W C Fields
- Category : Entertainment-Comedy
- Type : PE
- Profile : 3/5 - Martyr / Heretic
- Definition : Split - Small (35)
- Incarnation Cross : RAX The Four Ways 4
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 snarling contempt for dogs, children, and women.
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.
Fields was born William Claude Dukenfield in Darby, Pennsylvania, the oldest child in a poor family. His father, James Lydon Dukenfield, was from an English family that emigrated to America 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 (née Felton), 15 years younger than her husband, was a Protestant of German 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) worked at the Strawbridge and Clothier department store and in an oyster house, before he ran away from home at age 11. Self-educated, he spent substantial time perfecting his juggling, practicing till his fingers bled. At age 15, he was performing a juggling act at church and theater shows, and entered vaudeville as a "tramp juggler" using the name W. C. Fields. He soon was traveling as "The Eccentric Juggler", and included amusing asides and increasing amounts of comedy into his act, becoming a headliner in North America and Europe. By the early 1900s, while touring, he was regularly called the world’s greatest juggler. In 1906, he made his Broadway debut in a musical comedy, The Ham Tree.
Fields embellished stories of his youth, but his home life seems to have been a reasonably happy one. His family supported his ambitions for the stage and saw him off on the train for his first stage tour. His father visited him for two months in England when Fields was performing there in music halls. His stage costume from 1915 onwards featured a top hat, cut-away coat and collar, and a cane—an appearance remarkably similar to the cartoon character Ally Sloper. Fields fancied himself a cartoonist in the early 1900s while he was traveling in Europe, and it is speculated that Ally Sloper may have been the inspiration for his costume. The Sloper character may in turn have been inspired by Dickens' Mr Micawber, whom Fields later played on film.
Fields was known among his friends as "Bill". Edgar Bergen called him Bill in the radio shows (while Charlie McCarthy called him many names). Fields played himself in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, and his "niece" called him "Uncle Bill". (In one scene he introduced himself: "I'm W.C., uh, Bill Fields"). When he was portrayed in films as having a son, he often named the character "Claude", after his own son. He was sometimes billed in England as "Wm. C. Fields", because "W.C." is British slang for a water closet (toilet). His public use of initials was a commonplace formality of the era in which he grew up. "W.C. Fields" also fit more easily onto a marquee than "W.C. Dukenfield".
Fields married a fellow vaudevillian, chorus girl Harriet "Hattie" Hughes, on April 8, 1900. Their son, William Claude Fields, Jr., was born on July 28, 1904. Although Fields was "an avowed atheist regarded all religions with the suspicion of a seasoned con man", he yielded to Hattie's wish to have their son baptized.
At the time Fields was away from Hattie on tour in England. By 1907, however, he and Hattie separated; she had been pressing him to stop touring and settle into a respectable trade, while he was unwilling to give up show business. Until his death, Fields continued to correspond with Hattie and voluntarily sent child-support payments.
He had another son, named William Rexford Fields Morris (born August 15, 1917), with girlfriend Bessie Poole. Bessie was an established Ziegfeld Follies performer and met Fields while performing in New York City at the famous Amsterdam Theater. Her beauty and quick wit attracted Fields, who was the featured act from 1916 until 1922. She was killed in a bar fight several years after their son's birth, leaving him to be raised in foster care, where he acquired the surname Morris from his foster mother. Fields sent voluntary support to young Bill in care of his foster mother until he graduated from high school, when he sent $300 as a gift.
Fields lived with Carlotta Monti (1907–1993) after they met in 1932, beginning a relationship that lasted until his death in 1946. Monti had small roles in two of Fields' films, and in 1971 wrote a biography, W.C. Fields and Me, then 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).
Fields and alcohol
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 then did he begin drinking on a regular basis. On movie sets Fields kept a vacuum flask of mixed martinis, which he euphemistically referred to as his "pineapple juice". During the filming of Tales of Manhattan, a prankster switched the contents of the flask with pineapple juice. Upon discovery, Fields was heard to yell, "Who put pineapple juice in my pineapple juice?"
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 forced to live on food and water for several days!" The oft-repeated anecdote that Fields refused to drink water "because fish fornicate in it" is unsubstantiated.
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 kept producers away and he remained professionally idle until his debut on radio. By then, he was chronically ill, and suffering from delirium tremens.
Fields started as a juggler in vaudeville, appearing in the makeup of a genteel tramp with a scruffy beard and shabby tuxedo. He juggled cigar boxes, hats, and other objects in what appears to have been a unique and fresh act, parts of which are reproduced in some of his films. Fields confined his act to pantomime so he could play international theaters. He toured several continents as a world-class juggler and an international star. A good portion of his act is contained in The Old Fashioned Way.
In America, Fields found he could get more laughs by adding dialogue to his routines. He developed his trademark mumbling patter and sarcastic asides during this time. (According to the A&E Biography program about Fields (1994), when he was young his mother would sit with him on the front steps and mumble comments about the passersby.)
From 1916 to 1922, he starred on Broadway in Florenz Ziegfeld's Ziegfeld Follies revues. Therein, he delighted 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 (1934).
