FILM: WC FIELDS

Born: January 29 1880
Died: December 25 1946

wcfieldsby Peter Tatchell (from LAUGH MAGAZINE #17, 1997)

He was arguably the funniest solo performer the motion picture has ever seen … a legend from his heyday in the 1930s, through the “nostalgia boom” of the 1970s, and right up to the present day. By the time he found lasting fame with the arrival of the talkies, W.C. Fields had created a timeless character of international appeal. He combined the physical artistry of thirty year’s juggling, a language peppered with the flowery rhetoric of Victorian England, and an attitude rife with bluster, humbug and all manner of political incorrectness.

Born William Claude Dukenfield on January 29 1880, he left home in his early teens after a family conflict and for many years struggled in poverty, eking out a living on the fringes of show business. Thus goes the myth which, for the most part, he himself created (though in recent times researchers have come to believe his early years weren’t quite as stark as he made out and many of his alleged hardships were more the creation of his fertile imagination). It’s a fact however that his patience and persistence in teaching himself to juggle led to a vaudeville act which apparently had no equal and resulted in successful engagements across the country (and twice around the world). Attired as a tramp, those early performances contained no dialogue at all, with only the occasional gesture linking his amazing artistry.

By 1915, the great Florenz Ziegfeld signed him for his Follies, and Fields began to talk on stage. That same year he transferred two of his most famous routines to film, with cameras at the Long Island studios capturing his pool table and golfing sketches for the one-reelers Pool Sharks and His Lordship’s Dilemma (the latter now unfortunately lost). It’s a little-known fact that Fields had also taken part in a sequence filmed for one of Ed Wynn’s Ziegfeld Follies skits some months earlier (though it’s unlikely the footage would have survived beyond the show’s run).

W.C. Fields appeared in six editions of the Follies (with such other Broadway luminaries as Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, Fannie Brice and Bert Williams) before switching to George White’s Scandals in 1922. A year later, he was talked into starring in play called Poppy, and in the process created the loveable rogue, Professor Eustace P. McGargle. Finding it difficult to remember lines, he often adlibbed expressions like never give a sucker an even break and it’s the old army game, much to the delight of audience and cast members, who would wonder what he’d say next.

Fields returned to the Ziegfeld Follies midway through the run of the 1924 edition, and stayed on for the following year’s version as well. He also took part in a number of feature-length silent movies throughout the twenties (originally shot at the Astoria studios on Long Island, but later moving out to Hollywood), including an adaptation of Poppy called Sally Of The Sawdust (which was directed by D.W. Griffith). More than half of his Paramount films of the period no longer survive, though their success was greatly hampered by the absence of sound (and in fact several were remade as talkies in the 1930s). As a result, Fields wasn’t too disappointed when Paramount failed to renew his contract in the wake of dwindling box-office returns.

In 1928, Fields signed with another Ziegfeld rival, Earl Carroll, to star in his Vanities, and two years later (after appearing as Captain Andy in a brief out-of-town revival of Show Boat) returned to New York to play the part of an outlandish con-man in a play called Ballyhoo. Though producers may have envisaged the usual book show, Fields saw the venture as a perfect excuse to interpolate a number of popular sketches from his earlier successes, and the finished product evolved into something of a W.C. Fields retrospective. Broadway (like the rest of the country) was in the midst of the Depression and, despite acclaim for his performance, the show had trouble attracting customers. Faced with union problems, the production was forced to close after a brief run, and W.C. Fields made a momentous decision. He now realized his future lay five thousand miles away in Hollywood and turned his back on the live theatre for the rest of his career.

Fields had made his initial foray into the talkies in a two-reel short called The Golf Specialist some months earlier at Long Island, but his first full-length sound film was for Warner Bros on the west coast in 1931. Titled Her Majesty Love, it also starred another Ziegfeld star Marilyn Miller, but was not a success. EventuallyParamount re-signed him, and W.C. Fields stayed with the studio for most of the decade.

