W.C. Fields: World’s Greatest Juggler and Comedian

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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 burlesquecircus, 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.

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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 was 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 RogersEddie Cantor and Fanny Brice, often taking them for picnics and cross country drives in his convertible, which he drove at top speed and three sheets to the wind. Here are some great home movies of him during his Broadway heyday (1928):

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.

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One of them, Pool Sharks (1915), survives, and Fields acquits himself admirably in it. Here it is!

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.

A classic scene from It’s a Gift:

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 BreakYou 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 Day, 1946 with either a wink or curse for those assembled, depending on whose account you believe. There are nearly 100 posts on W.C. Fields here on Travalanche. To browse through them all click here. 

To learn more about W.C. Fields and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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38 Responses to “W.C. Fields: World’s Greatest Juggler and Comedian”

  1. David Leopold Says:

    Fields also starred in Irving Berlin’s first Broadway musical, Watch Your Step which featured dancers Vernon and Irene Castle and some of the best vaudeville entertainment, with comedian Frank Tinney, Tempest & Sunshine, a dancing sister act, Doyle & Dixon, “the classiest two man hoofing act in show biz.” and Harry Kelly’s dog act. The show had so much talent that after its first Syracuse tryout, producer Charles Dillingham fired Fields, whose bit was the hit of the show, because it slowed the first act (and his top billed stars were unhappy that he stole their limelight).

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    • Upstaged on my own blog.

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      • David Leopold Says:

        Hardly. Just using my limited knowledge to add to your fine biographical sketch here.

        Are you going to do Frank Tinney? He seems like he was fun. The story I remember finding on him was when he played London and he had claimed $700 in burnt cork (for blackface) on his English taxes. When questioned about the high figure, he replied that they were champagne corks of course.

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      • going to do him for sure! I post them on the artists birthdays (unless their birthdays are unknown, in which cases I do them whenever)

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  2. Please visit our Official W.C. Fields Web site http://www.wcfields.com, owned and operated by the W.C. Fields Family. You will see a special tribute in honor of the 130th anniversary of our grandfather’s Birth, January 29, along with rarely seen family photos. Our W.C. Fields Collection, which chronicles the world’s modern entertainment heritage will be coming to the New York Public Library Theatre Collection at Lincoln Center in the Spring/Summer season. Stay tuned to http://www.wcfields.com for the exact dates.

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  3. […] in a stand-up routine. Two quotes give a sense about how this sort of act divided the audience: W.C. Fields famously said “women went into ecstacies over him. Men went into the smoking room”. On the […]

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  4. […] While hanging fire in Hollywood, Silvers performed at private parties and in nightclubs, including that of his old pal Charlie Foy (Silvers had written bits for the Foys years earlier). By working this scene, Silvers managed to become friends with all of the major Hollywood stars before even playing a role in a picture. Finally 20th Century Fox started to cast him in supporting roles. He was with the studio for nine years. (A very interested artifact is the restored version of 1942 film Tales of Manhattan, which has a scene featuring Silvers as a smart young clerk selling a torn old coat to W.C. Fields.) […]

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  5. […] next year, he was joined onstage by another veteran performer: W.C. Fields. Fields would become a staple of the Follies for the next decade or so and it would mark a […]

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  6. […] the appeal of Charlie Chaplin, Weber & Fields, Milton Berle and, well, Zeppo, all in one act. W.C. Fields called them “the one act I could never […]

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  7. […] Keatons’ agent Max Hart (who was also an agent for Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, Bert Wheeler, and Eddie Cantor) booked Buster in The Passing Show of 1917. This was a very good […]

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  8. […] the act at this point and worked as a bit player in films (where he can be seen as the bartender in W.C. Fields’ 1940 The Bank Dick, as well as Olsen and Johnson’s 1941 Hellzapoppin’). To replace Shemp, Moe […]

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  9. […] 1914, he embarked on a tour of Australia. As W.C. Fields had done, he coped with the long months of loneliness by reading every book he could get his hands […]

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  10. […] their own performances. In this way, Durante cultivated the appreciation of such powerful fans as W.C. Fields and Will Rogers, who would come over after the Follies. An atmosphere of joyful chaos reigned, […]

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  11. […] In 1917, he was moved up to the Follies where he got to perform with Bert Williams, Fanny Brice, W.C. Fields and Will Rogers. In these early days, Cantor, in his eagerness to please, overdid everything, […]

