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Thursday, May 29th, 2003


W.C. Fields: A Biography


Fields of Dream

A review by David Thomson

As early as December 1905, here is Bill Fields, aka William Claude Dukenfield, on the road in vaudeville, writing to his wife Hattie. It is so crushing a letter, it seems more fictitious than domestic. You have to wonder at the grim stew of revenge and self-abuse in Hattie that she kept the paper instead of feeding the furnace with it. Perhaps she had thoughts of the law even then.

Dear Wife, Your letter to hand. Wired you $100 so you won't have to walk the Streets with the boy. Had you answered when you should have you wouldn't have had to wait a minute for your money.... I also want to know from time to time how the boy is. Now don't go fooling too much as you may regret it.... Love to my boy, Your Husband.

Yes, it is a cruel or callous letter, and it is surely proof of a five-year-old marriage irretrievably broken down. More than that, I think, it is the self-conscious, drawling insult of an artist experimenting with his voice and his character, with talking pictures on no known horizon.

This is the second big book on W.C. Fields in six years, and it wouldn't trouble me if we were only getting started. As a matter of fact, the passage that I have just quoted comes not from James Curtis's new biography, but from Simon Louvish's Man on the Flying Trapeze, which appeared in 1997. Don't expect me to take sides: in fact, get ready to shell out for both books, so don't be giving any money away yet to wheedling children, starving savages, or plump pols. Just to establish my liking for Curtis's book, let me note that he trumps Louvish with the discovery that the young Fields stammered. I welcome that news, for it helps us to appreciate the uncommon beauty of Fields's very slow, almightily considered, and flagrantly offensive dismissal of others in words. I mean his amazing talk.

But what do people make of Fields today, when grown men are to be seen in every city following their dogs and carrying small plastic bags at the ready, and when something called The Lizzie McGuire Movie is bursting out as fulsomely as the actress's blooming bust, which has made the continuation of her kiddie show on the Disney Channel an embarrassment? Perhaps I will be stoned in the letters column, but I think this baggy job with dogs is among the most humiliating sights in this proud, Rummy-toting empire. (Would any man follow a wife, or anyone he was fond of, with such a bag?) As for the blind adulation of children, what can be said except that there seems to be an unstoppable craze on the part of anyone over forty in the United States of Amnesia to behave as if they were fifteen? (Could Warhol have meant — he did his best to show the way — that one day everyone will be fifteen forever?)

Curtis does his best to claim that Fields, while bored by dogs, actually had a soft spot for children. But that is a thankless argument to pursue when one reflects on the immense, abused gravitas — it is nearly Mahlerian — with which Fields just refrains from infanticide in several of his films. (Even the correspondence column of The New York Times Book Review has sustained the legend that he was inclined to add gin to Baby Le Roy's milk.) At the very least Fields is a stalwart of the old notion that children should be kept in their place, if only a sufficiently dark and soundproofed hovel can be found. And as I write this, I see the likelihood of being misunderstood by sober citizens (let alone my own children). After all, this is now a land where smoke-free sobriety has taken vicious root and childish sensibilities rule. Worse still, I begin to see and to feel a distinct lack of interest in sex, especially illicit sex, revoltingly masked by the guilty parties with their sly use of that lofty howler "disinterest."

So it is hard to recommend W.C. Fields today in all but whimsical situations. It does occur to me that nearly every household in America would welcome a Bill Fields whose sole job it was to answer those phone calls at strange hours soliciting for this or that. Such a Fields would not simply dismiss the telemarketing intruders; he would engage them in prolonged, learned, and increasingly surreal conversations that would destroy their time and maybe their sanity while keeping the family entertained at dinner (and giving the sullen children some education in the rapture of speaking in sentences).

But as I prepared to review Curtis's book, I thought to look at a few Fields favorites again — It's a Gift (1934) and You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939). Just reflect for a moment: 1939 and Fields had found the title that exactly conveys the gist of modern Americana in only six words! Merely as a rhythmic caesura, I separated the two films with a bathroom break and whatever television had to offer, which happened to be our president, speaking with that horse-whipped sincerity that he affects. Suddenly I saw the real depth of the dilemma in liking Fields, for there is so much ghastly, aching honesty going around. It's as if the Fields voice, that magnificent trombone anthem to fraudulence, had vanished into thin air. How can today's browbeaten masses go from George W. Bush, or Kevin Spacey (playing one of his good guys!), or Charlie Rose on the edge of a cozy answer, to the constant, brilliant teasing of Fields?

Which is why and how, despite his brilliance as a juggler, a stage clown, and a movie comic, I want to attest that, above all, Fields is a voice and a wordsmith. You may hear him in Beckett and Pinter as easily as in John Cleese and Peter Sellers. For here is man unkind, filled with dismay, boredom, and loathing at the very idea of women, society, and decency. Here is misanthropus Americanus, preferring to sit in a thickening fog of tobacco smoke, booze, his own lengthening flatulence, and a little unenergetic pornography. Here is the beast — the defiant enemy of family, sentiment, flag, and happiness; but he is as eloquent as the greatest confidence trickster. He is Huck Finn in the retirement home.

