Lovable Con Man: W. C. Fields – 100 Years in the Movies

W. C. Fields was an avid supporter of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.   That is until the President stated that no actor should be paid more than $25,000 per picture.  Fields, who was getting $100,000 per picture at that time changed his allegiance immediately.

I love that anecdote recounted by W. C. Fields’ grandsons, Ron and Allen Fields before the screening of Edward F. Cline’s The Bank Dick (1940) at this year’s Turner Classic Movies Film Festival (TCMFF).  I was excited about that screening and it didn’t disappoint.   The Bank Dick is W. C. Fields’ best movie in my opinion and I believe it was Fields’ opinion as well.  A riot from beginning to end The Bank Dick offers the comedian’s special brand of outrageous humor without pause.

1

The inclusion of The Bank Dick and the introduction by the Fields brothers at TCMFF was one of the many events scheduled this year to commemorate the centennial of W. C.’s movie debut.  I encourage you to visit the Official W. C. Fields site for information about upcoming celebratory events throughout the country and tune in to TCM this Friday for a W. C. Fields 4-film mini-marathon co-hosted by Fields’ granddaughter, Dr. Harriet Fields and Ben Mankiewicz.  The evening kicks off with The Bank Dick followed by It’s a Gift (1934), You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939) and David Copperfield (1935).

Illeana Douglas interviewed both Mr. Fields at TCMFF for what turned out to be a candid session before the screening during which many entertaining stories were shared. “Why has the persona of W. C. Fields lasted so long?” – The Fields brothers answered – even the Library of Congress has deemed W. C. an icon of American culture, not just an icon of comedy.  As they explained, W. C. took the world personally and his comedy reflected that.  The comedian/actor never stuck to a script and as a result much of his dialogue reflected the times and his real opinions.  I’ll add that because of his candor, if you will, the respectable world was turned upside down in each of his movies – or at least those I’ve seen.

1
At TCMFF 2015 – Illeana Douglas with Ron and Allen Fields

Like so many other legends of comedy, W. C. Fields’ life was not necessarily a happy one.  From a less than stellar childhood he’d grow to have a less than stellar marriage.  And by all accounts Fields would maintain a steady distrust of people before, after and in-between.  Fields used all of that in his comedy, which was based on one on-screen persona – a hard-drinking, cantankerous louse who hates women, children, animals – you name it.  Only his extraordinary talent and timing could turn such a hateful person into a likeable character.   And likeable he always is.

W. C. insisted on writing his own movies and wrote most of them on backs of envelopes.   Also interesting and commonly known is that Fields made no film that bore his name as writer although he wrote them all.  Mentioned during the TCMFF introduction was the fact that he’d make up names randomly – as in the case of The Bank Dick with screenwriter credits ascribed to “Mahatma Kane Jeeves,” a play on words from stage plays of the era. “My hat, my cane, Jeeves!” And in fact, at the end of The Bank Dick the butler hands him his hat and his cane.  Fields would also use names of people he’d run into along his path in life – like a bootlegger he knew in the Catskills.

W. C. Fields portrayed himself just as he wanted as a performer and constantly pushed the envelope on what was “allowed” by censors.  W. C. felt Hollywood promoted a false morality and he made no effort – or seemingly so – to curb his ideals, which meant anything goes as far as shocking establishment morals or ethics in his movies.  He was an equal opportunity offender and there’s so much wrong with his brand of comedy that I don’t know where to begin.  But man was he ever funny!  Amongst all of the comedians on big and small screens that I love, and there are many, the only one who regularly makes me do a spit-take whenever I watch him is W. C. Fields.  The one scene that comes to mind is from the 1932 Mack Sennett short, The Dentist directed by Leslie Pearce.  Fields goes so far in the scene during which he – as the dentist – is pulling a woman’s tooth where she ends up straddling him that it’s an eye opener even by today’s standards.  He just went for it in his comedy and it’s hard to resist.

1

W. C. Fields whose full name was William Claude Dukenfield gained immense popularity the world over on stage and would be a top radio personality as well.  It was his film career that took time to develop.  He began his show business career as a juggler and by the age of 19 his act was one of the most popular in all Vaudeville.  A silent act at first, Fields began to slowly inject comedy into the routine.  Eventually he’d add side-bar commentaries (or muttering as I call it), the kind that would become part of his legend and probably the reason why his talking pictures were received better than the silents.

May 1900 --- W.C. Fields Juggling Top Hats --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
May 1900 — W.C. Fields Juggling Top Hats — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

W. C. appeared in three 1915 productions the first of which is listed “no title” on the Official W. C. Fields site.  That was followed by Edwin Middleton’s Pool Sharks and William F. Haddock’s His Lordship’s Dilemma the same year.  Those silent films were not well received and as a result Fields didn’t appear in any other movie until 1924.  The productions he appeared in during the 1920s were (obviously) still silent and again didn’t do well.  Luckily W. C.  had the stage to fall back on and his star continued to rise – the world over.