After a couple of pictures where he shared top-billing, Fields appeared in a batch of four two-reelers produced by one-time comedy king Mack Sennett (all reworking material he’d originally performed in The Earl Carroll Vanities or Ziegfeld Follies). He also took part in a short with golfing legend Bobby Jones called Hip Action before joining a roster of Paramount names like Stu Erwin, Burns and Allen, Charlie Ruggles and Alison Skipworth in several features.

Gradually, Fields was taking centre stage in films that were becoming classics. 1934 resulted in a series of gems … You’re Telling Me, The Old Fashioned Way (in which he performs one of his remarkable juggling routines) and his masterpiece, It’s A Gift. It had everything … the nagging wife, the unruly children and the legendary Mr. Muckle (the deaf blind man who happens to be a hotel house detective). W.C. Fields had reached the peak of his career.

Paramount agreed to loan him to M.G.M. for their version of the Dickens classic David Copperfield, and Fields assumed the role he’d been born to play … Wilkins Macawber. Then it was back to the home lot for Mississippi(a Show Boat clone, with Bing Crosby), The Man On The Flying Trapeze (with another round of marital misery) and a new version of Poppy.

In the midst of his professional success, Fields was beginning to suffer serious health problems that would plague him for the rest of his life. When he was hospitalised with what was initially announced as pneumonia, industry sources believed his excessive drinking was finally taking its toll, and W.C. was unable to work for a lengthy period.

In January 1937 (from a hospital bed) he broadcast some highly amusing remarks as part of a radio tribute to Paramount chief Adolph Zukor and network executives were quick to note the comedian’s potential for the medium. As a result, four months later he was signed for a regular spot on the airwaves … on a big-budget revival of the Sunday night hit of the early-1930s The Chase and Sanborn Hour. Each week the featured spot of the programme would see Bill Fields trading barbs with host Don Ameche and ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. And sixty years later, recordings of the repartee hold up as one of the few examples of 1930s radio comedy to stand the test of time. Fields stayed with the series for just nineteen episodes before resuming his film work, but later guest-starred with Bergen on a further half-dozen broadcasts until the year of his death. (Happily recordings survive of all these broadcasts, along with – amazingly – a number of rehearsals for the 1937 editions).

Towards the end of 1938, Lucky Strike cigarettes signed him to appear on their weekly Your Hit Parade. The result was a curious mix of a lengthy Fields sketch in amongst the regular vocals (and provided yet another excuse for him to revive material that had already appeared on Broadway and in early 1930s 2-reelers). The venture lasted only four editions, however, before a dispute caused a parting of the ways. Rumour has it the sponsor wasn’t thrilled by Fields reputedly mentioning his son “Chester” (as a veiled reference to one of their competitors in the smoking market).

By the late 1930s, Bill was becoming more irascible in his public and private life, and eventually Paramount decided they didn’t need the aggravation, and terminated his contract. He wasn’t out of the movies for long with (then) small-time studio Universal quickly signing him to write and appear in a series of features.

First in line was a motion picture translation of the Fields vs. McCarthy radio feud called You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man followed by a sparring match with another show business legend, Mae West (who had also been dumped by Paramount) in My Little Chickadee. Both movies were enjoyable romps and paved the way for what many consider to be the quintessential W.C. Fields picture, The Bank Dick. By normal cinema standards the plot was a mess but it gave full rein to the Fields angst and persona, and convinced Universal to allow him even more latitude in Never Give A Sucker An Even Break.

1940 was an election year in the U.S.and W.C. Fields decided to stage a dummy campaign. In his quest to be president, he contributed several articles to This Week magazine and these were the basis for a book called Fields For President.

As the Second World War erupted around the globe, a life of hard drinking was finally catching up with Bill Fields and his health was deteriorating. Unable to continue in starring roles, he appeared in a handful of walk-ons and cameos for several studios before retreating to the occasional radio guesting.

In 1944 the Armed Forces Radio Service enticed him to appear on one of their Mail Call programmes and some months later he performed a specially written monologue about temperance for the Christmas edition of their Command Performance. Fields subsequently made a commercial recording of the piece which appeared as part of a set of 78rpm records two years later.

