W.C. Fields from the Ziegfeld Follies and Broadway Stage to the Screen: Becoming a Character Comedian
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On stage, Vaudeville: Fields started as a juggler in vaudeville, appearing in the makeup of a genteel "tramp" with a scruffy beard and shabby tuxedo. He juggled cigar boxes, hats, and a variety of other objects in what appears to have been a unique and fresh act, parts of which are reproduced in some of his films. Fields confined his act to pantomime so that he could play international theaters.
Fields toured several continents and became a world-class juggler and an international star. He worked bits of juggling into many of his films.
A good portion of his act is contained in The Old Fashioned Way. Broadway: Back in America, Fields found that he could get more laughs by adding dialogue to his routines. His trademark mumbling patter and sarcastic asides were developed during this time. There he delighted audiences with a wild pool skit, complete with bizarrely shaped cues and a custom-built table used for a number of hilarious gags and surprising trick shots.
His pool game is also reproduced, at least in part, in some of his films, notably in Six of a Kind He starred in multiple editions of the Follies and in the Broadway musical comedy Poppy, where he perfected his persona as a colorful small-time confidence man. Films, Silent era: Fields starred in a couple of short comedies, filmed in New York in His stage commitments prevented him from doing more movie work until He reprised his Poppy role in a silent-film adaptation, retitled Sally of the Sawdust and directed by D.
Pabst's Pandora's Box in Germany.
The film included a silent version of the porch sequence which would one day be expanded in the sound film It's a Gift Fields wore a scruffy-looking, clip-on mustache in virtually all of his silent films, discarding it only after his first sound feature film, Her Majesty Love, his only Warner Brothers production. At Paramount: Fields made four short subjects for comedy pioneer Mack Sennett in and , distributed through Paramount Pictures. During this period, Paramount began featuring Fields in full-length comedies, and by he was a major movie star.
It was for one of the films of this period International House that outtakes of one scene Fields, and two other actors allegedly recorded the only moving image record of the Long Beach earthquake. This footage was later revealed to have been faked as a publicity stunt for the movie. He often contributed to the scripts of his films, under unusual pseudonyms such as the seemingly prosaic "Charles Bogle", which appeared on most of his films in the s; "Otis Criblecoblis", which contains an embedded homophone for "scribble"; and "Mahatma Kane Jeeves", a play on mahatma and on a phrase an aristocrat might use when about to leave the house: "My hat, my cane, Jeeves".
Stinnett: W.C. Fields among the 'lovable lushes' of yesteryear
In features such as It's a Gift and Man on the Flying Trapeze, he is reported to have written or improvised more or less all of his own dialogue and material, leaving story structure to other writers. In his films, he often played hustlers such as carnival barkers and card sharps, spinning yarns and distracting his marks. He had an affection for unlikely names and many of his characters bore them. Some examples are: "Larson E. His classic It's a Gift included his stage sketch of trying to escape his nagging family by sleeping on the back porch, and being bedeviled by noisy neighbors and traveling salesmen.
That film, along with films such as You're Telling Me! Although lacking formal education, he was well read and a lifelong admirer of author Charles Dickens, whose characters' unusual names inspired Fields to do likewise for his various characters. He achieved one of his career ambitions by playing the character Mr.
In , Fields re-created his signature stage role in Poppy for Paramount Pictures. Supporting players: Fields had a small cadre of supporting players that he employed in several films: Kathleen Howard, as a nagging wife or antagonist. Pinkerton Snoopington in The Bank Dick. Fields by William K. I thought I'd lost it! He was determined to make a movie his way, with his own script and staging and his own choice of supporting players. Universal finally gave him the chance, and the resulting film, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, is a masterpiece of absurd humor in which Fields appeared as himself, "The Great Man".
Universal's singing star Gloria Jean played opposite Fields, and his old cronies Leon Errol and Franklin Pangborn served as his comic foils. But the film Fields delivered was so surreal Universal recut and reshot parts of it and then quietly released both the film and Fields. Sucker turned out to be his last starring film. By then he was much heavier and less mobile than he had been at the peak of his film career during , when he was reasonably fit and trim.
Fields completed a scene for the 20th Century Fox film Tales of Manhattan, in which he played an eccentric professor hired by Margaret Dumont to give a temperance lecture to a gathering of high society swells. This scene was cut from the film before release, supposedly due to running time. It was discovered in the vaults at Fox in the mid s and was included in the video and DVD releases of the movie. On radio, While Fields was inactive in films due to extended illness, he recorded a short speech for a radio broadcast.
His familiar, snide drawl registered so well with listeners that he quickly became a popular guest on network radio shows. Fields would twit Charlie about his being made of wood: Fields: "Tell me, Charles, is it true your father was a gate-leg table? Fields, that when you stood on the corner of Hollywood and Vine, 43 cars waited for your nose to change to green?
I can remember when, with my own little unsteady legs, I toddled from room to room.
FIELDS, W. C.
