W.C. Fields in Radio
Fields conquered every medium going in his day: vaudeville, burlesque, Broadway, silent films, talkies…but unlike almost every vaudeville comedy star of his day he was late getting around to radio. Whereas friends like Eddie Cantor, and Burns and Allen, got in on the ground floor in the mid-1920s, Fields didn’t make his broadcast debut until 1931, as part of the promotional push for the Broadway show Ballyhoo. He didn’t much like the experience. In 1935 he turned down a major network offer for his own show, fearing that the weekly exposure and smaller salary would diminish his negotiating power in Hollywood, and suggesting (perhaps half jokingly) that he was holding out for television. (He often made comical references to the then-experimental medium of television in his films in the 1930s. Ironically, if he had lived just a couple of years longer, his whimsical notion of being on tv could conceivably have come true. It’s the sort of thing that fans bewail, but really, why? I can live without seeing a snowy kinescope of an ailing, sick elderly W.C. Fields, can’t you?)
It was that very sickness that finally brought him around to radio. In 1936 he fell desperately ill, so ill that he barely made it through filming Poppy and most people thought it would be his last picture. As he recuperated and began to feel a little better, it began to dawn on him that radio would be the perfect medium for his predicament. It was a way of keeping his career going in his weakened condition. It didn’t take much energy to stand there and read your lines from a script. So in 1937 he signed on as a regular on the Chase and Sanbourn Hour — fortuitously at the same time as Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. The two seasoned vaudeville pros Bergen and Fields rapidly developed a chemistry (with Charlie and Fields exchanging insults) that became a hit with audiences. After a few weeks however, Fields walked out in anger in the middle of a program when Bergen wouldn’t stop razzing him about the failure of The Big Broadcast of 1938 and his declining fortunes at Paramount. (While we’ve come to consider the film as a classic because it contains Bob Hope’s first screen appearance and the debut of his theme song “Thanks for the Memories”, in its day it was considered a debacle. It was the last of the Big Broadcast series and W.C. Fields’ last film for Paramount)
But this is W.C. Fields we’re talking about. His career had been “over” many times — he always came back with a vengeance. First he did more radio, including a 1938 version of Poppy for Lux Radio Theatre, and his own show for Lucky Strike, Your Hit Parade (which Fields quit after a few weeks).
Then he kissed and made up with Bergen and co-starring with him in his first film for Universal You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939), which recreated many of their radio routines. This led to several more Universal films. And after his last starring vehicle Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)….he returned to radio. While he made a handful of brief appearances in his remaining years, radio became the primary medium through which Fields reached his audiences, primarily appearing with Bergen and McCarthy on The Chase and Sanbourn Hour and The Charlie McCarthy Show between 1941 and 1946, although he occasionally guested on other shows as well. And we have much to be grateful for, as so many of these programs were preserved, and we get to hear the raspy curmudgeon utter many a quip that never made it to his films.
For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.