By 1946 Fields was forced to relocate to a sanatorium to await “the fellow in the bright nightgown”. One visit a drinking buddy noticed him reading a bible and asked his motivation for such an out-of-character pursuit. “I’m looking for loopholes” was the reply. W.C. Fields died on Christmas day.

BROADWAY SHOWS

The Ham Tree (1905)

The Ziegfeld Follies Of 1915

The Ziegfeld Follies Of 1916

The Ziegfeld Follies Of 1917

The Ziegfeld Follies Of 1918

The Ziegfeld Follies Of 1920

The Ziegfeld Follies Of 1921

George White’s Scandals Of 1922

Poppy (1923)

The Ziegfeld Follies Of 1924

The Ziegfeld Follies Of 1925

Earl Carroll’s Vanities Of 1928

Ballyhoo (1930)

FILMS

(* signifies that the film is now believed lost)

Pool Sharks (1915 Gaumont/Mutual 1-reel short)

* His Lordship’s Dilemma (1915 Gaumont/Mutual 1-reel short)

Janice Meredith (1924 M.G.M.)

Sally Of The Sawdust (1925 United Artists)

* That Royle Girl (1925 Paramount)

It’s The Old Army Game (1926 Paramount)

So’s Your Old Man (1926 Paramount)

* The Potters (1927 Paramount)

Running Wild (1927 Paramount)

* Two Flaming Youths (1927 Paramount)

* Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1928 Paramount)

* Fools For Luck (1928 Paramount)

The Golf Specialist (1930 R.K.O. 2-reel short)

Her Majesty Love (1931 Warner Bros.)

Million Dollar Legs (1932 Paramount)

If I Had A Million (1932 Paramount)

The Dentist (1932 Mack Sennett/Paramount 2-reel short)

The Fatal Glass Of Beer (1933 Mack Sennett/Paramount 2-reel short)

The Pharmacist (1933 Mack Sennett/Paramount 2-reel short)

The Barber Shop (1933 Mack Sennett/Paramount 2-reel short)

Hip Action (1933 Warner Bros. 1-reel short)

International House (1933 Paramount)

Tillie And Gus (1933 Paramount)

Alice In Wonderland (1933 Paramount)

Six Of A Kind (1934 Paramount)

You’re Telling Me (1934 Paramount)

The Old Fashioned Way (1934 Paramount)

Mrs. Wiggs Of The Cabbage Patch (1934 Paramount)

It’s A Gift (1934 Paramount)

David Copperfield (1935 M.G.M.)

Mississippi(1935 Paramount)

The Man On The Flying Trapeze (1935 Paramount)

Poppy (1936 Paramount)

The Big Broadcast Of 1938 (1938 Paramount)

You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man (1939 Universal)

My Little Chickadee (1940 Universal)

The Bank Dick (1940 Universal)

Never Give A Sucker An Even Break (1941 Universal)

Tales Of Manhattan (1942 Twentieth Century-Fox)
(Fields segment cut before release, but now out on DVD Hidden Hollywood – volume 2)

Follow The Boys (1944 Universal)

Song Of The Open Road (1944 United Artists)

Sensations (Of 1945) (1944 United Artists)

(Fields also appeared in two Hollywood On Parade shorts in the early 1930s and filmed a U.S.O. wartime short The Laziest Golfer which was apparently never issued)

RADIO

California Melodies
May 30 1933
(no known recordings)

Borden’s 45 Minutes in Hollywood
March 17 1934
(no known recordings)

Adoph Zukor Dinner (NBC)
January 7 1937
Fields was heard (from his hospital bed) on this all-star tribute broadcast
(a recording survives)