As you may begin to detect, for those of us who love Fields, biography is not exactly what we are crying out for. Any book on the great man is a pretext for reviving the desperate moments of his life, and the sublime ennui with which he faced them. I have to say that Curtis is not as exuberant as Louvish — but maybe that happens to a writer when his publisher elects to call his book "definitive." And even Curtis acknowledges that it is very hard to be final or conclusive about a subject who so readily bent the truth. People get more or less the biographies that they deserve, or that they have set in motion with their own regard for fact and truth. Curtis knows well enough that Fields did not believe in truth. Louvish leaps at this failing like a fellow sufferer, whereas Curtis tries his best to be polite with an unfortunate failing. But Louvish gains in the comparison, even if he goes a little overboard at times — you feel his deep urge to be a straight man, setting up Fields's lugubrious punch lines. He knows that he is wrestling with his subject, or trying to steal his juggled Indian clubs in midair. And that is a dangerous sport: you may easily find yourself up in the air, twirling, and then — bang — on the floor. Juggling, for Fields, though he was expert at it, was so often a setup for mishap and disaster.

What are we meant to do with the idea that Fields left home in Philadelphia when he was twelve or so and became a marauding young gangster in that city? I'm sure that he was difficult and truculent, and I daresay that in the Fields family misunderstanding ruled the stagnant air. But Fields was a tough poet who knew that every boy there ever was has been a marauding gangster (and a rescuing cop) in his dreams. Curtis has a lovely photograph of young Fields at twelve or so, a harshtender face, with a hard mouth and faraway eyes, all beneath the flop of nearly white blond hair. He could be the young Billy the Kid, or Rilke. The longer you look at the thug, the more you see the romantic sensibility and the early hopeless loneliness.

This was in the last years of the nineteenth century, when children were expected to get up a chimney and bag the soot. William Claude Dukinfield was born in 1880, from English stock. Curtis is so studious to have located an ancestor named Lord Dukinfield (in Cheshire, no less — was he a cat?), and I think it is too casual of him to leave the matter there. Were the Dukinfields an offshoot of nobility (Fields seems to remember this), or are we expected to believe that "Lord" might have been a Christian name that long ago? But how can any wormed-out discovery of the relations between father and son stand up to this ravishing memoir, which Fields once shared with Ed Sullivan and his newspaper readers:

As someone more eloquent than I has said: "It is a pity that youth is wasted on the very young." Youth should be reserved for old codgers like me. I'd know how to use it. Kids just squander it. They have no judgment of distance, no change of pace. They want to go roller-skating or ride on a bike. Now you know that is silly, when there are so many worthwhile things to do. As a child I was a brat. A man once said to my father, in our parlor: "I've never met such a repulsive child as your son. He will probably become a juggler." At this, my father started sobbing and, as the man turned his back, Pa hit him a terrible blow. When the man fell, from Pa's cowardly blow, I hit him in the face. But although we got him down, truth would not be suppressed. I did become a juggler.

Well, yes, but Fields juggled rather in the way Basil Fawlty ran a hotel. Fields was a man who seemed to lack physical grace, to be tied down in leaden dumps (and to be sniffy about it: he once sneered at Chaplin as "that Goddamn ballet dancer"), who was a world-class juggler: a paradoxical man. With this difference, noted by J.B. Priestley, who saw Fields in the English music halls in the Edwardian era: "And this, I fancy, was the secret of his huge and enchanting drollery — though, oddly enough, it seems to have been missed: that he moved, warily in spite of a hastily assumed air of nonchalant confidence, through a world in which even inanimate objects were hostile, rebellious, menacing, never to be trusted."

There's the nub of it. Fields was a man who had turned to games — to jugglable things — out of an essential despair over people. But then the balls turned out spooked. The balls in the air were loaded with spin. They were as treacherous as women. Another observer reported that Fields "always talked to his 'properties.' He would reprimand a particular ball which had not come to his hand accurately, whip his battered silk hat for not staying on his head ... mutter weird and unintelligible expletives to his cigar when it missed his mouth."

From 1898 onward, Fields was in touring variety. For a time, his wife Hattie was a partner in his act. But the birth of their son Claude, and Fields's distaste for being known by just one woman, soon left her at home. He toured America and Britain, Australia and South Africa; he did a royal command performance for King George V; and by 1915 (when he commanded $400 a week) he was taken on by the Ziegfeld Follies. He actually made a couple of one-reel comedies in the same year, but at that time — it was Chaplin's beginning, too — Fields didn't catch on.

Yet by the mid-1920s he was back in movies, often doing his variety routines, but in Sally of the Sawdust doing his best to be patient through D.W. Griffith's passion for the actress Carol Dempster. There were several other silent films for Paramount, some of them now lost. When he did The Old Army Game, which co-starred Louise Brooks, she was quietly amazed at the amount of liquor that he consumed during the work. But the remarkable thing about Fields was how far this famous physical comedian waited on the coming of sound. Beyond that, the marvel of his rare identity was that his own fallibility at juggling ("Am I drunk? Or is the world giddy?") flowered with sound and the chance of placing him in some deplorable but infinite domestic situation. All of a sudden, a clown became a tragedian, or a philosopher.

