his, the big showman and show-off with all the charm of a carnival barker and all the honesty of a conman.  In the film he can be seen as a manager of a travelling theatre troupe who tries to cheat everyone out of everything, but in the end, he gives everything up for his daughter's (Judith Allen) happiness. Of course, the plot of this movie is cheesy as can be, but it's only of minor importance here, as the whole thing is a loving hommage to the vaudeville, from incorporating many an anecdote into the proceedings to the third-rate rendition of The Drunkard, the incredibly cheesy play-within-the-film - which was actually adapted for the big screen quite a few times, most hilariously in 1940 with The Villain Still Pursued Her (Edward F.Cline) featuring Buster Keaton at the decline of his career [Buster Keaton bio - click here]. Plus, The Old Fashioned Way is a rare opportunity to catch W.C. Fields in an extended (and hilarious) juggling scene.

 

After being en route to find his own style with films like You're Telling Me! and The Old Fashioned Way, someone at Paramount had the stupid idea though to cast Fields in Mrs Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934, Norman Taurog), an unbearably cheesy melodrama that couldn't even be brightened up by Fields playing Zasu Pitts' mailorder husband, and that's arguably the low point in Fields' career, at least quality-wise.

 

Fields was back to playing a henpecked husband in It's a Gift (1934, Norman Z.McLeod), not only a (slightly altered) remake of his 1926-movie It's the Old Army Game, but also one of his finest films ever - and it also shows how his comedy works best: The film features no set-up but throws its audience right into the proceedings, trusting in the viewer to figure out things him-/herself along the way - which works just beautifully. Along the way, there are many ingenious sequences that could have been made into short films all of their own - like Fields trying to get shaved when his daughter occupies the bathroom mirror, Fields trying to get to sleep on the porch but being constantly woken up by street noises, Fields trying to serve a blind man in his store - and yet,all these sequences also work beautifully in the context of the narrative. And in the light of these sequences, the actual story of the film with Fields playing a New Jersey grocer wanting to become an orange farmer in California is only of minor importance.

 


The story is of even less importance in Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935, Clyde Bruckman, W.C. Fields [uncredited]), in which Fields plays yet another henpecked husband who wants to go to a wrestling match, doesn't even get into the venue though but is bowled over by wrestler Tor Johnson [Tor Johnson bio - click here], which gets him into serious troubles with both his family and employer. The opening scene alone, in which Fields is sent to the basement by his wife (Fields-regular Kathleen Howard) to chase away two burglars but he starts drinking his moonshine with them instead is worth the price of admission alone.

By the way, this is the only film Fields is said to have directed, and even though in the credits, Clyde Bruckman is listed as the movie's sole director, it is said that he had to quit the shoot early due to his alcoholism, and Fields (himself no stranger to drinking) took over on short notice. Man on the Flying Trapeze would remain Bruckman's last director credit by the way.

More trivia: Carlotta Monti, the woman who plays Fields' secretary in the film, was in real life Fields' longtime girlfriend.

 


Between It's a Gift and Man on the Flying Trapeze, two films that seem to perfectly compliment one another and are so similar stylistically that they seem to have been filmed back-to-back, Fields was in two other movies though, playing the lead in neither.

 

On one hand, there was a Charles Dickens adaptation produced by MGM, David Copperfield (1935, George Cukor), which must have been a project close to his heart because Fields is known to always have admired Dickens' work, and his predeliction for unusual names was probably also an hommage to Dickens to begin with. Fields, took his role in David Copperfield really seriously, too, as for once he actually did not improvise his role (normally the very source for his comedy) and instead stuck to the script (voluntarily). And he's pretty good in his role as well, but that was almost a given, since his grandeur and even his appearance always had something to them that made him seem to have fallen right out of a Charles Dickens novel.

 


The other movie was Mississippi (1935, A.Edward Sutherland), another attempt by Paramount to couple Fields with a partner, this time a young Bing Crosby, with Fields relegated to playing second fiddle. Just like with earlier attempts to steal the spotlight from Fields and making him someone else's sidekick or hiding him in an ensemble cast, this experiment, while far from being a bad movie, did not work out too well ...

 

With Poppy (1936, A.Edward Sutherland), Fields' career seems to have come full circle: While it was Sally of the Sawdust by D.W. Griffith that started Fields' film career in earnest in 1925, Poppy was its (inferior) sound remake, with Fields repeating his role as the carnival-rooted substitute father of young orphan Poppy (Rochelle Hudson).