In addition to starring in multiple editions of the Follies, Fields starred in the Broadway musical comedy Poppy (1923), wherein he perfected his persona as a colorful small-time con man.
Fields starred in two short comedies, filmed in New York in 1915; his stage commitments prevented him from doing more movie work until 1924. He reprised his Poppy (1923) role in a silent-film adaptation, retitled Sally of the Sawdust (1925) and directed by D. W. Griffith, after which he starred in 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 included a silent version of the porch sequence which would one day be expanded in the sound film It's a Gift (1934). Fields wore a scruffy clip-on mustache in all of his silent films, discarding it after his first sound feature film, Her Majesty Love, his only Warner Brothers production.
Fields made four short subjects for comedy pioneer Mack Sennett in 1932 and 1933, distributed through Paramount Pictures. During this period, Paramount began featuring Fields in full-length comedies, and by 1934 he was a major movie star. It was for one of the films of this period (International House) that outtakes of one scene (Fields, and two other actors) allegedly recorded the only moving image record of the 1933 Long Beach earthquake. This footage was later revealed to have been faked as a publicity stunt for the movie.
He often contributed to the scripts of his films, under unusual pseudonyms such as the seemingly prosaic "Charles Bogle", which appeared on most 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". 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.
In his films, he often played hustlers, carnival barkers and card sharps, spinning yarns and distracting his marks. He had an affection for unlikely names and many of his characters bore them. Some examples are:
"Larson E. Whipsnade" (You Can't Cheat an Honest Man);
"Egbert Sousé" (The Bank Dick);
"Ambrose Wolfinger" (Man on the Flying Trapeze); and,
"The Great McGonigle" (The Old-Fashioned Way).
In addition to playing a hustler, Fields was fond of casting himself as a victim: a hapless householder under the thumb of his shrewish wife and/or mother-in-law. His 1934 classic It's a Gift included his stage sketch of trying to escape his nagging family by sleeping on the back porch and being bedeviled by noisy neighbors and salesmen. That film, along with films such as You're Telling Me! and Man on the Flying Trapeze, ended happily with a windfall profit that restored his standing in his screen families.
Although lacking formal education, he was well read and a lifelong admirer of author Charles Dickens, whose characters' unusual names inspired Fields to do likewise for his various characters. He achieved a career ambition by playing the character Mr. Micawber, in MGM's David Copperfield in 1935. In 1936, Fields re-created his signature stage role in Poppy for Paramount Pictures.
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 in The Art of W.C. Fields (1967)) to that between Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont
Jan Duggan, an "oldish" woman (actually about Fields' age who played small roles as a widow type. It was of her character that Fields said in The Old Fashioned Way, "She's all dressed up like a well-dressed 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
Fields' renewed popularity from his radio broadcasts with Bergen & 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, Fields made My Little Chickadee, with Mae West, and The Bank Dick, perhaps his best-known film, in which he has the following exchange with bartender Shemp Howard:
Fields: "Was I in here last night, and did I spend a $20 bill?"
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), is a masterpiece of absurd humor in which Fields appeared as himself, "The Great Man". Universal's singing star Gloria Jean played opposite Fields, and his cronies Leon Errol and Franklin Pangborn served as his comic foils. But the film Fields delivered was so surreal that Universal recut and reshot parts of it, then quietly released both the film and Fields.
Sucker was his last starring film. By then he was heavier and less mobile than at the peak of his film career during 1934–1935, when he was reasonably fit and trim.
Fields completed a scene for the 20th Century Fox film Tales of Manhattan (1942), in which he played an eccentric professor hired by Margaret Dumont to give a temperance lecture to a gathering of high society swells. This scene was cut from the film before release, supposedly due to running time. It was found in the vaults at Fox in the mid-1990s and was included in the video and DVD releases of the movie. The scene features an Italian clothier played by Phil Silvers and later a temperance meeting with society people at the home of a rich woman, Margaret Dumont, in which Fields finds that the punch has been spiked, resulting in a room full of drunken guests and a very happy Fields.
While Fields was inactive in film due to extended illness, 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. One of his funniest routines had him trading insults with Edgar Bergen's dummy Charlie McCarthy on The Chase and Sanborn Hour.
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?"
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?"
Thanks to radio, Fields reached a wider audience than ever before, and he was soon in demand for films again.
Fields occasionally entertained guests at home. Generally, he fraternized with actors, directors, and writers who shared his fondness for good company and good liquor. John Barrymore, Gene Fowler, and Gregory La Cava were a few of his intimates. Anthony Quinn and his wife Katherine DeMille (daughter of Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille) were visiting Fields one afternoon when the Quinns' two-year-old son, Christopher, drowned in Fields’ lily pond. Fields was greatly distraught and brooded about the incident for months. He drained the pool and reportedly never used it again.
Fields had a substantial library in his home. Although a staunch atheist, or perhaps because of that, he studied theology and owned several volumes on the subject as well as multiple Bibles. Gene Fowler, noticing a Bible on the shelf, asked Fields, "What the hell are you doing with that"? Fields replied, "Been lookin' for loopholes".
