Over the past few decades the public has come to have a vague, simplistic and inaccurate image of the formerly-universally-beloved W.C. Fields — an image I call “the bobble-head on the bar” — a red cheeked and red-nosed inebriate leaning on a lamp-post, an American Silenus.
As far as I’m concerned, booze was the least imaginative and most uninteresting part of his act. The Fields I fell in love with is quite different — I think of him as the archetypal vaudevillian, with a steamer trunk crammed full of Dickens and Shakespeare, stickered on the outside with his far-flung ports of call: Berlin, Singapore, Sydney, Johannesburg, San Francisco. And then, in a manner that is one part P.T. Barnum and one part Mark Twain, he exaggerates his adventures, the places he’s been, the people he’s known, the superhuman deeds he has committed. “Why are you called ‘Honest John’?” he is asked…and out comes a long, rambling, impossible story that never actually answers the question. Like Falstaff (to whom critics often compared his character), he is not just a drunkard, but the drunkard as storyteller, a frightened little man who needs the steady diet of Dutch courage to transform himself into a make-believe super hero. He embodies the magic and tradition of American humbug. The irony of course is he spins his yarns off his REAL experiences. In an era when few human beings had traveled more than ten miles from their front door, he had lived a life of adventure, crossed seas and continents many times, had played to crowned heads in world capitals. It provided the raw material, but then he would transform that material into something miraculous, in much the same way as he would hold large numbers of balls, clubs or cigar boxes aloft in his early days as a vaudeville juggler.
But, like Falstaff, he seesaws betwixt bluster and deflation. He boasts of impossible skills and exploits but in every day life his character can scarcely accomplish anything. If not under the thumb of a controlling wife, his character is constantly on the run from creditors, the sheriff, process servers, the landlady. He is a physical coward. His ill-gotten gains are never gotten through the heroic methods of the highwayman, but through sneakery and subterfuge. He is a liar and cheat, not a pirate. He likes pretty women, but only as most men do – furtively, ineffectively, pathetically. He’s not a bold skirt chaser or a Lothario – more a guy who can’t resist a second look out the corner of his eye.
This double nature, this measurable difference between his real and presented self is both a rich mine of humor and a source of layers of complexity. There are always at least two “Fieldses” going on at any one time — again, just like juggling. This is what makes him three dimensional and eternal, and worthy of contemplation, an attribute which can’t be said to adhere to just any comedian.
To learn more about vaudeville, where W.C. Fields got his start, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,