Final years, Fields occasionally entertained guests at his home. DeMille called on Fields one afternoon, which became a nightmare when the Quinns' two-year-old son, Christopher, drowned in Fields's lily pond. Fields was hit hard by this incident, and brooded about it for months.
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Generally, Fields fraternized with other actors, directors, and writers who shared his fondness for good company and good liquor. In the Biography TV show, his co-star Gloria Jean described how she would visit his house from time to time, and they would talk. Gloria Jean found Fields to be kind and gentle in real life, and believed that Fields yearned for the kind of family he lacked when he was a child.
The show also reported that Fields eventually reconciled with his long estranged wife and son, and enjoyed playing with his grandchildren. With a presidential election looming in , Fields toyed with the idea of lampooning political campaign speeches. He wrote to vice-presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace, intending to glean comedy material from Wallace's speeches, but when Wallace responded with a warm, personal fan letter to Fields, the comedian decided against skewering Wallace. Instead, Fields wrote a book entitled Fields for President, humorous essays in the form of a campaign speech.
Dodd, Mead and Company published it in but declined to reprint it at the time. It did not sell well, mostly because people were confused as to whether it was meant to be taken seriously. Dodd, Mead and Company reprinted it in when Fields was seen as an anti-establishment figure. The edition includes illustrations by Otto Soglow; the reprint is illustrated with photographs of Fields.
Fields's film career slowed down considerably in the s. His illnesses confined him to brief guest-star appearances in other people's films. An extended sequence in 20th Century Fox's Tales of Manhattan was cut from the original release of the film; it was later reinstated for some home video releases. He performed his famous billiard-table routine one more time on camera, for Follow the Boys, an all-star entertainment revue for the Armed Forces. His last film, the musical revue Sensations of , was released in late He also guested occasionally on radio as late as , often with Edgar Bergen, and just before his death that same year he recorded a spoken-word album, delivering his comic "Temperance Lecture" and "The Day I Drank A Glass Of Water" at Les Paul's studio, in which Paul had just installed his new multi-track recorder.
Fields's vision had deteriorated so much that he read his lines from large-print cue cards. It was W. Fields's last performance. Fields spent his last weeks in a hospital, where a friend stopped by for a visit and caught Fields reading the Bible. When asked why, Fields replied, "I'm checking for loopholes. As documented in W. Fields and Me the memoir of Carlotta Monti, published in , the book was made into a film of the same name starring Rod Steiger , he died at Las Encinas Sanatorium, Pasadena, California, a bungalow-type sanitarium where, as he lay in bed dying, his longtime and final love, Carlotta Monti, went outside and turned the hose onto the roof, so as to allow Fields to hear for one last time his favorite sound--the sound of falling rain.
According to the documentary W. Fields Straight Up, his death occurred in this way: he winked and smiled at a nurse, put a finger to his lips, and died. Fields was 66, and had been a patient for 22 months. His funeral took place on January 2, , in Glendale, CA. There have been stories that he wanted his grave marker to read either "On the whole, I would rather be in Philadelphia", his home town, or "All in all, I would rather be in Philadelphia", both of which are similar to a line he used in My Little Chickadee: "I'd like to see Paris before I die Philadelphia would do!
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Given his fondness for words, maybe he just liked the sound of his own home town's name. This rumor has also morphed into "I would rather be here than in Philadelphia". The anecdote that Fields often remarked, "Philadelphia, wonderful town, spent a week there one night" is unsubstantiated. It is also said that Fields wanted "I'd rather be in Philadelphia" on his gravestone because of the old vaudeville joke among comedians, "I would rather be dead than play Philadelphia".
Whatever his actual wishes might have been, the interment marker for his ashes merely bears his stage name and the years of his birth and his death. Viking Press, Unrealized film projects, W. Fields was the original choice for the title role in the version of The Wizard of Oz.
One rumor was that he believed the role was too small. However, his agent asserted that Fields rejected the role because he wanted to devote his time to writing You Can't Cheat an Honest Man. Fields also figured in an Orson Welles project. Welles's bosses at RKO Radio Pictures, after losing money on Citizen Kane, urged Welles to choose as his next film a subject with more commercial appeal. The project was permanently shelved, and Welles went on to adapt The Magnificent Ambersons.
Fields is one of only six "genuine comic geniuses" he recognized as such in movie history, along with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Groucho and Harpo Marx, and Peter Sellers. Fields commemorative stamp was issued by the United States Postal Service on the occasion of the comedian's th birthday in January Caricatures and imitations: Fields, with his bulbous red nose partly as a result of rosacea, although his parents also had bulbous noses , rotund body and nasal, braying voice, has been imitated for decades in a wide variety of media.
Pettifogger", an obvious parody of Fields, named in allusion to Fields's character Larson E. It featured a W. Fields-like carpetbagging con artist and snake oil salesman named J. Mortimer Gusto, a. According to Saunders, Fields was flattered.