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W. C. Fields

W. C. Fields American comedian and actor

American comedian and actor
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro American comedian and actor
A.K.A. WC Fields, William Claude Dukenfield
Countries United States of America
Occupations Actor Cabaret artist Circus performer Film actor Screenwriter Comedian Stage actor
Gender male
Birth 29 January 1880 (Philadelphia, United States of America)
Death 25 December 1946 (Pasadena, United States of America)
Star sign AquariusAquarius
W. C. Fields
The details
Biography

William Claude Dukenfield (January 29, 1880 – December 25, 1946), better known as W. C. Fields, was an American comedian, actor, juggler, and writer. Fields' comic persona was a misanthropic and hard-drinking egotist, who remained a sympathetic character despite his supposed contempt for children and dogs.

His career in show business began in vaudeville, where he attained international success as a silent juggler. He gradually incorporated comedy into his act and was a featured comedian in the Ziegfeld Follies for several years. He became a star in the Broadway musical comedy Poppy (1923), in which he played a colorful small-time con man. His subsequent stage and film roles were often similar scoundrels or henpecked everyman characters.

Among his recognizable trademarks were his raspy drawl and grandiloquent vocabulary. The characterization he portrayed in films and on radio was so strong it was generally identified with Fields himself. It was maintained by the publicity departments at Fields' studios (Paramount and Universal) and was further established by Robert Lewis Taylor's biography, W. C. Fields, His Follies and Fortunes (1949). Beginning in 1973, with the publication of Fields' letters, photos, and personal notes in grandson Ronald Fields' book W. C. Fields by Himself, it was shown that Fields was married (and subsequently estranged from his wife), and financially supported their son and loved his grandchildren.

Early years

Fields was born William Claude Dukenfield in Darby, Pennsylvania, the oldest child of a working-class family. His father, James Lydon Dukenfield (1840–1913), was from an English family that emigrated from Sheffield, England, in 1854. James Dukenfield served in Company M of the 72nd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment in the American Civil War and was wounded in 1863. Fields' mother, Kate Spangler Felton (1854–1925), was a Protestant of British ancestry. The 1876 Philadelphia City Directory lists James Dukenfield as a clerk. After marrying, he worked as an independent produce merchant and a part-time hotel-keeper.

Claude Dukenfield (as he was known) had a volatile relationship with his short-tempered father. He ran away from home repeatedly, beginning at the age of nine, often to stay with his grandmother or an uncle. His education was sporadic, and did not progress beyond grade school. At age twelve, he worked with his father selling produce from a wagon, until the two had a fight that resulted in Fields running away once again. In 1893, he worked briefly at the Strawbridge and Clothier department store, and in an oyster house.

Fields later embellished stories of his childhood, depicting himself as a runaway who lived by his wits on the streets of Philadelphia from an early age, but his home life is believed to have been reasonably happy. He had already discovered in himself a facility for juggling, and a performance he witnessed at a local theater inspired him to dedicate substantial time to perfecting his juggling. At age 17, he was living with his family and performing a juggling act at church and theater shows.

In 1904 Fields' father visited him for two months in England while he was performing there in music halls. Fields enabled his father to retire, purchased him a summer home, and encouraged his parents and siblings to learn to read and write, so they could communicate with him by letter.

Entry into vaudeville

Inspired by the success of the "Original Tramp Juggler", James Edward Harrigan, Fields adopted a similar costume of scruffy beard and shabby tuxedo and entered vaudeville as a genteel "tramp juggler" in 1898, using the name W. C. Fields. His family supported his ambitions for the stage and saw him off on the train for his first stage tour. To conceal a stutter, Fields did not speak onstage. In 1900, seeking to distinguish himself from the many "tramp" acts in vaudeville, he changed his costume and makeup, and began touring as "The Eccentric Juggler". He manipulated cigar boxes, hats, and other objects in his act, parts of which are reproduced in some of his films, notably in the 1934 comedy The Old Fashioned Way.

By the early 1900s, while touring, he was regularly called the world's greatest juggler. He became a headliner in North America and Europe, and toured Australia and South Africa in 1903. When Fields played for English-speaking audiences, he found he could get more laughs by adding muttered patter and sarcastic asides to his routines. According to W. Buchanan-Taylor, a performer who saw Fields' performance in an English music hall, Fields would "reprimand a particular ball which had not come to his hand accurately", and "mutter weird and unintelligible expletives to his cigar when it missed his mouth".

Broadway

In 1905 Fields made his Broadway debut in a musical comedy, The Ham Tree. His role in the show required him to deliver lines of dialogue, which he had never before done onstage. He later said, "I wanted to become a real comedian, and there I was, ticketed and pigeonholed as merely a comedy juggler." In 1913 he performed on a bill with Sarah Bernhardt (who regarded Fields as "an artiste [who] could not fail to please the best class of audience") first at the New York Palace, and then in England in a royal performance for George V and Queen Mary. He continued touring in vaudeville until 1915.

