“If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull.
– W.C. Fields
W.C. Fields is a celebrated, yet underrated, singular icon in the history of entertainment – the lovable misanthrope who hated kids and loved booze, heavily armed with a cynical zinger. Yet I fear this is too simple. This deprives Bill, as he was informally known, of his humanity. The archetype of Fields as a mean ol’ drunk was one built toward the end of his career, thanks mostly to his cantankerous radio tête-à-têtes with Charlie McCarthy, his escalated levels of drinking (which only rose with age and the impending doom of his declining career), and also the ways in which his latter films like You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939) had anything resembling sentiment removed from them by the studio for the sake of slowing down the jokes. But if you look at his earlier films, behind the snark, behind the swindle, was a lonely man, hiding behind the bombast, trying to do right by the family who seemed to hate him.
To know his family history taints, or more accurately, paints his work with an autobiographical brush. Born in Philadelphia in 1880, Fields left school to work with his father selling fruit at age 12. It was here where he first learned to juggle, using the merchandise from his father’s fruit cart, and practicing his craft by watching a traveling circus act. His family completely discouraged any dreams of stardom (his grandmother even destroyed all of his props he had been collecting) and Fields eventually ran away from home to get away from his father’s abusive ways, promising not to return until he was a star.
Fields met and married his wife Hattie when they were both cast in a review called The Monte Carlo Girls. Hattie became his juggling partner, touring the world as a double until she became pregnant. Now with child, she returned to the States, wanting Fields to abandon his career for a life of provincial Americana. But Fields refused. Hattie held this decision against him for the rest of his life, using their son as collateral to guilt money out of him, and turning the young Fields against his father. Fields, having emotionally moved on with other women, begged Hattie for a divorce, but her Catholicism wouldn’t allow it. They remained married – and bitter rivals – until he died; and even then she strong-armed his estate into giving her the lion’s share of his earnings. The nagging, manipulative Hattie and their helpless son Claude (who relied on his father’s checks for survival well into adulthood) were the models for all of his “wife” and “son” characters in his work.
Fields’ genius afforded him a rare level of autonomy in his work during the Studio System of Hollywood. He had starred in vaudeville and burlesque as the most respected and versatile juggler in the business; Broadway musicals; and the Ziegfeld Follies with Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, and Eddie Cantor where he honed his comedic zest and skills as a writer; worked in both silent and sound films, directed by luminaries like George Cukor, D.W. Griffith, and Mack Sennett and acted alongside such formidable talents as Elsa Lanchester and Mae West. Later, he performed in radio with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, with whom he had an ongoing “feud.” The only medium he didn’t tackle was television and that was only because he died in 1946.
He rehearsed his physical bits tirelessly until every movement was choreographed to perfection (an obvious harken to his juggling days), yet struggled to remember his lines. Or possibly he was just contemptuous of the idea of playing by anyone else’s rules. Whichever the reason, Fields was an ingenious improvisor, never doing a second take the same. No one ever really directed W.C. Fields – or wrote for him for that matter; if they knew what was good for them, they merely stayed out of the way and allowed him to be brilliant.
He was a shrewd businessman, grossing $50000 a week in 1930s cash, in addition to his fees for the writing, which could earn him an additional $15000 – $25000. Even though Fields was quite wealthy, he never wanted to appear so on film. He believed that comedy came from struggle and always made his characters circus performers (based on his own experiences as a traveling performer) or working class men trying to find his slice of the American Dream among the crash of the Stock Market and the Great Depression, a character not so subtly modeled after his father and the family life he left behind in Philadelphia. Occasionally, his characters would hit a windfall, but in the end, it was all a way for him to enjoy the simple things in life. Like a drink in the middle of the day with his best pals.
Like the greatest comedians, he recycled material relentlessly, trying to create the “authoritative” version of a bit. Many of his films were based on sketches he had written for the Ziegfeld Follies or Earl White’s Scandals (another review show in which he starred on Broadway): For example, You’re Telling Me!, a sound remake of the silent So’s Your Old Man, featured his famous golf routine, which had been its own short film based on his sketch from the Follies.
W.C. Fields – like Mae West, Lucille Ball, Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers, and really any other legendary comedian of the first half of the 20th century – is not solely defined by a single performance, a single film; they exist as personalities with very little deviation; well honed “types,” variations on a theme, that find themselves in a series of situations with similar results: Mae’s sexuality (and sharp witted tongue) could always get her out of trouble; Lucy’s schemes (whether as Mrs. Ricardo/Carmichael/Carter/Barker) always got her in trouble with the male authority in her life; Abbott was the con-man to Costello’s naif (yet ended up getting conned himself in the end); and Groucho and his Brothers existed in a world with no consequences, where zaniness and chicanery were met with reward.
