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William Claude Dukenfield, known as W. C. Fields (January 29, 1880 – December 25, 1946) was an American comedian, actor, juggler and writer. Fields created one of the great American comic personas of the first half of the 20th century: a misanthropic and hard-drinking egotist who remained a sympathetic character despite his snarling contempt for dogs, children, and women.

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

There was some truth to the misanthropic persona, however. Madge Evans, a friend and actress who appeared in several films during the 1930s, told a visitor in 1972 that Fields so deeply resented intrusions on his privacy by curious tourists walking up the driveway to his Los Angeles home that he would hide in the shrubs by his house and fire BB pellets at the trespassers' legs. Groucho Marx told a similar story, in his live album An Evening with Groucho.

Biography

Fields was born William Claude Dukenfield in Darbymarker, Pennsylvaniamarker. His father, James Dukenfield, came from an Englishmarker-Irishmarker family and it is claimed they were descendants of the lords of the manor of Dukinfieldmarker, Cheshiremarker (now Tameside). Contrary to widely held belief there was never a Lord Dukinfield although some later members of the family were baronets. Coincidentally or otherwise, false claims of royal lineage were recurring themes in several of Fields' films.

Fields's mother, Kate Spangler Felton, was also of British descent. James Dukenfield arrived in the USA in 1857 from Ecclesall Bierlow in Sheffieldmarker, South Yorkshiremarker with his father John (who was a comb maker), mother Ann and his siblings. James was identified as a "baker" in the 1860 U.S. census and a "huckster" in the 1870 census, an enterprise in which the young William later assisted.

Fields left home at age 11 (according to most biographies and documentaries) and entered vaudeville. By age 21 he was traveling as a juggling act ('The Eccentric Juggler'), and eventually introduced amusing asides and added increasing amounts of comedy into his act, becoming a headliner in both North America and Europe. In 1906 he made his Broadwaymarker debut in the musical comedy The Ham Tree.

Fields was well known for embellishing stories of his youth, but despite the legends he encouraged, the truth is that his home seems to have been a relatively happy one and his family supported his ambitions for the stage: his parents saw him off on the train for his first real stage tour as a teenager, and his father visited him in England while Fields was enjoying success in the music halls there.

Fields was known to his friends as "Bill". Edgar Bergen also called him "Bill" in the radio shows (Charlie McCarthy, of course, called him by other names). In Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, in which Fields played himself, his 'niece' called him "Uncle Bill", and in one scene introduced himself, "I'm W.C., uh, Bill Fields." In films in which he was portrayed as having a son, he sometimes named the character "Claude", after his own son. (Fields himself was also called "Claude" by friends sometimes.) In England he was sometimes billed as "Wm. C. Fields", presumably to avoid controversy due to "W.C." being the British abbreviation/euphemism for 'Water Closet', although it might be safely assumed that the earthy Fields was amused by the coincidence. His public use of initials instead of a first name was a commonplace formality of the era in which Fields grew up. That "W.C. Fields" more easily fit onto a marquee than "W. Dukenfield" undoubtedly was a factor in his choice of a stage name.

Personal life

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 [who] 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, W. C. and Hattie had separated; she had been pressing him to stop touring and settle down to a respectable trade, while he was unwilling to give up his own livelihood. Until his death, Fields would keep up both correspondence and the sending of voluntary child-support payments to Hattie.

He had another son, born on August 15, 1917, with girlfriend Bessie Poole, named William Rexford Fields Morris. Bessie was an established Zeigfield Follies performer and met W.C. while performing in New York City at the famous Amsterdam Theater. Her beauty and quick wit attracted W.C. who was the featured act from 1916 until 1922. She was killed in a bar fight several years later, leaving young Bill to be raised in foster-care where he acquired the surname Morris by his foster-mother. W.C. sent voluntary support to young Bill in care of his foster-mother until high school graduation when he sent $300 as a graduation gift. Fields lived with Carlotta Monti (1907-1993) after they met in 1932 and they began a relationship which lasted until his death in 1946. Monti had small roles in a couple of Fields' films and also wrote a biography of Fields, W.C. Fields and Me.

Fields on stage

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 a variety of 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 that he could play international theaters. Fields toured several continents and became a world-class juggler and an international star. He worked bits of juggling into many of his films. A good portion of his act is contained in The Old Fashioned Way.

Back in America, Fields found that he could get more laughs by adding dialogue to his routines. His trademark mumbling patter and sarcastic asides were developed 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.) He soon starred on Broadway in Florenz Ziegfeld's Ziegfeld Follies revues. There he delighted audiences with a wild pool 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 also reproduced, at least in part, in some of his films (Six of a Kind (1933)).

He starred in multiple editions of the Follies and in the Broadway musical comedy Poppy, where he perfected his persona as an oily, small-time confidence man.