Beginning in 1915, he appeared on Broadway in Florenz Ziegfeld's Ziegfeld Follies revue, delighting audiences with a wild billiards skit, complete with bizarrely shaped cues and a custom-built table used for a number of hilarious gags and surprising trick shots. His pool game is reproduced, in part, in some of his films, notably in Six of a Kind in 1934. The act was a success, and Fields starred in the Follies from 1916 to 1922, not as a juggler but as a comedian in ensemble sketches. In addition to multiple editions of the Follies, Fields starred in the 1923 Broadway musical comedy Poppy, wherein he perfected his persona as a colorful small-time con man. In 1928, he appeared in The Earl Carroll Vanities.

His stage costume from 1915 onwards featured a top hat, cut-away coat and collar, and a cane—an appearance remarkably similar to the comic strip character Ally Sloper, who may have been the inspiration for Fields' costume, according to Roger Sabin. The Sloper character may in turn have been inspired by Dickens' Mr Micawber, whom Fields later played on film.

Films

Silent era and first talkies

In 1915, Fields starred in two short comedies, Pool Sharks and His Lordship's Dilemma, filmed in New York. His stage commitments prevented him from doing more movie work until 1924, when he played a supporting role in Janice Meredith, a Revolutionary War romance. He reprised his Poppy role in a silent-film adaptation, retitled Sally of the Sawdust (1925) and directed by D. W. Griffith. His next starring role was in the Paramount Pictures film It's the Old Army Game (1926), which featured his friend Louise Brooks, later a screen legend for her role in G. W. Pabst's Pandora's Box (1929) in Germany. Fields' 1926 film, which included a silent version of the porch sequence that would later be expanded in the sound film It's a Gift (1934), had only middling success at the box office. After Fields' next two features for Paramount failed to produce hits, the studio teamed him with Chester Conklin for three features which were commercial failures and are now lost.

Fields wore a scruffy clip-on mustache in all of his silent films. According to the film historian William K. Everson, he perversely insisted on wearing the conspicuously fake-looking mustache because he knew it was disliked by audiences. Fields wore it in his first sound film, The Golf Specialist (1930)—a two-reeler that faithfully reproduces a sketch he had introduced in 1918 in the Follies—and finally discarded it after his first sound feature film, Her Majesty, Love (1931), his only Warner Bros. production.

At Paramount

In the sound era, Fields appeared in thirteen feature films for Paramount Pictures, beginning with Million Dollar Legs in 1932. In that year he also was featured in a sequence in the anthology film If I Had a Million. In 1932 and 1933, Fields made four short subjects for comedy pioneer Mack Sennett, distributed through Paramount Pictures. These shorts, adapted with few alterations from Fields' stage routines and written entirely by himself, were described by Simon Louvish as "the 'essence' of Fields". The first of them, The Dentist, is unusual in that Fields portrays an entirely unsympathetic character: he cheats at golf, assaults his caddy, and treats his patients with unbridled callousness. William K. Everson says that the cruelty of this comedy made it "hardly less funny", but that "Fields must have known that The Dentist presented a serious flaw for a comedy image that was intended to endure", and showed a somewhat warmer persona in his subsequent Sennett shorts. Nevertheless, the popular success of his next release, International House in 1933, established him as a major star. A shaky outtake from the production, allegedly the only film record of that year's Long Beach earthquake, was later revealed to have been faked as a publicity stunt for the movie.

Fields' 1934 classic It's a Gift includes another one of his earlier stage sketches, one in which he endeavors to escape his nagging family by sleeping on the back porch, where he is bedeviled by noisy neighbors and salesmen. That film, like You're Telling Me! and Man on the Flying Trapeze, ended happily with a windfall profit that restored his standing in his screen families. With those screen successes, Fields in 1935 was able to achieve a career ambition by playing the character Mr. Micawber in MGM's David Copperfield. Then, the next year, he re-created his signature stage role in Poppy for Paramount Pictures.

In 1938 Fields excelled once again, this time in Paramount's sweeping musical variety anthology The Big Broadcast of 1938 while starring with Martha Raye, Dorothy Lamour and Bob Hope. In an unusual twist, Fields plays the roles of two nearly identical brothers (T. Frothingill Bellows and S. B. Bellow) and collaborated with several noted international musicians of the time including: Kirsten Flagstad (Norwegian opera soprano), Wilfred Pelletier (Canadian conductor of New York's Metropolitan Opera Orchestra), Tito Guizar (Mexican vocalist), Shep Fields (conducting his Rippling Rhythm Jazz Orchestra) and John Serry Sr. (Italian-American orchestral accordionist) The film received critical acclaim and earned an Oscar in 1939 for best music in an original song - Thanks for the Memory

Fields versus "Nibblers"

