Stars of Vaudeville #111: W.C. Fields
Even if he had never made a film, W.C. Fields would have been one of the most important men in show business history. He was a man of several careers: tramp juggler in vaudeville, a star in Broadway revues, a popular radio guest, and star of two separate film careers, both silent and talkie. He spent the last 50 years of his life in show business and almost all of them as a star. For the first twenty or so of those years he was best known as a juggler, and one of the best in the business.
He was born William Claude Dukenfeld, in the Germantown section of Philadelphia in 1880. His father, an English immigrant, had a produce market, and it is said that young Claude got his start juggling his father’s wares. He became stagestruck in his early teens, periodically running away from home to stay with relatives or in a clubhouse he kept with his borderline criminal friends. Despite his seemingly undisciplined life, he made a careful study of all the jugglers who came to town, in particular Cinqevalli and the Byrne Brothers. He practiced for hours daily, enduring physical pain, boredom and frustration in order to become pre-eminent at his skill. He first juggled balls, hats, sticks and the like but early on he demonstrated his originality by devising his renowned “cigar box trick”. He worked humor into the act as soon as he could, as when he juggled five items then contrived to lose one, just catching it as it started to fly away, as though it were all an accident.
His early gigs were in burlesque, circus, dime museums, amusement parks—the lower order of variety venues. A story, possibly apocryphal has his first performance at a church social, where the Philadelphia puritans refused to let him juggle his cigar boxes on account of their sinful nature. Young Fields responded by stealing all of their umbrellas after the show.
Fields became a “Tramp Juggler” at some risk. Many such characters already existed, such as Nat Willis, The “Happy Tramp” and tramp juggler James Harrigan. His make-up was grotesque and clownish in the early years. By 1898 he was billed as W.C. Fields. In that year he married Hattie Hughes, a chorus girl who became his stage assistant. In 1899 he made his debut at Miner’s Bowery Theatre. He then embarked on a tour with Irwin’s Burlesquers. At this stage he was already getting great reviews. He had tons of amazing patter from the first, delivered in a voice not unlike the one we know from films and radio. He not only a really good juggler but really funny, and this helped put him over with audiences and with bookers.
He was spotted in 1900 by a William Morris agent in St. Louis and thence booked for the Orpheum and Keith circuits. From 1900-14, he crisscrossed the globe many times, performing not only in Europe but also in such far flung place as Australia and South Africa (which is where he first met Will Rogers). In these years, he literally played before the Crowned Heads of Europe, further adding to the Fields mystique. During the years of the world tour he became a dumb act, to avoid the difficulties of the language barrier. While a non-verbal Fields may seem difficult to imagine, one must keep in mind what an adept physical comedian he was. He was a first rate pantomimist, and that skilled was honed during these years.
These long years of travel were very lonely. He’d separated from Hattie almost immediately after their marriage; she remained in New York to raise their son Claude. Fields’ constant companions during these were Dickens, Twain and Shakespeare – he carried them around in a steamer trunk packed full to groaning with books. Fields was an autodidact. Though he’d hated school, he loved to read. He taught himself to speak by reading these and other classic authors, and you can hear echoes of their voices in nearly everything he said. This love affair with these writers gave Fields his distinctive edge, it made him a sort of living bridge to the 19th century sensibility.
In 1903, he introduced his famous trick pool table, which featured a mechanism that pulled all fifteen balls into pockets at the same time. In 1905, Fields got his first speaking role in the McIntyre and Heath vehicle The Ham Tree on Broadway. The role was tailored for his already well-known personality and allowed him to perform many of his routines.
In 1915, he joined the Ziegfeld Follies where he worked straight through 1921. He performed in numerous other revues and book shows through 1930. Here he did many of the sketches that he later plundered for his talkies, such as The Barber Shop, The Dentist, The Pharmacist, The Fatal Glass of Beer and The Golf Specialist. In the Follies he became good friends with Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor and Fanny Bryce, often taking them for picnics and cross country drives in his convertible, which he drove at top speed and three sheets to the wind.
His film career had several phases which came in nice discreet bundles. First he did two silent films in the mid-teens that went nowhere. One of them, Pool Sharks (1915), survives, and Fields acquits himself admirably in it. After an eight year hiatus he returned to do numerous silent features in the years 1924-28. These films did respectably well but were not blockbusters. A notable project during this time was D.W. Griffith’s 1925 adaptation of Fields Broadway hit Poppy, renamed Sally of the Sawdust. It is the archetypical Fields’ yarn: he plays a much-put-upon circus owner, who is the guardian of a young girl. The girl is in love with a rich young man, whose folks think she is not good enough for it by virtue of her being show folk. Underneath his venal exterior, Fields reveals a few sterling qualities at bottom, and so manages to effect a happy ending by the last reel. His first talkies, were the aforementioned adaptations of Ziegfeld sketches which he did for Mack Sennett in the early thirties. There are a half dozen of these exquisite, nearly perfect set pieces – and far too few of them, at that. IT is in the talkies that we truly get the full Fields effect. Not only the shiney red face, steely blue eyes, bulbous nose and crooked little mouth, but the raspy voice, alternately shouting or muttering almost indecipherable asides in his distinctive lingo, “Godfrey Daniels” is the way he said “God damn it” in those censorious day. But Fields could leave no phrase alone. “I hit him on the head”, became “I smote him on the sconce” before Fields was done with it. He populated his scripts (and his film credits) with likewise Dickensian character names: Otis Cribblecobblis, Mahatama Kane Jeeves, and Egbert Souse. In some films, such as You’re Telling Me and It’s a Gift he portrays a much put-upon family man in a recognizable human situation. Others, like International House and Million Dollar Legs give full vent to total surrealism. It is interesting (and tantalizing) to know that Fields was under consideration for the role of the Wizard in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz.
Ironically, the films Fields is best known for today were total disasters in his time. These are his last four starring vehicles, all produced by Universal: Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, The Bank Dick and My Little Chickadee. Released in the era of Abbot and Costello and Bob Hope, these films were considered passe and even incomprehensible in their day. Today they are considered classics of screen comedy and in fact are the last true examples of vaudeville comedy style to come out of Hollywood
His last years were plagued by health problems caused by his superhuman consumption of alcohol. He managed to turn in what are essentially vaudeville turns in 4 revue films released 1942-45. These last years also featured his famous verbal duels with Charlie McCarthy on radio. Fields died on Christmas Fay, 1946 with either a wink or curse for those assembled, depending on whose account you believe.
To learn about the roots of variety entertainment, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.