The Chase and Sanborn Hour (NBC)
sponsor: Chase and Sanborn coffee
May 9 to September 12 1937 (19 x 60 min editions)
also featuring Don Ameche and Edgar Bergen (with Charlie McCarthy)
May 9*: The Accident
May 16*: Moths and Snakes (with Dorothy Lamour)
May 23*: Down in the Cellar (with Mary Boland)
May 30*: Scurvy Among the Extras (with Josephine Hutchinson)
June 6*: Romeo and Juliet (with Constance Bennett)
June 13*: Building a Better Mousetrap (with Joan Blondell)
June 20*: Father’s Day
June 27*: “Flash” Fields Slanders McCarthy (with Sonja Henie)
July 4* : Return of “Flash” Fields (with ZaSu Pitts)
July 11*: Communing with Nature
July 18*: Del Mar Honorary Steward
July 25*: Return to Del Mar (with Mary Pickford)
August 1: Moose Hunting
August 8*: Nautical but Nice (with Wendy Barrie)
August 15: The new Home in the Hills (with Dorothy Lamour)
August 22*: Holiday in Catalina
August 29: Party for Visiting Relatives
September 5: Life Among the Bolivians
September 12: Back into Pictures (Elephants et al)
Fields later guest-starred on the broadcast of June 5 1938:
Laughs Take A Holiday
(recordings survive of all these broadcasts. In addition, rehearsal recordings, with scriptwriter Dick Mack reading Don Ameche’s lines, also exist for editions marked *)

The Lux Radio Theatre (CBS)
Fields starred in the March 7 1938 adaptation of Poppy (60m)
(a recording survives)

Your Hit Parade (CBS)
sponsor: Lucky Strike cigarettes
October 15 to November 5 1938 (4 x 45min editions)
October 15: Strike Up the Band/Fire in the Home
October 22: Swim To Catalina/Promotions Unlimited
October 29: ?
November 5: The Pharmacist
(recordings survive of the three itemized editions)

Dick Powell’s Tuesday Night Party (CBS)
sponsor: Lifebuoy Soap
Fields guest-starred on the broadcast of March 21 1939 (30m)
features Tales Of Michael Finn
(a recording survives)

Gateway to Hollywood (CBS)
sponsor: Wrigley’s Gum
Fields guest-starred on the broadcast of April 23 1939
(a recording of Fields segments survives)

The Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show (NBC)
sponsor: Chase and Sanborn coffee
* Fields guest-starred on 6 x 30 min broadcasts:
September 21 1941, November 8 1942, September 19 1943, February 20 1944, March 26 1944, March 24 1946
Sep 21 1941: The Skunk Trap
Feb 20 1944: Children
Mar 26 1944: Golf Game
Mar 24 1946: Old Friends and Old Wine/Feathered Friends
(recordings survive of all six broadcasts)

Mail Call (AFRS)
Fields guest-starred on edition #93 of May 24 1944
(a recording survives)

The Frank Sinatra Show (CBS)
Sponsor: Lever Bros.
Fields guest-starred on the broadcast of February 4 1944
(no known recordings)

Command Performance (AFRS)
Fields guest-starred on the Christmas 1944 edition (2hr)
features The Temperance Lecture
(a recording survives)

Request Performance (CBS)
sponsor: Campbell soup
Fields guest-starred on the broadcast of October 28 1945 (30m)
features The Temperance Lecture and The Day I Drank A Glass Of Water
(a recording survives)

DISCOGRAPHY

W.C. Fields’ Famous Lectures
Variety Records 3 x 78rpm V 101 (July 1946)
studio recordings of:
The Day I Drank A Glass Of Water (2 sides)
The Temperance Lecture (4 sides)

W.C. Fields – His Only Recording, Plus 8 Songs By Mae West
Proscenium LP 22
(reissued as W.C. Fields And Mae West … American LP AAT 120)
features the above 78rpm recordings, plus 1950s Mae West vocals

The Temperance Lecture
Jay 10″ LP 2001 (also issued as
Original And Authentic Recordings By The Great W.C. Fields … Blue Thumb LP BTS 3,
The Best Of W.C. Fields … Sutton LP (S)SU 273,
Anyone Who Hates Dogs And Children Can’t Be All Bad (in Britain))
further reissue of the above 78rpm recordings (plus one 1950s Mae West vocal)