Fields in the early years of his film career became highly protective of his intellectual properties that formed his acts and defined his on-screen persona. In burlesque, vaudeville, and in the rapidly expanding motion picture industry, many of his fellow performers and comedy writers often copied or "borrowed" sketches or portions of routines developed and presented by others. Not surprisingly, as Fields' popularity with audiences continued to rise after 1915, following his initial work in films, other entertainers began increasingly to adopt and integrate parts of his successful acts into their own. Fields in 1918 began to combat the thievery by registering his sketches and other comedy material with the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Nevertheless, the pilfering continued and became so frequent by 1919 that he felt "compelled" to place a prominent warning that year in the June 13 issue of Variety, the most widely read trade paper at the time. Addressed in bold type to "Nibblers", more specifically to "indiscreet burlesque and picture players", Fields' notice occupies nearly half a page in Variety. In it he strongly cautions fellow performers that all of his "acts (and businesses therein) are protected by United States and International copyright", and he stresses that he and his attorneys in New York and Chicago will "vigorously prosecute all offenders in the future". The notice concludes with "W. C. Fields" printed so large that it visually dominates the entire two-page spread in the paper.

Fields' prominent warning to "Nibblers" in the June 13, 1919 issue of Variety threatening legal action against anyone using his material.

Fields continued personally and with legal counsel to protect his comedy material during the final decades of his career, especially with regard to that material's reuse in his films. For example, he copyrighted his original stage sketch "An Episode at the Dentist's" three times: in January 1919 and twice again in 1928, in July and August. Later, 13 years after its first copyright registration, that same sketch continued to serve Fields as a framework for developing his already noted short The Dentist. He also copyrighted his 1928 sketch "Stolen Bonds", which in 1933 was translated into scenes for his two-reel "black comedy" The Fatal Glass of Beer. Other examples of Fields' stage-to-film use of his copyrighted material is the previously discussed 1918 Follies sketch "An Episode on the Links" and its recycling in both his 1930 short The Golf Specialist and in his 1934 feature You're Telling Me! "The Sleeping Porch" sketch that reappears as an extended segment in It's a Gift was copyrighted as well by Fields in 1928. A few more of his copyrighted creations include "An Episode of Lawn Tennis" (1918), "The Mountain Sweep Steaks" (1919), "The Pullman Sleeper" (1921), "Ten Thousand People Killed" (1925), and "The Midget Car" (1930). The total number of sketches created by Fields over the years, both copyrighted and uncopyrighted, remains undetermined. The number, however, may exceed 100. Of that body of work, Fields between 1918 and 1930 applied for and received 20 copyrights covering 16 of his most important sketches, the ones that Fields biographer Simon Louvish has described as the "bedrock" upon which the legendary comedian built his stage career and then prolonged that success through his films.

Personal life

Fields married a fellow vaudevillian, chorus girl, Harriet "Hattie" Hughes (1879–1963), on April 8, 1900. She became part of Fields' stage act, appearing as his assistant, whom he would blame entertainingly when he missed a trick. Hattie was educated and tutored Fields in reading and writing during their travels. Under her influence, he became an enthusiastic reader and traveled with a trunk of books including grammar texts, translations of Homer and Ovid, and works by authors ranging from Shakespeare to Dickens to Twain and PG Wodehouse.

The couple had a son, William Claude Fields, Jr. (July 28, 1904 – February 16, 1971) and although Fields was an atheist—who, according to James Curtis, "regarded all religions with the suspicion of a seasoned con man"—he yielded to Hattie's wish to have their son baptized.

By 1907 he and Hattie separated; she had been pressing him to stop touring and settle into a respectable trade, but he was unwilling to give up show business. They never divorced. Until his death, Fields continued to correspond with Hattie (mostly through letters) and voluntarily sent her a weekly stipend. Their correspondence would at times be remarkably tense, however, with Fields accusing Hattie of turning their son "against" him and demanding more money from him than he could afford.

While performing in New York City at the New Amsterdam Theater in 1916, Fields met Bessie Poole, an established Ziegfeld Follies performer whose beauty and quick wit attracted him, and they began a relationship. With her he had another son, named William Rexford Fields Morris (August 15, 1917 – November 30, 2014). Neither Fields nor Poole wanted to abandon touring to raise the child, who was placed in foster care with a childless couple of Bessie's acquaintance. Fields' relationship with Poole lasted until 1926. In 1927, he made a negotiated payment to her of $20,000 upon her signing an affidavit declaring that "W. C. Fields is NOT the father of my child". Poole died of complications of alcoholism in October 1928, and Fields contributed to her son's support until he was 19 years of age.

Fields met Carlotta Monti (1907–1993) in 1933, and the two began a sporadic relationship that lasted until his death in 1946. Monti had small roles in two of Fields' films, and in 1971 wrote a memoir, W.C. Fields and Me, which was made into a motion picture at Universal Studios in 1976. Fields was listed in the 1940 census as single and living at 2015 DeMille Drive (Cecil B. DeMille lived at 2000, the only other address on the street).

Alcohol, dogs, and children

Fields' screen character often expressed a fondness for alcohol, a prominent component of the Fields legend. Fields never drank in his early career as a juggler, because he did not want to impair his functions while performing. Eventually, the loneliness of constant travel prompted him to keep liquor in his dressing room as an inducement for fellow performers to socialize with him on the road. Only after he became a Follies star and abandoned juggling did Fields begin drinking regularly. His role in Paramount Pictures' International House (1933), as an aviator with an unquenchable taste for beer, did much to establish Fields' popular reputation as a prodigious drinker. Studio publicists promoted this image, as did Fields himself in press interviews.