Movies

Fields starred in a couple of short comedies, filmed in New York in 1915. His stage commitments prevented him from doing more movie work until 1924. He reprised his Poppy role in a silent-film adaptation, retitled Sally of the Sawdust (1925) and directed by D.W. Griffith. Fields wore a scruffy-looking, clip-on mustache in virtually all of his silent films, discarding it only after his first sound feature film, Her Majesty Love.

Screen stardom

Fields made four short subjects for comedy pioneer Mack Sennett in 1932 and 1933. During this period, Paramount Pictures 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 that out takes of one scene (Fields, and two other actors) record the only moving image record of the 1933 Long Beach earthquake.

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 on 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 such as carnival barkers and card sharps, spinning yarns and distracting his marks, as with this gem from My Little Chickadee (1940: "Whilst traveling through the Andes Mountains, we lost our corkscrew. Had to live on food and water for several days!" Fields had an affection for unlikely names and many of his characters bore them. Among the prime examples are:
  • "Larson E. [read "Larceny"] Whipsnade" (You Can't Cheat an Honest Man);
  • "Egbert Sousé" [pronounced 'soo-ZAY', but pointing toward a synonym for a 'drunk'] (The Bank Dick);
  • "Ambrose Wolfinger" (Man on the Flying Trapeze); and,
  • "The Great McGonigle" (The Old-Fashioned Way).


The carnival fraud was not the only character Fields played. He was also fond of casting himself as the victim: a hapless householder constantly 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 traveling 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 one of his career ambitions 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.

Supporting players

Fields had a small cadre of supporting players that he employed in several films:
  • Kathleen Howard, as a nagging wife or antagonist.
  • Alison Skipworth, as his wife (although 16 years his senior), usually in a supportive role rather than the stereotypical nag.
  • Grady Sutton, typically as a country bumpkin type, as either a foil or an antagonist to Field's character.
  • Baby LeRoy, a pre-school child fond of playing pranks on Fields' characters.
  • Tammany Young, as a dim-witted, not intentionally harmful assistant; appeared in seven Fields films until his sudden death from heart failure in 1936.
  • Bill Wolfe, a gaunt looking character, usually a Fields foil.
  • Jan Duggan, an oldish woman (actually about Fields' age) who played small roles as a widow type. It was about her character that Fields said in The Old Fashioned Way, "She's all dressed up like a well-kept grave."
  • Franklin Pangborn, a ubiquitous character actor of the period, also played in several of Fields' films.
  • Elise Cavanna, whose on-screen interplay with Fields was compared (The Art of W.C. Fields 1967 by William K. Everson) to that between Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont


Fields and alcohol

Fields’s screen character was often fond of alcohol and this trait has become part of the Fields legend. In his younger days as a juggler, Fields himself never drank, because he didn’t want to impair his functions while performing. The loneliness of his constant touring and traveling, however, compelled Fields to keep liquor on hand for fellow performers, so he could invite them to his dressing room for companionship and cocktails. Only then did Fields cultivate a fondness for alcohol.

A notable quote regarding alcohol is attributed to Fields: "I can't stand water because of the things fish do in it." Fields expressed his feelings in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break: "I was in love with a beautiful blonde once, dear. She drove me to drink. It's the one thing I am indebted to her for."

On movie sets, Fields kept a vacuum flask of martinis handy; he referred to it as his "lemonade". One day a prankster switched the contents of the flask, filling it with actual lemonade. Upon discovering the prank, Fields was heard to yell, "Who put lemonade in my lemonade?" (A variation on the story is "pineapple juice".)

In 1936 Fields became gravely ill, his health worsened by his heavy drinking. Fields’s film series came to a halt while he recovered; he made one last film for Paramount, The Big Broadcast of 1938. The comedian's all-around cussedness kept other producers away, and Fields was professionally idle until he made his debut on radio. By then Fields was very sick and suffering from delirium tremens.

Radio

While Fields was inactive, he recorded a short 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!


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?

Radio reached an even wider audience than before, and Fields was soon in demand for films again.

Movie comeback

Fields's new popularity 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 asks bartender Shemp Howard, "Was I in here last night, and did I spend a $20 bill?" "Yeah!" "Oh, is that a load off my mind... I thought I'd lost it!").

Fields often 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 own 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 old cronies Leon Errol and Franklin Pangborn served as his comic foils. But the film Fields delivered was so surreal Universal recut and reshot parts of it and then quietly released both the film and Fields.

Sucker turned out to be his last starring film. By then he was much heavier and less mobile than he had been at the peak of his film career during 1934-1935, when he was reasonably fit and trim.

Unrealized movie 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 was asking 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. In any case, the Oz role was certainly tailored for Fields: Frank Morgan played the carnival mountebank "Professor Marvel" with the florid speech and pompous fraudulence typical of Fields.

Fields also 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's The Pickwick Papers starring Fields and John Barrymore, but Fields's schedule would not permit it. The project was permanently shelved, and Welles went on to adapt The Magnificent Ambersons.