Like most others W. C. Fields was personally affected by the stock market crash in 1929, which also caused theater attendance to fall.  Needing work he moved to Hollywood and toward the movies in or about 1930 despite having little confidence that he’d succeed in the medium given his history.  Mack Sennett with whom Fields would soon work recalled meeting the comedian upon his arrival in Hollywood and how nervous he was about making movies.  As Sennett said Fields’ concern was for naught because “he made seven huge hits and eventually everyone was imitating W. C. Fields.”  Even W. C. Fields.  And the rest is movie history.  Take a look at his complete FILMOGRAPHY and enjoy a gallery of movie posters, still and images from Fields’ career:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

A few weeks ago I was listening to an old-time radio episode of “Biographies in Sound,” an hour-long documentary radio program that was produced and broadcast on NBC in the 1950s.  Each episode of the show featured multiple guests who were peers and/or acquaintances of the week’s featured subject recounting memories and telling anecdotes.  Without knowing it until the episode started it turns out I’d stumbled upon one from 1956 titled “Magnificent Rogue: The Adventures of W. C. Fields.”  Incidentally that was the last radio program Fred Allen ever recorded before his death in March of ’56.  Allen moderated “Biographies in Sound.”

In any case, as you can imagine the stories shared about Fields are all entertaining.  Featured on the program are the likes of Charles Boyer, Errol Flynn, Mack Sennett and Leo McCarey who tells my favorite story.  Since I began with an anecdote I’ll end with one as well.

It turns out Fields had told McCarey a funny line once, “Everything I like in life is either illegal, immoral or fattening.”  Some time later McCarey called Fields to ask him if he could use the line in the movie he was about to direct, Love Affair (1939) with Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer.  Not trusting the one he called a “lovable con man” McCarey wrote up an official agreement for Fields to sign allowing the director the rights to use the line.  The price for the agreement was a case of whiskey.  Anyway, when the movie came out critics called McCarey out for stealing that line from “The New Yorker” writer, Alexander Woollcott.  Incensed McCarey called Fields who didn’t bat an eye when the director reminded him about the deal for a line that wasn’t even his.  Without hesitation Fields replied – “I signed over my rights to the joke, which were nill.  When you get to be my age you’ll be much brighter, I hope.”

The loveable con man!

An added treat – W.C. Fields on the radio…

1

The Chase and Sanborn Hour hosted by Don Ameche.  From May 9, 1937 this episode features guests Ann Harding, Dorothy Lamour, W.C. Fields, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Rodgers and Hart.

1

From September 21, 1941 W. C. Fields with Charlie McCarthy.

Finally a cartoon tribute…

As the true cultural icon that W. C. Fields has been for the better part of the 20th Century forward it’s no surprise his image and distinctive voice have appeared or have been referenced in numerous mediums through the years.  Some of my favorites are classic cartoons.  Here are links to two of them (click on the image to view).

Looney Tunes “Hollywood Capers” (1935)

1

Silly Symphony “Mother Goose Goes to Hollywood” (1938)

2

The end.

To 100 years of laughter – my hat, my cane, Jeeves.

1940: Studio portrait of American actor and comedian W C Fields (1880 - 1946), aka Mahatma Kane Jeeves, aka Otis Criblecoblis, with top hat and cane. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1940: Studio portrait of W C Fields (1880 – 1946), aka Mahatma Kane Jeeves, aka Otis Criblecoblis, with top hat and cane. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

12 thoughts

  1. Fields has always been one of my favorites but I don’t think I’ve watched any of his films since college. Guess it’s time to share him with my wife! Thanks for reminding me how much I loved his humor- and how much I’ve stolen from him.

  2. So much to watch and so little time! I just became the owner of W.C. Fields Volume Two film box set. Looking forward to a day full of humour! Thanks for the write up Aurora.

  3. Marvelous Fields tribute and the perfect way to start the day. I am so looking forward to this evening’s offerings on TCM.

    Occasionally at TIFF they will screen classic films. A few years ago Joe Dante hosted “It’s a Gift” and it remains one of my favourite festival going experiences.

    The late Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters mystery series set in 1940s Hollywood features gold age celebrities as clients for his detective. I adore the Fields character he created for “A Fatal Glass of Beer”. He made me love the guy even more than I do.

  4. Not related to this post, I wanted you to know I’m hosting my first blogathon on Winter Sports in films @http://cinephiliaque.blogspot.ca/2015/09/announcing-winter-sports-blogathon.html
    Join if you feel it! Thank you!

  5. Loved this piece, Aurora, I have been a huge Fields fan since my mom took me to see my first Fields (I’m pretty sure it was Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, which I know is a mess, but I still love it) at a long-since demolished cavernous down-at-the-heels movie palace in Dallas, the Circle Theatre. That moment when Fields, who is sitting having a quiet drink on the open-air observation deck(!) of the plane, knocks his bottle off into the air and after a horrified second, leaps off the plane after it… I will love that forever.

    The Lincoln Center NYPL had a fantastic exhibit on Fields a few years ago, with letters and all sorts of personal stuff. I wish I could see it again.

    Thanks for this, it was a real pleasure to read.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s