Fields expressed his fondness for alcohol to Gloria Jean (playing his niece) in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break: "I was in love with a beautiful blonde once, dear. She drove me to drink. That's the one thing I am indebted to her for." Equally memorable was a line in the 1940 film My Little Chickadee: "Once, on a trek through Afghanistan, we lost our corkscrew ... and were compelled to live on food and water for several days." The oft-repeated anecdote that Fields refused to drink water "because fish fuck in it" is unsubstantiated.

On movie sets, Fields shot most of his scenes in varying states of inebriation. During the filming of Tales of Manhattan (1942), he kept a vacuum flask with him at all times and frequently availed himself of its contents. Phil Silvers, who had a minor supporting role in the scene featuring Fields, described in his memoir what happened next:

One day the producers appeared on the set to plead with Fields: "Please don't drink while we're shooting—we're way behind schedule"... Fields merely raised an eyebrow. "Gentlemen, this is only lemonade. For a little acid condition afflicting me." He leaned on me. "Would you be kind enough to taste this, sir?" I took a careful sip—pure gin. I have always been a friend of the drinking man; I respect him for his courage to withdraw from the world of the thinking man. I answered the producers a little scornfully, "It's lemonade." My reward? The scene was snipped out of the picture.

In a testimonial dinner for Fields in 1939, the humorist Leo Rosten remarked of the comedian that "any man who hates dogs and babies can't be all bad". The line—which Bartlett's Familiar Quotations later erroneously attributed to Fields himself—was widely quoted, and reinforced the popular perception that Fields hated children and dogs. In reality, Fields was somewhat indifferent to dogs, but occasionally owned one. He was fond of entertaining the children of friends who visited him, and doted on his first grandchild, Bill Fields III, born in 1943. He sent encouraging replies to all of the letters he received from boys who, inspired by his performance in The Old Fashioned Way, expressed an interest in juggling.

Illness and career sideline

In 1936, Fields' heavy drinking precipitated a significant decline in his health. By the following year he recovered sufficiently to make one last film for Paramount, The Big Broadcast of 1938, but his troublesome behavior discouraged other producers from hiring him. By 1938 he was chronically ill, and suffering from delirium tremens.

Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy with Fields on The Chase and Sanborn Hour, c. 1945

Physically unable to work in films, Fields was off the screen for more than a year. During his absence, he recorded a brief speech for a radio broadcast. His familiar, snide drawl registered so well with listeners that he quickly became a popular guest on network radio shows. Although his radio work was not as demanding as motion-picture production, Fields insisted on his established movie star salary of $5,000 per week. He joined ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and Bergen's dummy Charlie McCarthy on The Chase and Sanborn Hour for weekly insult-comedy routines.

Fields would twit Charlie about his being made of wood:

Fields: "Tell me, Charles, is it true your father was a gate-leg table?"

McCarthy: "If it is, your father was under it!"

When Fields would refer to McCarthy as a "woodpecker's pin-up boy" or a "termite's flophouse", Charlie would fire back at Fields about his drinking:

McCarthy: "Is it true, Mr. Fields, that when you stood on the corner of Hollywood and Vine, 43 cars waited for your nose to change to green?"

Another exchange:

Bergen: "Why, Bill, I thought you didn't like children."

Fields: "Oh, not at all, Edgar, I love children. I can remember when, with my own little unsteady legs, I toddled from room to room ..."

McCarthy: "When was that, last night?"

During his recovery from illness, Fields reconciled with his estranged wife and established a close relationship with his son after Claude's marriage in 1938.

Return to films

Fields' renewed popularity from his radio broadcasts with Bergen and McCarthy earned him a contract with Universal Pictures in 1939. His first feature for Universal, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, carried on the Fields–McCarthy rivalry. In 1940 he made My Little Chickadee, co-starring with Mae West, and then The Bank Dick in which he has the following exchange with Shemp Howard, who plays a bartender:

Fields: "Was I in here last night, and did I spend a $20 bill?"

Shemp: "Yeah."

Fields: "Oh boy, what a load that is off my mind ... I thought I'd lost it!"

Fields fought with studio producers, directors, and writers over the content of his films. He was determined to make a movie his way, with his own script and staging, and his choice of supporting players. Universal finally gave him the chance, and the resulting film, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), was a masterpiece of absurd humor in which Fields appeared as himself, "The Great Man". Universal's then-popular singing star Gloria Jean played opposite Fields, and his cronies Leon Errol and Franklin Pangborn as his comic foils. Typically, the finished film was sufficienty surreal that Universal recut and reshot parts of it and ultimately released both the film and Fields. Sucker was Fields' last starring film.

