Though he’s rarely icon-ized this way (he’s usually shown with a top hat or boater and with the bulbous nose of his later years), this photo depicts what W.C. Fields looked like in most of his films: a dad — middle-aged and middle-class, just looking for a little peace and quiet in a world that won’t leave him alone.
This post came about as a result of trying to work out the question of why Fields’ popularity has fallen off in recent decades relative to other classic comedians with whom he had held his own as recently as the 1970s. I can only speak to this anecdotally, but it seems to me that he has. When I talk about classic comedians with people who aren’t specialists, they’ll often become very enthusiastic when I mention other comedians of his generation. They may even know some of their films. With Fields it is much less often the case nowadays. And their level of awareness seems limited to: a) anecdotes or quotes associated with him in real life (as opposed to his films), and just as often as not, apocryphal ones; and b) a gross reduction of this accomplished, significant and complex artist to a short list of attributes limited to alcoholism and dislike for children. So he’s less popular, less well known, and misunderstood. So it got me thinking — what happened? What’s the difference here?
And one possible answer I came up with is that possibly some other comedians of his generation have lasted longer and better because they often come with a single big symbolic idea, one that’s more readily apparent and digestible to the (mostly liberal) chattering classes. With Chaplin it’s socialism or simple sympathy for the underdog. With Laurel and Hardy it’s the eternal dynamics of friendship. With Mae West it’s about sex and feminism and she’s also a gay icon. With the Marx Brothers it’s anarchy, and ethnic identity — they’re heroes to every Jewish comedian you’ve ever met.
But what is Fields’ big idea? You might be tempted to say, as you might say with so many lesser mortals, that “he’s just a funny comedian”. For shame for your laziness! There actually is a big philosophical principle around which Fields’s art can be interpreted and organized, one that might not be readily apparent to those who don’t recognize it as a positive virtue. But it is one.
The idea is freedom. Sometimes (in the domestic comedies) he is deprived of it, to his misery. In some of the other films (where he portrays an itinerant showman) he exercises and enjoys his freedom to a downright criminal extent.
As we have intimated, the most obvious manifestation of this is his character’s vices: smoking, drinking, gambling, socializing with the boys, laziness. To a certain extent, political correctness has made this element of his films less popular. But it has also remained influential: Cheech and Chong, Animal House, Absolutely Fabulous, The Big Lewbowski, Amy Schumer and Broad City all owe him a debt. A subculture continues to love this, but the overarching tone of our society for some time has remained disproving. “Isn’t it sad?” people cluck. I mention this element first because it is the best known aspect of Fields’ comedy. It is the best loved (and, nowadays also the most dismissed and disparaged) but it is also the most superficial. But obviously Fields’ philosophy here is laissez-faire: what I do is none of your goddamned business.
Another, more positive expression of Fields’ independent-mindedness is this: his character is usually entrepreneurial. He rarely works for anyone else. Off the top of my head, Man on the Flying Trapeze is the only film I can think of where he has to kowtow to an employer. Usually his character prefers to be his own boss. Sometimes he is a small businessman (shopkeeper, dentist, pharmacist, barber) as in his shorts of the early 30s. Sometimes he is an inventor (as in So’s Your Old Man or You’re Telling Me) or a con man (My Little Chickadee) or a showman (as in Poppy or You Can’t Cheat and Honest Man).
Incidentally, the real Fields was an autodidact and a self made man. He not only taught himself to juggle and to act, but he taught himself in general, one of the benefits of living in a free society with free access to knowledge. His famous vocabulary was self acquired and self cultivated. The ultimate flowering of this tendency on his part was his mastery of the part of Micawber in David Copperfield. But he invested all of his roles with some degree of this unique quirk: a grocer’s son who speaks like a professor. It is the hallmark of the upwardly mobile.
In real life, Fields was a Republican , a Harding/ Coolidge/ Hoover man, and not a fan of the New Deal. Most of his films are set in small towns or suburbs rather than the city or country per se. His values are those of a tolerant burgher. You can say he is not “progressive”. But neither is what you would describe as socially conservative. He detests meddlesome, moralizing prudes who try to tell other people what to do. There would be no place for a man like that in the modern Republican party.
Is he a misogynist? His character is frequently under the thumb of a strong woman. He is tyrannized by her. What is that about? After all, in real life it is so often the other way around. But in some cases (Laurel and Hardy are also examples) comedians make it about a strong woman and a erring man. Usually she is unsympathetic because she is trying to reform his personal habits. And let’s face it, that IS intolerable! (There is some significant political symbolism here; Temperance was largely driven by women).
This strain in his body of work would be unbearable if the battle ax wives were his only portraits of women. But in almost every case , the wife is balanced out with a highly sympathetic daughter character who admires and understands him. She is perhaps not a fan of his habits but is more concerned (out of love) than intolerant. Almost every one of his movies has scenes of father/ daughter bonding of this type. One wonders: what his attitude would be if she dared to emulate him? She’s always an angel. Would he still love her if she were like him? I think he’d be pissed and disapproving. But he’s the hero of his films, and they are comedies. They are constructed so that all characters are defined in relation to him. Do they make his life hard? Then they’re a problem. Do they make his life easy? Then they’re a joy. And, yeah, that’s selfish — but not in violation of my Big Idea. But undeniably a harder sell. And ultimately it just may be the inadvertent answer to my question.