This is part of our ongoing series of posts that cover all of W.C. Fields’ films. Fields’ film career was unique in having five discrete, almost completely different sections, each of which could sort of stand on its own as an entirely separate career. (And actually there’s kind of a sixth phase, which I’ll describe below, but I left it out of the title for the sake of alliteration). Here are the phases:
In 1915, Fields made his first two comedy shorts for the American branch of the French film studio Gaumont. This was very early in the age of the industry. Mack Sennett’s Keystone had been founded only two years earlier, and Charlie Chaplin had started out just the year before. Films were considered risky gambles for stage stars. When his initial experiment didn’t set the world on fire, Fields returned to the stage — for nearly another decade.
THE PARAMOUNT SILENTS
In the wake of Fields’ smash 1923 Broadway success Poppy, Paramount gave him a contract to make comedy features. He made ten for the studio through 1928, the most successful of them being an adaptation of Poppy called Sally of the Sawdust, directed by D.W. Griffith. Most of the films of this phase were unsuccessful; for the latter part of the contract he was paired in a comedy team with Chester Conklin. Half of these films are now considered lost.
In the early 1930s. W.C. Fields made five talking comedy shorts for Mack Sennett and other producers. They are all based on revue sketches he had written and performed on Broadway. Some of them went into the public domain decades ago and so they got lots of play on television. These shorts are among the best loved Fields films among classic comedy fans.
PARAMOUNT FEATURES OF THE SOUND ERA
Paramount gave Fields another shot between 1931 and 1938. For years, they only entrusted him with parts in ensembles or as a co-star. It was only with You’re Telling Me in 1934, that they let him carry a picture on his own. It was a success (audiences loved his voice) and he enjoyed an excellent but intensely busy two year period at the studio, writing and starring in some truly enduring classic movies. By the time of the talking screen version of Poppy (1936) Fields was in very bad health and it seemed like the end of his career. He managed to squeak out one more movie for Paramount, The Big Broadcast of 1938, an ensemble picture not unlike the ones he had made during his first three years at the studio. After this they did not renew his contract.
THE UNIVERSAL PERIOD
One of Hollywood’s great comeback stories, possible because Fields’s health improved (he’d cut back on his drinking and convalesced for a while) and because during his downtime, he’d become a popular star on radio. Thus from 1939 through 1941 he made his four Universal classics, probably his best known films today. Unlike so many others, Fields had his most creative period at the end. His last starring feature was the very strange Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.
But wait! There’s more!
WARTIME REVUE FILMS
Fields was an old pro. He had to keep working, he’d been a professional entertainer since he was a teenager. He kept trying to get features made. In the meantime, he took what he could get, and what he could get were guest appearances in four all-star films: Tales of Manhattan (1942), Follow the Boys (1944), Song of the Open Road (1944) and Sensations of 1945 (1944). These turns were not unlike the ones in his early years at Paramount. In the last three he merely played himself. Tales from Manhattan contained his last true screen character. Unfortunately it was cut from the released version of the film, but I’ve seen his scenes and they are wonderful — great enough to be considered canonical. (It co-stars Margaret Dumont!)
Fields died on Christmas Day, 1946. And he was in really bad shape. If he’d lived longer there was little likelihood that he’d have been healthy enough to continue performing. But if he’d lived just a couple of years longer and been in better shape? I fantasize about a next phase, and what he might have done on television.