Final years

Fields fraternized at his home with actors, directors and writers who shared his fondness for good company and good liquor. John Barrymore, Gene Fowler, and Gregory La Cava were among his close friends. On March 15, 1941, while Fields was out of town, Christopher Quinn, the two-year-old son of his neighbors, actor Anthony Quinn and his wife Katherine DeMille, drowned in a lily pond on Fields' property. Grief-stricken over the tragedy, he had the pond filled in.

Fields had a substantial library in his home. Although a staunch atheist—or perhaps because of it—he studied theology and collected books on the subject. According to a popular story (possibly apocryphal, according to biographer James Curtis), Fields told someone who caught him reading a Bible that he was "looking for loopholes".

In a 1994 episode of the Biography television series, Fields' 1941 co-star Gloria Jean recalled her conversations with Fields at his home. She described him as kind and gentle in personal interactions, and believed he yearned for the family environment he never experienced as a child.

During the 1940 presidential campaign, Fields authored a book, Fields for President, with humorous essays in the form of a campaign speech. Dodd, Mead and Company published it in 1940, with illustrations by Otto Soglow. In 1971, when Fields was seen as an anti-establishment figure, Dodd, Mead issued a reprint, illustrated with photographs of the author.

Fields' film career slowed considerably in the 1940s. His illnesses confined him to brief guest film appearances. An extended sequence in 20th Century Fox's Tales of Manhattan (1942) was cut from the original release of the film and later reinstated for some home video releases. The scene featured a temperance meeting with society people at the home of a wealthy society matron Margaret Dumont, in which Fields discovers that the punch has been spiked, resulting in drunken guests and a very happy Fields.

He enacted his billiard table routine for the final time for Follow the Boys, an all-star entertainment revue for the Armed Forces. (Despite the charitable nature of the movie, Fields was paid $15,000 for this appearance; he was never able to perform in person for the armed services.) In Song of the Open Road (1944), Fields juggled for a few moments and then remarked, "This used to be my racket." His last film, the musical revue Sensations of 1945, was released in late 1944. By then his vision and memory had deteriorated so much that he had to read his lines from large-print blackboards.

In 1944, Fields continued to make radio guest appearances, where script memorizations were unnecessary. A notable guest slot was with Frank Sinatra on Sinatra's CBS radio program on February 9, 1944.

Field's last radio appearance was on March 24, 1946, on the Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show on NBC. Just before his death that year, Fields recorded a spoken-word album, including his "Temperance Lecture" and "The Day I Drank a Glass of Water", at Les Paul's studio, where Paul had installed a new multi-track recorder. The session was arranged by one of his radio writers, Bill Morrow, and was Fields' last performance.

Listening to one of Paul's experimental multi-track recordings, Fields remarked, "The music you're making sounds like an octopus. Like a guy with a million hands. I've never heard anything like it." Paul was amused, and named his new machine OCT, short for octopus.

Death

Fields spent the last 22 months of his life at the Las Encinas Sanatorium in Pasadena, California. In 1946, on Christmas Day—the holiday he said he despised—he had a massive gastric hemorrhage and died, aged 66. Carlotta Monti wrote that in his final moments, she used a garden hose to spray water onto the roof over his bedroom to simulate his favorite sound, falling rain. According to a 2004 documentary, he winked and smiled at a nurse, put a finger to his lips, and died. This poignant depiction is uncorroborated and "unlikely", according to biographer James Curtis. Fields' funeral took place on January 2, 1947, in Glendale, California.

His cremation, as directed in his will, was delayed pending resolution of an objection filed by Hattie and Claude Fields on religious grounds. They also contested a clause leaving a portion of his estate to establish a "W. C. Fields College for Orphan White Boys and Girls, where no religion of any sort is to be preached". After a lengthy period of litigation his remains were cremated on June 2, 1949, and his ashes interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale.

Gravestone

Fields' niche in the Columbarium of Nativity in the Great Mausoleum, Forest Lawn Glendale

A popular bit of Fields folklore maintains that his grave marker is inscribed, "I'd rather be in Philadelphia"—or a close variant thereof. The legend originated from a mock epitaph written by Fields for a 1925 Vanity Fair article: "Here Lies / W.C. Fields / I Would Rather Be Living in Philadelphia." In reality, his interment marker bears only his stage name and the years of his birth and death.

Comic persona and style

In 1937, in an article in Motion Picture magazine, Fields analyzed the characters he played:

You've heard the old legend that it's the little put-upon guy who gets the laughs, but I'm the most belligerent guy on the screen. I'm going to kill everybody. But, at the same time, I'm afraid of everybody—just a great big frightened bully . ... I was the first comic in world history, so they told me, to pick fights with children. I booted Baby LeRoy ... then, in another picture, I kicked a little dog . ... But I got sympathy both times. People didn't know what the unmanageable baby might do to get even, and they thought the dog might bite me.