Fields essentially played two characters in rotation:
- the Swindler, a carney who uses his gregarious charm to coax chumps out of a dollar
- For examples, see:
- Pool Sharks (1915)
- Sally of the Sawdust (1925)
- Two Flaming Youths (1928)
- The Old Fashioned Way (1934)
- Poppy (1935)
- You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939)
- For examples, see:
- the Everyman who tries against all odds to provide for his family while they – led by the nagging wife – are embarrassed by his failures and refuse to believe in him.
- For examples, see:
- It’s the Old Army Game (1926)
- So’s Your Old Man (1926)
- The Potters (1927)
- Running Wild (1927)
- The Dentist (1932)
- The Barbershop (1933)
- The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)
- You’re Telling Me! (1934)
- It’s a Gift (1934)
- For examples, see:
In It’s a Gift (1934), possibly his greatest and tightest film, Fields plays Harold Bissonette (which his wife insists on pronouncing “bis-o-nay” to sound fancy), a small town New Jersey grocer who uses his inheritance from his uncle’s death to buy an orange grove in California, much to his wife’s chagrin (played by the indomitable Kathleen Howard). The film is comprised of five distinctive bits that could stand alone, but collectively create a beautiful patch work of family dysfunction. They can stand alone because in true Fieldsian fashion, they had their roots in earlier material:
- The opening scene in the bathroom where Harold struggles to shave, as well as the idea of being “duped” into an investment, came from The Potters.
- The swing scene on the porch was reworked from a bit in The Comic Supplement, a play he did for Ziegfeld; in fact, the film’s original title was Back Porch.
- Their car trouble departing for California was the combination of two Ziegfeld sketches, “The Family Ford” and “The Sport Model.”
- The picnic scene and some basic elements of the plot were reworked from It’s the Old Army Game.
- Only the scene in the grocery store with the blind Mr. Muckle (played to the hilt by Charles Sellon) was originally conceived (and mostly improvised) for this film – with the hilarious additions of Baby LeRoy (Fields favorite foil and somewhat improbable star; rumor has it that he once spiked the baby’s bottle with gin…) and Tammany Young (his favorite doofus; check out his deadpan as the caddy in You’re Telling Me!) as his neighbor’s child and his inept clerk, respectively.
What anchors It’s a Gift amongst the hilarity is Harold’s humanity. As our Everyman, he braves on for the promise of a better life, deflecting insults from strangers and loved ones alike for what they all see as embarrassing folly, a flimflam, or both. Harold believes in his heart that the end will justify the means. So when they arrive to the lot in which he has sunk his life’s savings, his integrity, and dignity, of course it is a barren wasteland. Disgusted with Harold’s failure, his wife grabs the children and starts to abandon him. Notice Fields’ delivery of the line, “Come on back, Amelia. I’ll drive you” – imbued with such sincerity that it was obviously a choice by the studio that he not be given more chances to shine in dramatic work for fear of losing one of their preeminent comedians. Harold sits on the running board of their car and it, like his life, collapses. He meanders to the front porch of his rickety shack and in probably the most tender moment in Fields’ whole oeuvre, the family dog nuzzles up beside him, kissing him on the cheek.
But suddenly, a car rounds the bend, passing Amelia and the children on the dirt covered bridge. And their future takes another unsuspected turn.
It wasn’t until Fields’ final three starring roles that he seemed to really break the mold from his aforementioned archetypes – or at least he combined them in new ways: My Little Chickadee (1940) casts him as a con-man, but this time as a bachelor and for the first time shows him as a somewhat pathetic Lothario to Mae West’s chronic troublemaking bachelorette (in real life, Fields definitely enjoyed having much younger women on hand as his secretaries and assistants, but history is unclear whether or not bedding him was part of the job description…); The Bank Dick (1940) saddles him with the shrewish wife, but his desire to “get ahead” seems to be for his own hedonistic purposes (laziness and drink) instead of providing for his family; perhaps this is why it is his most popular film, embracing a modern cynicism. And Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), the most surreal of his films, literally has him playing himself, pitching a script to a Universal executive and being hit with all the reasons why it should not be made (ironically, this film, possibly his most scrutinized and rewritten – and autobiographical – work ended up being shot as close to his original intentions as possible).
The constant in all of his films was the daughter who believed in him despite life spitting in his face. It’s telling that Fields never had a daughter nor any daughter surrogates in his life; it seems that he was, to paraphrase one of Alvy Singer’s famous quips, trying to get things to come out right in Art because they so rarely do in Life. It should come as no surprise that Fields was hired for the most quintessential of W.C. Fields roles, The Wizard of Oz – the charlatan with a heart of gold, ready to help the lost, little girl find her way home – but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts with You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man.
But it is another famous Alvy quote (taken from Fields’ friend, Groucho Marx) that could have summed up Fields’ life: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member.” Fields, while not the misanthropic recluse people presumed, was a private man with few friends and traveled with cases of booze in his early years on the road as bait to ingratiate himself to his fellow cast members. Ironically, the booze, the very thing that once made him popular in private, became his way of alienating others in his old age – all the while being embraced by the public as our favorite, lovable louse.