W.C. Fields On Radio
Columbia LP CS 9890
features extracts from Chase And Sanborn Hour, Your Hit Parade, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy Show and Command Performance broadcasts:
The Skunk Trap
Children
Old Friends And Old Wine
Feathered Friends
Moths
The Snake Story
The Temperance Lecture (AFRS version)
Promotions Unlimited
The Swim To Catalina Island
The Pharmacist

The Further Adventures Of Larson E. Whipsnade
Columbia LP KC 33240
extracts from Chase And Sanborn Hour, Your Hit Parade, Dick Powell’s Tuesday Night Party and Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy Show broadcasts:
Strike Up The Band
Fire In The Home
Life Among The Bolivians
Tales Of Michael Finn
Romeo And Juliet
Scurvy Among The Extras, Jabberwocky & Etcetera

The Great Radio Feuds
Columbia LP KC 33241
extracts from Chase And Sanborn Hour and Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy Show broadcasts:
Communing With Nature
Father’s Day
The Golf Game
Elephant’s Et Al
Laughs Take A Holiday

The Best Of W.C. Fields
Columbia 2LP CG 34144
a selection from above three LPs (plus one extra track):
The Pharmacist
The Temperance Lecture (AFRS version)
The Snake Story
Promotions Unlimited
Father’s Day
The Golf Game
The Skunk Trap
Tales Of Michael Finn
Strike Up The Band
Fire In The Home
Romeo And Juliet
The Purple Bark Sarsaparilla Pitch*
(* from the You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man soundtrack)

Mae West And W.C. Fields – Side By Side
Harmony LP HS 11405
features five Mae West 1930s vocals plus three W.C. Fields broadcast extracts:
The Temperance Lecture (AFRS version)
Promotions Unlimited
The Pharmacist

The Uncensored W.C. Fields
Murray Hill 3LP boxed set M5467X
The Temperance Lecture (78rpm version)
The Pharmacist
Moths
Ventriloquist Fields Hoodwinks Bartender (from Poppy)
Fields Makes Change At Carnival (from You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man)
Whipsnade – Ping Pong Champ (from You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man)
Bartender Fields Tangles With Lady Patron (from My Little Chickadee)
Fields Visits Ice Cream Parlor (from Never Give A Sucker An Even Break)
The Day I Drank A Glass Of Water (78rpm version)
Fields Fights Indians Single Handed (from Mississippi).
The Swim To Catalina Island
Promotions Unlimited
Fields Threatens Charlie McCarthy (montage)
Feathered Friends
The Skunk Trap
Children
Old Friends And Old Wine
Tales Of Michael Finn.
Biography In Sound radio tribute

W.C. Fields – The Original Voice Tracks From His Greatest Movies
Decca LP DL 79164, M.C.A. LP MCA 2073
a selection of soundtrack excerpts, with linking narration by Gary Owens
The Philosophy Of W.C. Fields
The Sound Of W.C. Fields
The Rascality Of W.C. Fields
The Chicanery Of W.C. Fields
W.C. Fields – The Braggart And Teller Of Tall Tales
The Spirit Of W.C. Fields
W.C. Fields – A Man Against Children, Motherhood, Fatherhood And Brotherhood
W.C. Fields – Creator Of Weird Names

Nostalgia – W.C. Fields
Mark 56 LP 571
features extracts from two Your Hit Parade broadcasts, with narration by W.C. Fields Jr.
The Pharmacist
Promotions Unlimited

Lux Radio Theatre W.C. Fields in Poppy
Mark 56 LP 595,Columbia LP KC 33253

When Radio Was King! – W.C. Fields: His Temperance Lecture
Memorabilia LP MLP 732
The Temperance Lecture (AFRS version)
Promotions Unlimited

The Best Of W.C. Fields
Empala LP EMP 101
Swimming To Catalina
Promotions Unlimited
The Pharmacist
W.C. Fields Famous Snake Story