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  12. […] the Chase and Sanborne show, which ran for 20 years. Without a doubt their most popular guest was W.C. Fields, who made numerous “appearances” between 1938 and 1944.  The antagonistic relationship between […]

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  13. […] years was Dave Chassen, later to start a famous Hollywood restaurant and to become a key member of W.C. Fields’ inner […]

    Like

  14. […] night. Such pathos was to remain a hallmark of his artistry throughout his career. Inspired by W.C. Fields, he started to juggle at age 6, eventually mastering such feats as chair juggling and balancing a […]

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  15. […] entertainers spent a good deal of their time on boats. Performers like Houdini, Will Rogers and W.C. Fields literally had steamer trunks with customs stamps from the great world capitals plastered on them. […]

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  16. […] edition, there occurred one of the most notorious anecdotes in the annals of show business. While W.C. Fields was doing his famous poolroom routine, he noticed that he was getting laughs in all sorts of places […]

    Like

  17. […] en route to South Africa. While in that country, he happened to meet a traveling vaudevillian named W.C. Fields in (where else) a bar. Shortly thereafter, Rogers finally became a performer for good. He joined […]

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  18. […] but she turned most of them down, saying they didn’t understand her character. She co-starred with W.C. Fields in My Little Chickadee (1940) but he got the better of it (consider the title). Her last film for […]

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  19. […] greatest juggler of his day and an influence on W.C. Fields and many others, Cinquevalli’s real name was the more prosaic Paul Kesner. Born in Lissa Poland […]

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  20. […] Marx Brothers, Jolson, Clark & McCulough, Eddie Cantor, Bill Robinson, Paul Whiteman, Mae West, W.C. Fields, Joe E. Brown, etc etc etc, but the talkies sure did. Suddenly, after 15 years on top, Chaplin was […]

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  21. […] In recent years, the Scottish-Israeli film scholar has penned colorful, interesting books about W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Mae West, Mack Sennett, and Laurel and Hardy. In Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey […]

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  22. […] Branch is this swell exhibition and film screening series The Peregrinations and Pettifoggery of W.C. Fields. NYPL has boatloads of Fields ephemera, playbills, clippings, photos, etc, much of which I waded […]

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  23. […] Palace, a comedy sketch called “Rings on Her Fingers.” In 1933 she topped a bill that included W.C. Fields, Burns and Allen, Rudy Vallee, Baby Rose Marie and a dozen other stars in the Paramount Comedy […]

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  24. […] in the team’s canon to equal the best of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Langdon, the Marx Bros, or Fields as […]

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  25. […] to tap. Rooney Junior was apparently one of vaudeville’s most remarkable dancers. According to W.C. Fields, “If you didn’t hear the taps, you would think he was […]

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  26. […] through the kindness of his old vaudeville colleagues. This account by journalist Will Fowler of W.C. Fields‘ funeral in 1947 is heartbreaking in what it […]

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  27. […] it be known that I braved the 100-degree heat on Saturday to see that exhibition about his life.  W.C. Fields is a subject near and dear to my heart, and one about whom I have some knowledge, so you can […]

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  28. […] for crowd-pleasing, however, as evidenced by two of his early major discoveries: Harry Houdini and W.C. Fields. In 1899, Houdini and his wife Bess were just barely eking out a living in circuses and dime museums […]

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  29. […] change direction at right angles, like a U.F.O.  (This would be an excellent act, by the way.) W.C. Fields once faced a similar conundrum. At the height of his juggling career he introduced an unbelievably […]

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  30. […] concerts”. Others have done him injustice by making him a footnote in the careers of W.C. Fields and John Barrymore, his drinking buddies towards the end of all their lives. He is referred to in […]

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  31. […] A Hollywood career spanned the same period, neatly bookended by It’s the Old Army Game with W.C. Fields and The Heat’s On with Mae West. He passed away in […]

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  32. It is very nice to see Mr. Fields written about, and I appreciate seeing this. You have written a fine article about a great performer.

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  33. Anna Fetzer Says:

    I had actually never seen Pool Sharks before. Thank you so much for sharing.

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  34. I hadn’t seen Pool Sharks either…what fun! I also appreciate learning about the breadth of WC Field’s career, which I wasn’t aware of until recently. Wonderful blog post!

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