In a 1994 Biography TV show, Fields' 1941 co-star Gloria Jean described how she would visit his house from time to time, and they would talk. Gloria Jean found Fields to be kind and gentle in real life, and believed he yearned for the kind of family he lacked when he was a child. The show reported that Fields eventually reconciled with his estranged wife and son and enjoyed playing with his grandchildren.
With a presidential election looming in 1940, Fields toyed with the idea of lampooning political campaign speeches. He wrote to vice-presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace, intending to glean comedy material from Wallace’s speeches, but when Wallace responded with a warm, personal fan letter to Fields, the comedian decided against skewering Wallace. Instead, Fields wrote a book entitled Fields for President, consisting of humorous essays in the form of a campaign speech. Dodd, Mead and Company published it in 1940, with illustrations by Otto Soglow, but declined to reprint it at the time. The book sold poorly, largely because people were confused as to whether or not it was meant to be taken seriously. In 1971, Dodd, Mead reprinted it when Fields was seen as an anti-establishment figure; the 1971 reprint is illustrated with photographs of Fields.
Fields' film career slowed considerably in the 1940s. His illnesses confined him to brief guest-star appearances in other people's films. 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. He performed his famous billiard-table routine one more time on camera, 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 his appearance, and 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, remarking, "This used to be my racket". His last film, the musical revue Sensations of 1945, was released in late 1944.
He guested occasionally on radio as late as 1946, often with Edgar Bergen. Just before his death that year, Fields recorded a spoken-word album, delivering his comic "Temperance Lecture" and "The Day I Drank A Glass Of Water" at Les Paul's studio, where Paul had installed his new multi-track recorder. The session was arranged by Paul's old Army pal Bill Morrow, a friend in common with Fields. Fields' vision had deteriorated so much that he read his lines from large-print cue cards. It was Fields' last performance.
Fields died in 1946, from an alcohol-related stomach hemorrhage, on the holiday he claimed to despise: Christmas Day. As documented in W.C. Fields and Me (Carlotta Monti's memoir published in 1971 and made into a 1976 film of the same name starring Rod Steiger), he died at Las Encinas Sanatorium, Pasadena, California, a bungalow-type sanitarium where, as he lay in bed dying, his longtime love, Carlotta Monti, went outside and turned the hose onto the roof, to allow Fields to hear for one last time his favorite sound—falling rain. According to the documentary W.C. Fields Straight Up, his death occurred in this way: he winked and smiled at a nurse, put a finger to his lips, and died. Fields was 66, and had been a patient for 22 months. His funeral took place on January 2, 1947, in Glendale, CA.
Fields was cremated and his ashes interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, in Glendale.
There have been stories that Fields wanted his grave marker to read either, "On the whole, I would rather be in Philadelphia" (his home town) or, "All in all, I would rather be in Philadelphia", both lines similar to one he used in My Little Chickadee: "I'd like to see Paris before I die...Philadelphia would do!" (In the same film, he made a point of referring to "Philadelphia cream cheese"; whether he knew of the J. L. Kraft Foods product is unknown. This rumor also morphed into, "I would rather be here than in Philadelphia". The anecdote that Fields often remarked, "Philadelphia, wonderful town, spent a week there one night", is similarly unsubstantiated.) It is also said that Fields wanted, "I'd rather be in Philadelphia", on his gravestone because of the old vaudeville joke among comedians, "I would rather be dead than play Philadelphia".
Whatever his wishes might have been, the interment marker for Fields' ashes merely bears his stage name and the years of his birth and death. The genesis of the line as originally phrased can be found in the 1925 Vanity Fair article, "A Group of Artists Write Their Own Epitaphs". The mock-epitaph for Fields reads, "Here Lies / W.C. Fields / I Would Rather Be Living in Philadelphia."
In a provision of his will that was contested by his wife Hattie and his son Claude, W. C. Fields—an atheist to the end—left a portion of his estate to fund the education of orphans in a school "where no religion of any sort is preached".
Unrealized film projects
W. C. Fields was the original choice for the title role in the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz. One rumor was that he believed the role was too small. Another alleged that he requested too much money: his asking price was $100,000, while MGM offered $75,000. However, his agent asserted that Fields rejected the role because he wanted to devote his time to writing You Can't Cheat an Honest Man.
Fields figured in an Orson Welles project. Welles' 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 and John Barrymore, but Fields' schedule would not permit it. The project was shelved, 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
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 United States Postal Service issued a W.C. Fields commemorative stamp on the comedian's 100th birthday, in January 1980.
Caricatures and imitations
Cartoonist Al Hirschfeld has 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", an obvious caricature of Fields.
Master 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 either wanted too much money, or was too ill to insure for the role, but the character as eventually portrayed by Frank Morgan, was remarkably similar to the con man Fields played in several films.
Several cartoons of the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s caricatured Fields, including Warner Bros. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. Another cartoon, "Batty Baseball" directed by Tex Avery, features a game played at "W.C. Field". 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.
The Wizard of Id comic strip contains a shady lawyer character, a Fields caricature named "Larsen E. Pettifogger".