Fields, W. C. (1879-1946)

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Fields, W. C. (1879-1946)

One of film comedy's best-loved performers, W. C. Fields has inspired countless impersonators but few imitators. In more than forty films over three decades, the bulbous-nosed actor perfected a unique comic persona marked by a love of whiskey, a hatred of small children and animals, and a love of underhanded chicanery. Among the memorable quotes attributed to Fields are "Anyone who hates dogs and kids can't be all bad" and "A thing worth having is a thing worth cheating for." His famous epitaph, "All things considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia," paid mocking tribute to his birth city.

Born William Claude Dukenfield, Fields left home at age eleven to escape his abusive father. By age thirteen he was a skilled pool player and juggler, and was soon entertaining customers at amusement parks. By the age of twenty-one, he was one of the leading lights of Vaudeville. He played the Palace in London and starred at the Folies-Bergere in Paris. He appeared in each of the Ziegfeld Follies from 1915 through 1921. Fields's stage act, which featured both comedy and juggling, was immortalized in 1915 in his first silent film, Pool Shark. He devoted himself to films throughout the 1920s, though his comic persona did not find full flower until the advent of sound in the next decade.

Fields's best silent feature, It's the Old Army Game (1927), was later remade as his breakthrough talkie, It's a Gift (1934). That film, which cast Fields as a grocery clerk who moves his family west to manage a chain of orange groves, established for all time the incomparable W. C. Fields persona. His nose reddened by excessive drink, speaking sarcastic asides in a comic snarl, forever bedeviled by animals and children, Fields was the cantankerous bastard inside of every moviegoer, the personification of the male id unleashed. This emerging comic identity was also on view in a series of classic shorts he made for Mack Sennett. Most notable among these are The Dentist (1932), The Barber Shop, and The Pharmacist (both 1933).

Fields proved himself more than a mere clown, however. He also found a niche playing character roles in adaptations of the classics. He portrayed Humpty Dumpty in the all-star 1933 film version of Alice in Wonderland, then replaced Charles Laughton as Micawber in the 1935 adaptation of David Copperfield. Fields was also given serious consideration for the title role in 1939's The Wizard of Oz, though that part eventually went to Frank Morgan.

As the 1930s drew to a close, Fields began work on one last stretch of classic films. He teamed up with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy for the 1939 circus farce You Can't Cheat an Honest Man. My Little Chickadee (1940) paired Fields with Mae West, an inspired bit of casting that produced some of their best work. The Bank Dick, which Fields wrote using an alias, was perhaps his finest starring vehicle. Fields's last full-length starring feature was 1941's Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, an anarchic comedy whose plot outline Fields reportedly sketched out on a cocktail napkin.

Battling poor health, Fields continued acting in bit parts well into the 1940s. His infirmities eventually caught up with him, and he died of pneumonia on Christmas Day, 1946. In the decades after his death, Fields's filmic oeuvre generated a vibrant cult following. His works became a staple of late-night art house film festivals, and he was particularly beloved on college campuses. In 1976, Rod Steiger gamely impersonated the comic legend for a well-received biopic W. C. Fields and Me.

—Robert E. Schnakenberg

Further Reading:

Deschner, Donald. The Complete Films of W. C. Fields. Secaucus, New Jersey, Citadel Press, 1989.

Louvish, Samuel. Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W. C. Fields. New York, W. W. Norton, 1997.