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W.C. Fields: A Biography
Synopses & Reviews
Before he ever made a movie or spoke a word onstage, W. C. Fields was one of the greatest pantomimists and comedians in the world. His career spanned the whole of the twentieth century—in burlesque, vaudeville, the legitimate stage, silent pictures, talkies, radio, books, and recordings. Only death prevented him from working in television.
He shared the vaudeville stage with Sarah Bernhardt and Houdini; he made a command performance before Edward VII; he was compared to Chaplin and Keaton and became one of the great comedians in radio. He wrote, directed, and performed (Mae West and Fields were among the first writer/actor/directors) in some of the most enduring and brilliant comedies of all time, including It’s a Gift, My Little Chickadee, and The Bank Dick. He appeared in fifty pictures and wrote fifteen of them. His understanding of the need to lie and swindle, and his ability to make the most innocent phrase sound lewd, made him a star.
Now James Curtis tells the story of Fields’ life and work. Drawing on Fields’ papers and manuscripts, he shows us the passion and intellect that fueled Fields’ talent and the background that gave such bite and edge to his comedy. Curtis shows us, in illuminating detail, just how Fields’ extraordinary art evolved on the stage in the early part of the twentieth century and how he not only incorporated it into his films, but how it came to define his persona decades later.
He writes of Fields’ hardscrabble Philadelphia childhood; of his father, a drunken breaker of horses who beat his son; of Fields’ clever hands that were quick to master stealing and juggling (he took up the latter—it allowed him to sleep late); of his years in burlesque and minstrelsy; of his seventeen years in vaudeville, hopping trains early on, living a life half in the theater, half on the lam, making his way into the big time, never satisfied with his “act,” always working on something newer and more striking. Curtis writes of Fields’ starring years with the Ziegfeld Follies, finding his voice and his character amid one of the greatest assemblages of comic talent on a single stage (Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, among others); appearing in every Ziegfeld show from 1915 through 1921; of his marriage to a fellow performer, the birth of their son, and their travels together on the Circuit, until Mrs. Fields decided she’d had enough and left—the theater and her marriage. Fields never again loved so deeply.
We see Fields’ extraordinary work in the movies, both silent pictures in New York (first directed by D. W. Griffith in the starring role in Sally of the Sawdust, which Fields created on Broadway in Poppy) and in the talkies from 1927 to 1945.
Curtis’ biography narrates the life and the art of the actor James Agee called “the toughest and most warmly human of all screen comedians.”
"There is now this second of two fine books, and, it seems to me, there are Fieldsian wrecks all over this finest land there ever was or could be. More than fifty years after his death, thanks to these very fond books, it is not just possible but necessary to say that Fields was far more than a clown or a comic. He was a character in the social landscape, the head of the household reduced to mockery but sublimely enduring because of his own small talk with the fates." James Wolcott, The New Republic (read the entire New Republic review)
"[An] admirable biography....Curtis's sharp intelligence and a pungent modern edge in his writing make Fields relevant to contemporary readers unfamiliar with his classic work." Publishers Weekly
"[A]n illuminating full-dress portrait of an American icon that offers fresh insights into Fields' offstage life....For detail presented accessibly and entertainingly, this book is worthwhile. For its many archival photos...and its engrossing appendixes...it's priceless." Mike Tribby, Booklist
"Curtis fluently traces the entire arc of Fields's messy, overstuffed life. The details are irresistible....Curtis is inevitably hampered by the difficulty of explaining what can only be experienced: the effect of Fields's comedy onscreen. Nonetheless, he does an excellent job detailing [Fields'] meticulous craftsmanship and relentless hard work..." The New Yorker
"[S]ympathetic and scrupulous....Curtis is a sober, careful but no more than workmanlike writer, who doesn't know quite where the laughs are....This is by far the fullest, fairest and finally most touching account of this sad, solipsistic life that we have yet had. Or are likely to have, given that we now live in a world wherein comedy shamelessly, endlessly sues for our affections instead of starkly alienating them." Richard Schickel, The New York Times Book Review
"The definitive book about America's most profound comedian. James Curtis examines all the myths and stereotypes connected with W.C., and comes up with a fascinating, sympathetic, utterly convincing picture of a man who was generous yet stingy, who was both a dream and a nightmare to work with, who could be warm or distant, who meticulously planned each word and gesture, yet who managed always to ad lib something hilarious. Fields shines throughout, sad, funny, and strangely loveable." John Cleese
Includes bibliographical references (p. -570) and index.
A major new biography of Fields--a revelation of the man and the artist behind the legend of the gin-guzzling misanthrope. His career spanned the first half of the 20th century, from burlesque to vaudeville to film. 100 photos.
About the Author
James Curtis is the author of James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters and Between Flops, an acclaimed biography of writer-director Preston Sturges. He lives with his wife in Brea, California.
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