In features such as It's a Gift and Man on the Flying Trapeze, he is reported to have written or improvised more or less all of his own dialogue and material, leaving story structure to other writers. He frequently incorporated his stage sketches into his films—e.g., the "Back Porch" scene he wrote for the Follies of 1925 was filmed in It's the Old Army Game (1926) and It's a Gift (1934); the golf sketch he performed in the lost film His Lordship's Dilemma (1915) was re-used in the Follies of 1918, and in the films So's Your Old Man (1926), The Golf Specialist (1930), The Dentist (1932), and You're Telling Me (1934).

Fields' most familiar characteristics included a distinctive drawl, which was not his normal speaking voice. His manner of muttering deprecatory asides was copied from his mother, who in Fields' childhood often mumbled sly comments about neighbors who passed by. He delighted in provoking the censors with double entendres and the near-profanities "Godfrey Daniels" and "mother of pearl". A favorite bit of "business", repeated in many of his films, involved his hat going astray—either caught on the end of his cane, or simply facing the wrong way— as he attempts to put it onto his head.

In several of his films, he played hustlers, carnival barkers, and card sharps, spinning yarns and distracting his marks. In others, he cast himself as a victim: a bumbling everyman husband and father whose family does not appreciate him.

Fields often reproduced elements of his own family life in his films. By the time he entered motion pictures, his relationship with his estranged wife had become acrimonious, and he believed she had turned their son Claude—whom he seldom saw—against him. James Curtis says of Man on the Flying Trapeze that the "disapproving mother-in-law, Mrs. Neselrode, was clearly patterned after his wife, Hattie, and the unemployable mama's boy played by [Grady] Sutton was deliberately named Claude. Fields hadn't laid eyes on his family in nearly twenty years, and yet the painful memories lingered."

Unusual names

Although lacking formal education, Fields was well read and a lifelong admirer of author Charles Dickens, whose characters' unusual names inspired Fields to collect odd names he encountered in his travels, to be used for his characters. Some examples are:

  • "The Great McGonigle" (The Old-Fashioned Way);
  • "Ambrose Wolfinger" [pointing toward "Wolf-whistling"] (Man on the Flying Trapeze);
  • "Larson E. [read "Larceny"] Whipsnade", the surname taken from a dog track Fields had seen outside London (You Can't Cheat an Honest Man),
  • "Egbert Sousé" [pronounced 'soo-ZAY', but pointing toward "souse", a synonym for a drunk] (The Bank Dick, 1940).

Fields often contributed to the scripts of his films under unusual pseudonyms. They include the seemingly prosaic "Charles Bogle", credited in four of his films in the 1930s; "Otis Criblecoblis", which contains an embedded homophone for "scribble"; and "Mahatma Kane Jeeves", a play on Mahatma and a phrase an aristocrat might use when about to leave the house: "My hat, my cane, Jeeves".

Supporting players

Fields had a small cadre of supporting players that he employed in several films:

  • Elise Cavanna, whose onscreen interplay with Fields was compared (by William K. Everson) to that between Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont
  • Jan Duggan, an old-maid character (actually about Fields' age). It was of her character that Fields said in The Old Fashioned Way, "She's all dressed up like a well-kept grave."
  • Kathleen Howard, as a nagging wife or antagonist
  • Baby LeRoy, as a preschool child fond of playing pranks on Fields' characters
  • Franklin Pangborn, a fussy, ubiquitous character actor who played in several Fields films, most memorably as J. Pinkerton Snoopington in The Bank Dick
  • Alison Skipworth, as his wife (although 16 years his senior), usually in a supportive role rather than the stereotypical nag
  • Grady Sutton, typically a country bumpkin type, as a foil or an antagonist to Fields' character
  • Bill Wolfe, as a gaunt-looking character, usually a Fields foil
  • Tammany Young, as a dim-witted, unintentionally harmful assistant, who appeared in seven Fields films until his sudden death from heart failure in 1936

Unrealized film projects

W. C. Fields was (with Ed Wynn) one of the two original choices for the title role in the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz. Fields was enthusiastic about the role, but ultimately withdrew his name from consideration so he could devote his time to writing You Can't Cheat an Honest Man.

Fields figured in an Orson Welles project. Welles's bosses at RKO Radio Pictures, after losing money on Citizen Kane, urged Welles to choose as his next film a subject with more commercial appeal. Welles considered an adaptation of Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers which would have starred Fields, but the project was shelved, partly because of contract difficulties, and Welles went on to adapt The Magnificent Ambersons.

During the early planning for his film It's a Wonderful Life, director Frank Capra considered Fields for the role of Uncle Billy, which eventually went to Thomas Mitchell.

Influence and legacy

A best-selling biography of Fields published three years after his death, W.C. Fields, His Follies and Fortunes by Robert Lewis Taylor, was instrumental in popularizing the idea that Fields' real-life character matched his screen persona. In 1973, the comedian's grandson, Ronald J. Fields, published the first book to significantly challenge this idea, W. C. Fields by Himself, His Intended Autobiography, a compilation of material from private scrapbooks and letters found in the home of Hattie Fields after her death in 1963.

According to Woody Allen (in a New York Times interview from January 30, 2000), W. C. Fields is one of six "genuine comic geniuses" he recognized as such in movie history, along with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Groucho and Harpo Marx, and Peter Sellers.

