W.C. Fields

W.C. Fields

by James Curtis

A supreme artist, WC Fields (1879-1946) ran away from home, age 11, became a world famous juggler, a star of the Ziegfeld Follies and then moved to Hollywood, nursing, he once said, two martinis every morning before breakfast. This is the latest biography of William Claude Dukinfield who can be seen in The Bank Dick and My Little Chickadee.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Biography
  • Rating: 4.28
  • Pages: 624
  • Publish Date: March 4th 2003 by Knopf
  • Isbn10: 0375402179
  • Isbn13: 9780375402173

Read the Book "W.C. Fields" Online

W.C. Fields is the worst though: it's still impossible to explain what made him such a bizarre genius, and the facts of his life have become so frosted over by mythology (much of it his own invention of course), I can't begin to imagine what sorts of Augean stables Curtis had to hose before he could get a glimpse of the coprolites and wall carvings that built this masterful bio. Curtis lays out some well-documented facts of his early life -- young Bill an angry, nondescript boy tussling with dad, then living in a ditch. And Curtis gives us some great backstory -- from Fields's war on swans at his own home, to gossip about kicking his beloved Carlotta, to suing his own physician for celebrity gouging. Why ladies and gentlemen, it is Purple Bark Sarsparilla, the greatest discovery in the scientific world of medicine since Hippocrates discovered the onion!

But the image that haunted me from James Curtis' new biography is captioned ''Whitey Dukenfield, circa 1892'' -- a narrow-shouldered tough with an askew necktie; he has a pale face, pale hair and pale eyes that look out warily above a dare-all mouth and jaw. We look to it for clues about how the famous emerged from the obscure, or in this case how a street urchin christened William Claude Dukenfield turned into W.C. Fields, tender-hearted misanthrope, klutzy con artist, irascible paterfamilias, master of the muttered aside and the polysyllabic quip -- ''everyone's disagreeable uncle,'' as Curtis puts it. Fields was closer to his mother, Kate, from whom he inherited the doughy nose -- in a portrait of the Dukenfield family, circa 1903, Kate eerily looks like the mature W.C. Fields in drag. ''By most accounts, Claude Dukenfield began running away from home at the age of nine,'' Curtis tells us, and ''he never claimed anything more than a spotty grade school eduction.'' But he read books with a passionate hunger -- the eccentric vocabulary of the characters Fields created surely comes out of an autodidact's fascination with words. Fortunately, vaudeville, which as Curtis says ''was born at approximately the same time as W.C. Fields and in approximately the same place,'' offered a career open to talents. (When Claude married, Curtis tells us, Hattie gave the couple twin beds as a wedding present.) Fields later worked this family dynamic into movies like 1935's ''The Man on the Flying Trapeze,'' in which, Curtis points out, ''The prune-faced, disapproving mother-in-law . was clearly patterned after his wife, Hattie,'' and the plump, pampered stepson played by Grady Sutton ''was deliberately named Claude.'' In 1915, Fields left the vaudeville circuit to appear in the Ziegfeld Follies, the most prestigious of all Broadway revues. Carl LaFong.'' Of the movies from Fields' peak years in Hollywood, there are cherishable moments in ''The Man on the Flying Trapeze,'' ''You Can't Cheat an HonestMan'' (1939) and the surreal ''Never Give a Sucker an Even Break'' (1941). Still, Curtis gives us rich, colorful pictures of the places, people and institutions -- lower-class urban family life in the late 19th century, the hustle of vaudeville, the backstage intrigues of Broadway, the endless conflicts of talent and commerce in Hollywood -- that turned Whitey Dukenfield into W.C. Fields.

W.C. Fields was a tragic figure who worked hard for his career, even though the movie studios didn't always cooperate. Like many comedians, it seems, Fields worked through personal issues - drinking among them, yes, but also a loveless marriage, a series of affairs and continuing professional disappointments.

There is nothing about Fields in the movies until page 165.