Like so many movie comedians, Fields became the instrument of studios, in his case Paramount and Universal. He was famously difficult to work with, but in part that was because he had a secure but unshareable idea of how he should work. He never directed himself, and he was generally inclined to ignore those appointed fellows. Yet he was frequently his own writer, working under those melodious pseudonyms that Fields admirers still use in masquerades: Charles Bogle, Mahatma Kane Jeeves (this in The Bank Dick in 1940, suggesting that he knew Orson Welles well enough to justify Welles's longing to direct Fields as Mr. Pickwick), and Otis Criblecoblis.

The work was tough. Fields was on the radio a great deal. (He once asked Charlie McCarthy, a ventriloquist's doll, whether Charlie or the banister got the most splinters when the doll slid down.) He also made a number of short films as well as the features — versions of his classic physical routines. The most famous of his jobs was the chance to replace an unbearably insecure Charles Laughton in David O. Selznick's production of David Copperfield in 1934, directed by George Cukor. Though he tried to insinuate a backstory in which Micawber had been a juggler, Fields was so good in the role that it leaves many of us begging for more. Could he have disciplined himself for more Dickens? He had grown up in love with the English author, and he was born only ten years after Dickens's death. And could he have played other "straight" roles? As it was, in the shift from vaudeville to movies, Fields always recognized the need to go beyond routine and into situation.

So many comics, especially those raised in variety or comedy clubs, have great difficulty adjusting to the feature form. They are protected by routines and one-liners. They are lost without a live audience. Yet the charm of Fields is the ease with which he slipped into rural settings and domestic doldrums, to men trapped in backwater and depression. It is not exactly that he acted — he was always patently Fields; but he found a movie character that begged for story development.

And whereas many comedians date badly — the jokes go stale, the act seems frantically imprisoned in period (this is as true of Chaplin as it is of Groucho Marx or Jerry Lewis) — Fields still seems modern. His rhythms are so unexpected. You can feel other players in the scenes waiting to be guided by him — though Mae West in the disappointing My Little Chickadee knows that she can only survive by stepping on his lines. Still, in one scene, as Curtis reports, Fields reduced the crew to hysterics when, piled up with bags, cases, and boxes to carry for her, he still offered her his arm. (Her response was to stick a flower in his mouth!) At his best, Fields could be improvising everything. His pictures are hokey, yes, but their emotional realism is sometimes quite shocking as a result of his daring timing. You sometimes wonder whether he isn't about to walk off and leave the whole damn situation to us.

The sadness was palpable, and the drinking was chronic. On The Big Broadcast of 1938, where he and the director Mitchell Leisen fought so much that Leisen had a heart attack, Fields announced that he would retire to his dressing room to work on his lines and came back two hours later soused. In most of his best movies, in fact, he looks much older than his real age, and his nose seems to be spreading across his glum, pulpy face. When he died, on Christmas Day in 1947, he was sixty-seven, but he could have passed for eighty. Death came from cirrhosis of the liver. Near the end, while he was in the hospital, a secretary was smuggling in a case of gin a week.

Fields and Hattie had never been divorced. She turned Catholic; he turned to a series of girlies, but without much affection or excitement. There was an affair with Bessie Poole, and she had a son who used the name Fields. But the wives that Bill Fields needed were those fusspots, scolds, and harpies from his best films, such as Alison Skipworth, Kathleen Howard, and Cora Witherspoon. But then, in a strange scenario, he and Hattie were reunited.

When Fields died, he was worth about $700,000, but Hattie moved in to contest the will. The grisly process took over a year, and it cries out for a movie treatment in which the helpless ghost of Fields himself is in the room, talking to himself, but able to do nothing to stop or to alleviate the pious vultures picking over his bones. By now, the play is one that Strindberg did not quite have the stomach to write. One poignant sub-motif would be Fields's longing to keep a $5,000 legacy for Mabel Clapsaddle, a bank clerk whose name had captivated him.

Once upon a time, the pantheon of screen comics was taken for granted, but I wonder now how many college kids would recognize Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, or Buster Keaton. Being black-and-white today is not even charming, and being silent is unthinkable. I'm not even sure that the Marx Brothers are going to "last." So much of their inane material now seems put there to torture the Groucho who needed more. And yet it is my impression that Fields is doing quite well as a survivor. In my video store there are plenty of Fields titles available. He has been on a stamp. There was a wretched movie biopic (with Rod Steiger), long forgotten. The wisdom now is that Fields cannot be imitated, that the ineffability came from utter strangeness.

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. As Louise Brooks saw it, though both a drinker and a celebrated drunk, Fields hated bars and parties. Human groups dismayed him. Solitude was his domain. He is that rare comic who responds well to being watched alone. Just don't give him too much time if you hope to take your president and your other leaders seriously.

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