The Surrealists loved Fields' absurdism and anarchistic pranks. Max Ernst painted a Project for a Monument to W.C. Fields (1957), and René Magritte made a Hommage to Mack Sennett (1934).

Fields is one of the figures that appears in the crowd scene on the cover of The Beatles' 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The United States Postal Service issued a W.C. Fields commemorative stamp on the comedian's 100th birthday, in January 1980.

Caricatures and imitations

  • The character Horatio K. Boomer in the Fibber McGee and Molly radio show had a persona and delivery very much like the characters portrayed by W.C. Fields.
  • A caricature of Fields appears in the Lucky Luke comic book album Western Circus and again in the animated feature Lucky Luke: The Ballad of the Daltons.
  • Cartoonist Al Hirschfeld portrayed Fields in caricature many times, including the book cover illustrations for Drat!, A Flask of Fields, and Godfrey Daniels! – all edited by Richard J. Anobile.
  • The TV show Gigglesnort Hotel featured a puppet character named "W. C. Cornfield" who resembled Fields in appearance and voice.
  • Impressionist Rich Little often imitated Fields on his TV series The Kopycats, and he used a Fields characterization for the Ebenezer Scrooge character in his HBO special Rich Little's Christmas Carol (1978), a one-man presentation of A Christmas Carol.
  • A 1960s Canadian cartoon series for kids Tales of the Wizard of Oz featured a Wizard with a voice imitation of Fields, a nod to the real-life choice of Fields to play the Wizard in the 1939 film classic opposite Judy Garland.
  • Fields is among the many celebrities caricatured in the 1936 Merrie Melodies short The Coo-Coo Nut Grove.
  • Fields is seen sitting on the spectators' bench in the Disney cartoon Mickey's Polo Team (1936).
  • He appears as W.C. Fieldmouse in the Merrie Melodies short The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos (1937).
  • In the 1938 Silly Symphonies cartoon Mother Goose Goes Hollywood Fields is caricatured as Humpty Dumpty, in reference to his role in the live-action film Alice in Wonderland (1933).
  • One episode of The Flintstones featured a tramp who gets old clothes belonging to Fred from his wife Wilma, then when Fred attempts to take back a coat, is trounced with the tramp's cane. The tramp has Fields' voice and persona.
  • A character on How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All by the Firesign Theatre features a character who speaks like W.C. Fields.
  • The Wizard of Id comic strip contains a shady lawyer character, a Fields caricature named "Larsen E. Pettifogger".
  • In the second series of the TV drama Gangsters a character named the White Devil is introduced, who styles himself W.D. Fields affecting the vocal mannerisms and appearance of W.C. Fields to confuse and confound his enemies. Played by series writer Philip Martin, he himself is credited in the final episode as "Larson E. Whipsnade" after Fields' character in You Can't Cheat an Honest Man.
  • Actor Bob Leeman portrayed Fields in the 1991 movie The Rocketeer.
  • In 1971 Frito-Lay replaced the Frito Bandito TV ad campaign with one featuring W.C. Fritos, a round, top-hat wearing character modeled on the movie persona of Fields. Also, circa 1970 Sunkist Growers produced a series of animated TV ads featuring the "Sunkist Monster," whose voice was an impression of Fields performed by Paul Frees.
  • Canadian actor Andrew Chapman played W.C Fields in a vaudeville-themed episode of "Murdoch Mysteries" in season 8, titled "The Keystone Constables".
  • Comedian Mark Proksch impersonates Fields in a number of On Cinema episodes, beginning with the series' Second Annual Oscar Special and continuing through a majority of the seasons.
  • A caricature played by Seth MacFarlane appeared in the Family Guy episode "Burning Down the Bayit". He appears as a wealthy man remarking that Goldman's Pharmacy might be a good place to get shoes for his dog.

Filmography

Information for this filmography is derived from the book, W. C. Fields: A Life on Film, by Ronald J. Fields. All films are feature length except where noted.