However, in a bitter twist of irony, Poppy should also remain the next-to-last movie W.C. Fields has ever done for Paramount ...

 


 

Fall from Grace and Comeback

 

At the time Poppy was releasd, W.C. Fields was at the height of his popularity, but then he fell gravely ill with delirium tremens and other alcohol-related sicknesses, and the fact that he didn't stop drinking then only made things worse. After Poppy, he couldn't make another film for two years, and the film Paramount, who quickly grew inpatient with their star, had in store for him then, The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938, Mitchell Leisen), a musical revue set on an ocean liner also starring a young Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour, was not really tailor-made for Fields' comic needs.

After this film, the studio decided to altogether drop Fields, who hasn't gotten quite over his health problems yet and grew more and more impossible to work with - according to the studio at least, which might just mean he demanded too much creative freedom and would not too easily give in to their demands to take on too silly roles ... who knows, actually.

 

However, Fields was not one to easily be beaten, and even when he was too sick to film, he was looking for another outlet for his sort of humour, and eventually found radio, a medium more than suited for his unmistakable voice and speech patterns as well as his predilection for oneliners and insults. He would soon become a guest star on many a popular radio show, but especially his stint as semi-regular on ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy's (with whom Fields would constantly trade insults) show would catch on with the audience.

 

In that respect, it's hardly surprising that once W.C. Fields had signed with Universal, the first film under the new contract, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939, George Marshall), would be an attempt to cash in on the success W.C. Fields had with Edgar Bergen and his dummy, as both Bergen and Charlie McCarthy played co-leads in the film, as sort-of-antagonists to Fields.

Basically, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man was a continuation (though not a sequel) of The Old Fashioned Way, inasmuch as it was another hommage to Fields' own days as a travelling showman, but while in The Old Fashioned Way he was with a theatre trouppe, now he's the manager of a circus, which makes less of a difference than one would probably expect. Still, it would be wrong to call You Can't Cheat an Honest Man merely a reworking of the earlier film, since both movies are actually little more than vehicles for Fields' brand of humour (with You Can't Cheat an Honest Man having Bergen and his dummy as an added attraction), which works pretty well in the travelling showman context.

By the way, Fields got along much better with Bergen and his dummy than with most other comics he was paired with in his films, possibly because they had had enough time to get accustomed to each other on radio.

 


You Can't Cheat an Honest Man was followed by My Little Chickadee (1940, Edward F.Cline), a movie that sounds great in writing, as it featured two of the most provocative and most adult (concerning their humour) comedians of the time, W.C. Fields of course and Mae West [Mae West bio - click here] - but as with many great concepts, this one works primarily on paper: The point here is that Fields and West did not harmonize too well together - after all, just like Fields, West was a comic who needed no assistance or co-comedian or whatever, she was her own brand of comedy just as Fields was his. But there also was a private animosity between the two that made them want to steal each others spotlight and the like. On top of that, the film's screenplay, co-written by West and Fields, fails to be based on an interesting plot and falls apart a few times too often.

 


That all said, My Little Chickadee isn't really a bad film, it's actually fairly amusing - and yet it's not one of the better films of either Fields or West.

And having said that, the film was successful enough to inspire Universal to try and make West and Fields do another two films with one another, which depending on which sources you believe either he or she or both turned down, or the whole project came to nothing because of Fields' failing health.

 


While My Little Chickadee wasn't exactly W.C. Fields best films, he returned to top form with The Bank Dick (1940, Edward F.Cline), a film in which he plays a notorious drunk who accidently becomes the titular bank dick, loses all of his son-in-law-to-be's money to a conman, but in the end captures a bankrobber thrashing that man's car completely in a absurd carchase. Fields' brand of comedy works particularly well in this movie because the script's premise and its situations are tailor-made for him (little surprise then that Fields has written the whole thing himself). Plus the script is actually rather coherent for a change.

 


With Fields' next film though, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941, Edward F.Cline), any kind of narrative cdoherence was thrown right out of the window - instead we are presented with a drunk (Fields of course) who tries to sell a totally impossible and (intentionally) silly script about an airplane with a sundeck and a virgin held in a rooftop fortress guarded by a gorilla to a movie studio, and is thrown out for even trying to make the thing into a film (while we, the audience, are fortunately treated to the whole story brought to celluloid anyways), and in an unrelated final carchase he tries to get a non-pregnant woman to the maternity ward of a hospital. The film is pure anarchy, storywise, and the fact that it is every now and again interrupted by inappropriate song-and-dance sequences (which seem to be thrown in just because they are so inappropriate) and similar intentional inconsistencies make it border surrealism, and even though surrealism was never high on Fields' comic agenda, in the context of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, it works like a charm. The fact that the film also works beautifully as a satire on Hollywood filmmaking (which is almost as valid  today as it was back then) is only an added bonus, but all of this together makes this film a masterpiece - but also a swansong to W.C. Fields, as it would remain the last film in which he had the lead.

