Claude Dukenfield was born Jan. 29, 1880 in Darby,
Pennsylvania, just across the Philadelphia city line. The eldest of the
five children of James Dukenfield, an English immigrant, and Kate Felton,
a native Philadelphian, Fields lived -- to hear him tell it in later years
-- a Huck Finn sort of childhood in which he left home at age 11 (after
smashing a crate over his father's head) and survived by his wits, sleeping
in a ditch or on a pool table, stealing food and staying one step ahead
of the constable. But in fact, "Whitey" Dukenfield, as the blond youth
was nicknamed, often squabbled with his father, but he lived with the family
until age 18.
Having left school somewhere around sixth grade, he'd worked with his father hawking fruits and vegetables, in addition to other jobs in a cigar store, a pool hall, a newsstand and a department store. More typically, Whitey could be found at one of Philly's several variety theaters, for he had taken a keen interest in juggling. Touring the circuits then were such notables as Charles T. Aldritch and O.K. Sato, Comedy Juggler, but one in particular seems to have inspired the boy most: Paul Cinquevalle, the Prince of Jugglers, a mustachioed American showman who juggled plates, cannon balls, umbrellas, even tables and chairs.
Young Dukenfield began practicing fervently, starting with his father's produce, and worked up routines with balls, hats, cigar boxes and a cane. Thanks to his tenure at the pool hall, he also perfected a host of billiards tricks. But, determined to make his act stand out, Dukenfield added touches of comedy to his juggling, like "accidentally" dropping an object, only to deftly snatch it on the rebound or send it caroming off a startled assistant and back into the flow. In January 1898 he began performing at local Masons halls and such venues as "Wm. C. Felton" but soon -- attired in tattered clothes and fake beard -- became "W.C. Fields, Tramp Juggler." By August of that year he'd secured a job at Plymouth Park, an amusement park in Norristown, PA. Proprietor J. Fortescue soon moved the popular young juggler to his Atlantic City venue, Fortescue's Pavillion.
A stint with a traveling burlesque show followed, which ended when the show's manager abandoned the troupe in Kent, Ohio. But Fields had fallen for a chorus girl, Hattie Hughes; he married her and made her his assistant. For the next couple years Fields played burlesque circuits in the East and Midwest, advancing steadily toward the top of the bill. In 1901 he made his first tour of Europe, and his silent Tramp Juggler act was a hit wherever he played. In 1903 Fields added his trademark routine, the trick pool table, and it wasn't long before critics heralded him as the greatest comedy juggler of his generation. Fields began his self-education around this time, filling a steamer trunk with volumes of the classics -- Dickens, Twain, Hardy, Milton, Shakespeare, Dumas -- and reading them voraciously between performances.
When Hattie became pregnant, Fields dispatched her to Philadelphia. She would never return to the stage, for it seemed she now preferred a more "respectable" lifestyle, and for the next 30 years Fields would send her a weekly check, although never an amount to her satisfaction. Hattie converted to Catholicism and did the same for their son, Claude, which further angered Fields, who felt religion was "for chumps," and the couple's relationship became a battlefield. Fields' later films would reflect this domestic anguish. But Fields, now in the highest rank of entertainment, continued to tour the world until 1915, when he settled in New York and began a long tenure with Flo Zigfield's Follies, co-starring with such luminaries as Al Jolson, Ed Wynn, Leon Errol, Bert Williams, Fanny Brice and Will Rogers. In this venue he juggled some but concentrated on developing comedy routines, most of which would later show up on film, such as A Game of Golf, The Back Porch, The Picnic, and The Stolen Bonds. He also appeared in competing revues such as George White's Scandals and Earl Carroll's Vanities. In 1923 Fields starred in a Broadway hit, Poppy, as Professor Eustace McGargle, F.A.S.N., a character into which Fields was able to funnel his experiences with con men, medicine show characters, fairground barkers and the like. Blended with a dollop of his Dickensian favorite Mr. Micawber, this synthesis formed one of the two charcters (besides the henpecked pater familias) that Fields would play from here on.
It was during these years that Fields, equipped with a little clip-on mustache, made his ventures into silent film, commencing with Pool Sharks (1915). Except for Sally of the Sawdust (D. W. Griffith's 1925 filmed version of Poppy), these early films fared poorly with critics and at the box office. It was also during these years that Fields gave up on his marriage and began a series of relationships with chorus girls. One of these led to an illegitimate son, William Rexford Fields Morris, born in 1917 to Bessie Poole, a Follies dancer. Poole gave the boy up for adoption and died 10 years later in a bar fight. (Fields had had Poole sign a document stating he was in no way responsible for the child, but in fact he supported the boy through adulthood. Morris would later track down Fields in Hollywood and show up at his door, asking to see his father. Fields reportedly instructed his butler: "Give him an evasive answer. Tell him to go fuck himself.")
In 1930, Fields made his first "talkie," The Golf Specialist, for RKO (at a New Jersey studio), featuring the golf routine he'd made famous in the Vanities and in a silent film, So's Your Old Man, and for the first time film audiences heard his distinctive, raspy drawl. The next year, with the popularity of sound pictures and the death of Vaudeville, Fields moved to Hollywood and soon found a home at Paramount Pictures. He stole the show in 1932's Million Dollar Legs, an oddball comedy about a nation of Olympic-calibre athletes, but tentative studio executives kept trying to "pair him up" with other comic actors like Alison Skipworth and Charlie Ruggles. In 1932 and 1933, Fields moonlighted with director Mack Sennett to make four shorts that would showcase Fields' stage routines: The Dentist, The Fatal Glass of Beer (a re-working of "The Stolen Bonds"), The Pharmacist and The Barber Shop.