Release date Title Role Director Notes
1915 (untitled film) Himself Ed Wynn Short film presented as part of the Ziegfeld Follies of 1915; lost film
September 19, 1915 Pool Sharks The pool shark Edwin Middleton One reel; story by W.C. Fields; extant
October 3, 1915 His Lordship's Dilemma Remittance man William Haddock One reel; lost film
October 27, 1924 Janice Meredith A British sergeant E. Mason Hopper extant
August 2, 1925 Sally of the Sawdust Professor Eustace P. McGargle D. W. Griffith extant
October 7, 1925 That Royle Girl Daisy Royle's father D. W. Griffith lost film
May 24, 1926 It's the Old Army Game Elmer Prettywillie A. Edward Sutherland Story by J.P. McEvoy and W.C. Fields; extant
October 26, 1926 So's Your Old Man Samuel Bisbee Gregory La Cava extant
January 31, 1927 The Potters Pa Potter Fred C. Newmeyer lost film
August 20, 1927 Running Wild Elmer Finch Gregory La Cava extant
October 17, 1927 Two Flaming Youths J. G. "Gabby" Gilfoil John S. Waters lost film
March 3, 1928 Tillie's Punctured Romance The Ringmaster A. Edward Sutherland lost film
May 7, 1928 Fools for Luck Richard Whitehead Charles F. Reisner lost film
August 22, 1930 The Golf Specialist J. Effingham Bellwether Monte Brice Two reels; story by W.C. Fields (uncredited)
October 26, 1931 Her Majesty, Love Bela Toerrek William Dieterle
July 8, 1932 Million Dollar Legs President of Klopstokia Edward Cline
October 2, 1932 If I Had a Million Rollo La Rue Norman Taurog
October 9, 1932 The Dentist Himself Leslie Pearce Two reels; story by W.C. Fields (uncredited)
March 3, 1933 The Fatal Glass of Beer Mr. Snavely Clyde Bruckman Two reels; story by W.C. Fields (uncredited)
April 21, 1933 The Pharmacist Mr. Dilweg Arthur Ripley Two reels; story by W.C. Fields (uncredited)
June 2, 1933 International House Professor Quail A. Edward Sutherland
June 24, 1933 Hip Action Himself George Marshall One reel
July 28, 1933 The Barber Shop Cornelius O'Hare Arthur Ripley Two reels; story by W.C. Fields (uncredited)
September 8, 1933 Hollywood on Parade No. B-2 Himself Louis Lewyn One reel
October 13, 1933 Tillie and Gus Augustus Q. Winterbottom Francis Martin Fields as contributing writer (uncredited)
October 22, 1933 Alice in Wonderland Humpty Dumpty Norman McLeod
February 9, 1934 Six of a Kind Sheriff "Honest John" Hoxley Leo McCarey
April 6, 1934 You're Telling Me! Sam Bisbee Erle C. Kenton Fields as contributing writer (uncredited)
April 27, 1934 Hollywood on Parade No. B-10 Himself Louis Lewyn One reel
July 13, 1934 The Old Fashioned Way The Great (Marc Antony) McGonigle William Beaudine Story by "Charles Bogle" (W.C. Fields)
October 19, 1934 Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch Mr. C. Ellsworth Stubbins Norman Taurog
November 30, 1934 It's a Gift Harold Bissonette Norman McLeod Original story by "Charles Bogle" (W.C. Fields)
October 13, 1935 David Copperfield Wilkins Micawber George Cukor
March 22, 1935 Mississippi Commodore Orlando Jackson A. Edward Sutherland
July 26, 1935 Man on the Flying Trapeze Ambrose Wolfinger Clyde Bruckman Story by "Charles Bogle" (W.C. Fields)
June 19, 1936 Poppy Professor Eustace P. McGargle A. Edward Sutherland
February 18, 1938 The Big Broadcast of 1938 T. Frothingill Bellows
S. B. Bellows
Mitchell Leisen
February 17, 1939 You Can't Cheat an Honest Man Larson E. Whipsnade George Marshall Story by "Charles Bogle" (W.C. Fields)
February 9, 1940 My Little Chickadee Cuthbert J. Twillie Edward Cline Bar scene written by W.C. Fields
November 29, 1940 The Bank Dick Egbert Sousè Edward Cline Story by "Mahatma Kane Jeeves" (W.C. Fields)
October 10, 1941 Never Give a Sucker an Even Break The Great Man Edward Cline Original story by "Otis Criblecoblis" (W.C. Fields). Final starring film.
unreleased The Laziest Golfer Himself (unknown) Footage shot but never assembled
October 30, 1942 Tales of Manhattan Professor Postlewhistle Julien Duvivier Sequence with Fields cut from original release, restored for home video.
May 5, 1944 Follow the Boys Himself (Guest sequence) A. Edward Sutherland Fields revived his old trick pool table routine
June 21, 1944 Song of the Open Road Himself (Guest sequence) S. Sylvan Simon Fields juggled for a few moments
June 30, 1944 Sensations of 1945 Himself (Guest sequence) Andrew L. Stone Fields revived part of his old "Caledonian Express" sketch (last appearance)
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References
http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2003-04-06/entertainment/0304040528_1_fields-career-vaudeville-ziegfeld-follies
https://web.archive.org/web/20130406054319/http://www.thebiographychannel.co.uk/biographies/w-c-fields.html
http://www.thebiographychannel.co.uk/biographies/w-c-fields.html
http://www.imageandnarrative.be/inarchive/graphicnovel/rogersabin.htm
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0029912/
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0029912/awards?ref_=tt_awd
http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/bobhope/bits.html
http://archive.org/details/Var55-1919-06/page/n177
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01956051.1986.9944217
https://www.nytimes.com/1949/07/08/archives/w-c-fields-widow-wins-entitled-to-half-771000-though-long-estranged.html
https://www.nytimes.com/1966/02/19/archives/son-of-wc-fields-toasts-him-in-tea-comics-namesake-here-for.html
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