At least it was a fitting swansong ...

 


 

Fade-out

 


After having finished Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, Fields' health deteriorated again. He has never fully recovered from his health problems in the mid-1930's, and his heavy drinking sure didn't help any either. He was actually in preperations of another movie to be called The Laziest Golfer in the early 1940's, but his health just would not allow him to carry a whole feature film as a lead, so the project was eventually abandoned. 

 

Fields however did shoot a sequence for the anthology movie Tales of Manhattan (1942, Julien Duvivier) in which he acted opposite famous Marx Brothers foil Margaret Dumont (who was also in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, by the way), but that sequence was unfortunately cut out of the film due to its overlong running time (at least that's the official reason, there are however speculations in all sorts of directions). Nowadays though, the scene has to be re-edited into the film, and proves to be pretty funny.

 

Other than that, Fields only appeared in a few revue films during his later years, namely Follow the Boys (1944, A. Edward Sutherland), Song of the Open Road (1944, S. Sylvan Simon) and Sensations of 1945 (1944, Andrew L.Stone) and otherwise kept busy as good as he could doing radioshows, spoken word records and writing his auto-biography, that actually did little to shed light on the man behind his official persona but made everyone believe he was ecxactly the character he always played in his films, shared his ideas.

In fact, W.C. Fields kept his private life under lock and key as best he could (and he was good), and it was revealed only decades after his death that other than his film characters W.C. Fields actually was a rather kind-hearted gentleman, felt apparently rahter affectionate towards children (proven for example by the fact that he supported Baby LeRoy, who played his preschool foil in quite a few films, support after his toddler-filmcareer had come to an end), had a long-lasting and rather harmonious relationship with actress Carlotta Monti that only ended with his death, and treated his black personnel with much more respect than usual at the time.

The only thing about his image that actually was in fact undeniably true was his heavy drinking, which eventually would cost him his life, but even then, Fields was more of a quiet drinker, and no particularly wild excesses are actually recorded.

 

W.C. Fields died on Christmas Day (a holiday he detested) 1946 from an alcohol induced stomach hemorrhage in an inpatient facility in Pasadena, California. He had been a patient at the facility for 22 months prior to his death. He was 66 years old.

After his death, W.C. Fields was initially rather quickly forgotten by official Hollywood, which then as now tended to glamourize its history, and Fields was many thing, but glamourous he never was. His humour, too, was quickly deemed old-fashioned, though to this day I fail to see any validity to that comment other than the fact that Fields' brand of humour certainly was not in accordance with Hollywood's predilection for kitsch and glossy surfaces without much content.

 

Fields was rediscovered only in the late 1960's by the counter-culture movement, a movement that might not have been particularly in love with the ideas Fields' films seemed to carry, but respected the movies' sincerity as well as their rather radical and to this day extraordinary humour.

Since then, Fields' films have enjoyed a continuous popularity, which might have reached a (questionable) peak in 1976, when his life was made into a movie, W.C. Fields and Me (Arthur Hiller) - that was (at least in parts) based on the book of the same title by his longtime girlfriend Carlotta Monti. Fields was played by none other than Rod Steiger in the film.

 

W.C. Fields' importance for movie comedy of course cannot be reduced to the films he has made, only a few of which have been masterpieces to begin with. But wherever there's a henpecked husband with a mean streak in the movies or on television, there's a bit of W.C. Fields in him, and I argue that popular sitcoms like Married with Children (1987 - '97) or the British My Family (2000 - ??) can be directly traced back to films like It's a Gift and Man on the Flying Trapeze, even if the influence of these films might have been rather subconsciously. However, even the structure of these films - no exposition or set-up, a series of gag sequences make up the story rather than actual storytelling - is echoed in modern sitcoms like the above-mentioned, which makes Fields' films interestingly timeless. And if you add to this the radical directness of his provocative trademark humour that intentionally defies political correctness decades before the expression was even created, his films seem trailblazing, at least if compared to the gross-out comedies of today that only pretend to provoke.

 

But all this said, and all theory aside, Fields' films (at least his best ones) are above all else one thing: They are still great fun to watch - and that's quite a feat in itself.

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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