But back at Paramount, Fields gradually brought studio execs around, confounding them when he launched into ad-lib but mollyfying them with good reviews. In 1933, he stole the show in International House as Prof. Quayle, a "wrong-way Corrigan" who lands his autogyro on a hotel roof in China. Before long he'd wrested creative control of his films from the studio and began to rework some of his silent films. Though flops the first time around, these remakes began to catch on: You're Telling Me, a remake of So's Your Old Man (1926); It's A Gift , from The Old Army Game (1926); Man on the Flying Trapeze, from Running Wild (1927), and Poppy. And in 1935 he prevailed upon Paramount to lend him to MGM to play his favorite Dickens character, Micawber, in David Copperfield, a performance critics universally praised.
By 1936 his drinking caught up with him, and he tried to "dry out" a couple times. Paramount wouldn't renew his contract, so he accepted radio guest appearances (notably with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy) that, to his surprise and delight, made him more popular than ever. In 1940, back on his feet, he negotiated a deal with Universal Studios, where he would make his most famous films: You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (with Bergen and McCarthy); My Little Chickadee, with Mae West co-writing the script; The Bank Dick, and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (both described below).
But Fields ignored his doctors' pleas for moderation, and his health once again deteriorated, and except for a few more cameo roles at other studios, W.C. Fields' career had come to an end. In 1945, crippled by arthritis and weakened by cirrhosis of the liver, he moved out of his Bel Air home into nearby Las Encinas Sanitarium, where in December 1946 he lapsed into a coma. He came out of it on Christmas Day long enough to wink to the friends gathered around his bed, then surrendered to "the man in the bright nightgown," as Fields had often characterized the Grim Reaper.
After a protracted court battle, Fields' wife Hattie was
awarded his estate, valued at more than $700,000. His mistress of many
years, Carlotta Monti, and his illegitimate son went home empty handed.
Although rumored to have dictated an epitaph -- "On the Whole, I'd Rather
Be in Philadelphia" -- Fields' columbarium niche at Forest Lawn in Glendale,
Cal. simply reads "W.C. Fields/1880-1946."
Fields instructed him to stop for the man. "Where's your sense of charity?" he asked. The man got in, and Fields offered him his gin bottle. The man refused sternly, and soon revealed that he was a minister of the gospel, and that although he usually didn't preach for free, he was about to give Fields a "Number Four" -- "The Evils of Alcohol." The preacher launched into his temperence sermon.
Fields leaned forward and instructed Grady to pull alongside
the first ditch he saw. Soon Grady spotted one and slammed on the brakes.
Fields opened the door and pushed the preacher out of the car and into
the ditch, then tossed in an unopened bottle of gin after him. "Here's
my Number Three," Fields bellowed. "How to Keep Warm in a Ditch."
Many myths still surround Fields: that he was a misanthropic, tight fisted, bigoted boozer. Well, three out of four ain't bad. Fields maintained close ties with family and a small circle of friends throughout his life. He was a soft touch for old friends down on their luck, and his gift giving was frequently lavish. And although his will sets aside funds for "The W.C. Fields Home for Orphan White Boys and Girls, where no religion of any type is to be taught," that provision was dictated just after a black employee had stolen from him. In practice he treated all races the same, and several times he publicly added his voice to the call for racial equality.
But he did drink a lot, starting in his Vanities years. When
he suspected rum and pineapple juice was making him fat, he switched to
martinis. Observers say he never appeared drunk, but he was touchy about
it sometimes. When The Christian Science Monitor complained
that Never Give a Sucker an Even Break had "the usual atmosphere
of befuddled alcoholism," he wrote back: "Wouldn't it be more terrible
if I quoted some reliable statistics to prove that more people are driven
insane through religious hysteria than by drinking alcohol?"
|Recommended reading: W.C. Fields: A Life
on Film (1984, St. Martin's Press) by Ronald J. Fields (his grandson):
comprehensive film-by-film examination, including background and contemporary
reviews; W. C. Fields By Himself (1973, Prentice Hall): a revealing
"intended autobiography" compiled by Ronald J. Fields. Includes scripts,
articles and letters chronicling his battles with his wife and with studio
executives; Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W.C. Fields
(1997, Norton) by Simon Louvish: takes on the task of de-mythologizing
Fields, and provides intriguing new details.
Recommended viewing: The
Fatal Glass of Beer (1933): Forty years before Monty Python,
Fields concocted -- and Mack Sennett directed -- this Yukon parody about
a prodigal son. Popularized the saying "It ain't a fit night out for man
Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935):
not a circus picture, actually the tale of Ambrose Wolfinger, a henpecked
"memory expert" who reports his mother-in-law dead to get the afternoon
off to go to a wrestling match. This neglected masterpiece features Fields'
mistress, Carlotta Monti, as his secretary; The Old Fashioned
Way (1934): The Great McGonigle and his "happy little family
of the theatre" put on The Drunkard in a backwater town. One priceless
act of this "show within a show" is a recreation of Fields' juggling act,
complete with the legendary cigar-box trick; The Bank
Dick (1940): layabout Egbert Sousé lucks into a job as
security officer at a bank where his daughter's fiance works. He persuades
the lad to embezzle $500 to invest in a beefsteak mine. Stanley Kubrick
listed this as one of his favorite films; Never Give a
Sucker an Even Break (1941): Fields' last major work, a quirky
broadside at Hollywood. Fields plays himself in battle with a film producer,
trying to sell a script wherein he jumps out of an airplane after his flask
and lands unharmed in a Russian village in Mexico. There he woos the rich
Mrs. Hemoglobin (Margaret Dumont), who lives atop a mountain with her virginal
daughter (Susan Miller, who belts out a show-stopping version of "Comin'
Thro' the Rye"). One of Federico Fellini's favorite films.
(c)1999- 2006 John F. Crowley