Tribute To W.C. Fields
Hudson LP HL 2002
The Snake Story
Swimming To Catalina
Africa
The Pharmacist

The Best Of W.C. Fields
Nostalgia Lane LP NLR 1028
The Temperance Lecture
The Day I Drank A Glass Of Water
Selling A Dog (from Poppy)
Bar Scene (from My Little Chickadee)
False Arrest *
The Pharmacist
Tales Of Michael Finn
The Skunk Trap
(* possibly an unsuccessful pilot for a proposed 1930s radio series)

The Magnificent Rogue – The Adventures Of W.C. Fields
Radiola LP MR-1049
Biography In Sound 60-minute radio tribute to Fields (broadcast February 28 1956), narrated by Fred Allen.
The Day I Drank A Glass Of Water (Request Performance version)

Listener’s Choice – The Best Of W.C. Fields
Metacom CD 908
features extracts from broadcasts and film soundtracks:
Romeo And Juliet
Skunk Trap
Scurvy Among The Extras
Bartender Fields And Chicago Molly (from My Little Chickadee)
The Ballad Of Michael Finn
Moth Problems
The Pet Rattlesnake
The Ice Cream Parlor (from Never Give A Sucker An Even Break)
The Talking Seal (aka The Swim To Catalina Island)
The Temperance Speech (AFRS version)
Strike Up The Band
Life Among The Bolivians

 

DVDs

SALLY OF THE SAWDUST

W.C. FIELDS – 6 SHORT FILMS
includes:
Pool Sharks, The Golf Specialist, The Dentist, A Fatal Glass of Beer, The Pharmacist, The Barber Shop 

W.C. FIELDS COLLECTION
Universal 10-disc set (2007)
includes:
My Little Chickadee, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, It’s A Gift, You’re Telling Me, Man on the Flying Trapeze, The Old Fashioned Way, Poppy, You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man, Six of a Kind, The Bank Dick, Follow The Boys, International House, Million Dollar Legs, Mississippi, The Big Broadcast of 1938, Tillie and Gus, If I Had A Million

W.C. FIELDS COMEDY COLLECTION
includes:
It’s a Gift, International House, You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, My Little Chickadee, The Bank Dick

W.C. FIELDS COMEDY COLLECTION – volume 2
includes:
You’re Telling Me, The Old Fashioned Way, The Man on the Flying Trapeze, Poppy, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Fields For President
by W.C. Fields (Dodd, Mead & Co., New York, 1940. reprinted 1971)

W.C. Fields: His Follies And Fortunes
by Robert Lewis Taylor (Doubleday & Co., New York, 1949 and Cassell & Co., London, 1950)

Minutes Of The Last Meeting
by Gene Fowler (Viking Press, New York, 1954)
(* about Fields and his associates)

The Films Of W.C. Fields
by Donald Deschner (Citadel Press, New York, 1966)

The Art Of W.C. Fields
by William K. Everson (Bonanza Books, New York, 1967 and George Allen & Unwin, London, 1968)

W.C. Fields And Me
by Carlotta Monti (Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, 1971 and Michael Joseph Ltd., London, 1974)

W.C. Fields By Himself: His Intended Autobiography
by Ronald J. Fields (Prentice-Hall, New Jersey, 1973)

W.C. Fields
by Nicholas Yanni (Pyramid Books paperback, New York, 1974)

W.C. Fields – A Life On Film
by Ronald J. Fields (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1984)

W.C. Fields – A Bio-Bibliography
by Wes D. Gehring (Greenwood Press, 1984)

W.C. Fields – An Annotated Guide
By David T. Rocks (McFarland, 1993)

Man On The Flying Trapeze
by Simon Louvish (Faber & Faber/Penguin, 1996)

Never Give A Sucker An Even Break – W.C. Fields On Business
by Ronald J. Fields with Shaun Higgins (Prentice Hall, 2000)

W.C. Fields – A Biography
By James Curtis (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2003)

* there have also been numerous books of quotations, scripts and other material relating to Fields’ movies

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