Final years

Fields occasionally entertained guests at his home. Anthony Quinn and his wife Katherine DeMille (daughter of famed Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille) called on Fields one afternoon, which became a nightmare when the Quinns' two-year-old son, Christopher, drowned in Fields’s lily pond. Fields was hit hard by this incident, and brooded about it for months.

Generally, Fields fraternized with other actors, directors, and writers who shared his fondness for good company and good liquor. John Barrymore, Gregory La Cava, and Gene Fowler were a few of his intimates.

In the 1994 Biography TV show, his 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 that Fields yearned for the kind of family he lacked when he was a child. The show also reported that Fields eventually reconciled with his long 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 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, humorous essays in the form of a campaign speech. Dodd, Mead and Company published it in 1940 but declined to reprint it at the time. It did not sell well, mostly because people were confused as to whether it was meant to be taken seriously. Dodd, Mead and Company reprinted it in 1971 when Fields was seen as an anti-establishment figure. The 1940 edition includes illustrations by Otto Soglow; the 1971 reprint is illustrated with photographs of Fields.

Fields's film career slowed down 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; it was 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 never was able to perform in person for the armed services.) In Song Of The Open Road (1944) Fields actually 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 also guested occasionally on radio as late as 1946, often with Edgar Bergen, and just before his death that same year he recorded a spoken-word album, delivering his comic "Temperance Lecture" and "The Day I Drank A Glass Of Water" at Les Paul's studio, in which Paul had just installed his new multi-track recorder. The session was arranged by Paul's old Army pal Bill Morrow, a friend he had in common with Fields. Fields's vision had deteriorated so much that he read his lines from large-print cue cards. It was W. C. Fields's last performance and, despite his frail health, one of his most charming.

Fields spent his last weeks in a hospital, where a friend stopped by for a visit and caught Fields reading the Bible. When asked why, Fields replied, "I'm checking for loopholes". In a final irony, W. C. Fields died in 1946 (from a stomach hemorrhage) on the holiday he claimed to despise: Christmas Day. As documented in W.C. Fields and Me (published in 1971, the book was made into a 1976 film of the same name starring Rod Steiger), he died at Las Encinas Sanatorium, Pasadena, Californiamarker, a bungalow-type sanitarium where, as he lay in bed dying, his longtime and final love, Carlotta Monti, went outside and turned the hose onto the roof, so as to allow Fields to hear for one last time his favorite sound of 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 14 months.

Fields was cremated and his ashes interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemeterymarker, in Glendale, Californiamarker. There have been stories that he wanted his grave marker to read "On the whole, I would rather be in Philadelphia", his home town, which is similar to a line 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 referencing "Philadelphia cream cheese". Given his fondness for words, maybe he just liked the sound of his home town's name.) This rumor has 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 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 that "I would rather be dead than play Philadelphia". Whatever his wishes might have been, his interment marker merely has his name and birth and death years.

Caricatures

Fields, with his bulbous nose (partly as a result of rosacea, although his parents also had bulbous noses), rotund body, and blustery, nasal voice, has often been caricatured. A few examples:

Fields in popular culture



Filmography

Features



Short Subjects



References

  1. Jordan, S. C. (2008). Hollywood's original rat pack The bards of Bundy Drive. Lanham, Maryland [u.a.]: Scarecrow Press. p. 151. ISBN 0810860325
  2. Claude W. Dukenfield, age 30 at 3920 North Marshall Street, Philadelphia, age 30, an actor, in the tenth year of his first marriage. His wife is not present in the household.
  3. Gehring, W. D. (1994). Groucho and W.C. Fields Huckster comedians. Jackson, Miss: University Press of Mississippi. p. 70. ISBN 0585190496
  4. W.C. Fields Radio recordings
  5. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0251468/
  6. The Warner Bros. Cartoon Companion: Vol. 6
  7. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0498651/


Further reading

  • Fields for President by W. C. Fields. Dood, Mead, 1940 and 1971. ISBN 0396064191. (Humorous essays about Fields's stance on marriage, politics, finance, etc.)
  • W. C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes by Robert Lewis Taylor. Doubleday, 1949; reprint edition: New American Library, 1967. ISBN 0451506537. (First book biography, with many firsthand quotes from Fields and friends)
  • The Art of W. C. Fields by William K. Everson. Random House, 1967. ISBN 0517012324. (First book-length examination of the Fields films)
  • W. C. Fields by Himself: His Intended Autobiography, edited by Ronald J. Fields. Prentice-Hall, 1973. ISBN 0139444629. (Collection of Fields's letters and scripts, with commentary)
  • Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W. C. Fields by Simon Louvish. Faber & Faber, 1999. ISBN 0393041271. (New biography, with new research)
  • W. C. Fields: A Biography by James Curtis. Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. ISBN 0375402179. (Comprehensive biography, with many firsthand quotes)


External links




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