W.C. Fields’ performing career can roughly be broken down into three phases:
- Nearly 20 years as a juggler in vaudeville (circa 1895-1915) with a couple of forays into book shows in burlesque
- 15 years as a Broadway star (1915-1930), with occasional vaudeville dates and silent films
- 15 years as a star of talking pictures (1930-1945), with radio work supplanting live theatre after 1936
The Broadway period laid crucial groundwork for his Hollywood movies. Fields became a prolific and hilarious comedy sketch writer during his stage years. Nearly all of the sketches he wrote and performed in Broadway revues were incorporated into his films.
The Ziegfeld Follies of 1915 was a crucial turning point in Fields’ career; the dream of every vaudevillian. But it was not (as is sometimes claimed) his first structured stage show, or even his first Broadway show.
In the late 1890s (a time when burlesque was very different), as a juggler he’d taken part in the olio of a show called The Monte Carlo Girls, which played Troy, NY and then moved to Miner’s Bowery Theatre. In 1899, he appeared with Murphy and Gibson’s Minstrels in Atlantic City, and Irwin’s Burlesquers in Cincinnati. These shows differed from vaudeville in that they consisted of a single, rehearsed company, who did the same show, in the same order from night to night. Fields was still a semi-mute tramp juggler at this stage.
His Broadway debut came in The Ham Tree (1905), a vehicle for the blackface** minstrel team of McIntyre and Heath. Fields got to speak his first lines in this show, playing a funny detective named Sherlock Baffles, in addition to his juggling specialty. He was well received in the role. After out of town tryouts the show opened at Klaw and Erlanger’s New York Theatre in 1905 and toured through 1907.
In 1914, Fields got a terrific break (briefly) when he was given a slot in the seminal Broadway show Watch Your Step. This was Irving Berlin’s first Broadway show, and was a showcase for the talents of the dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle. The all-star cast also included Frank Tinney, Harry Kelly, Elizabeth Murray, and Charles King. Unfortunately, Fields was fired after a single performance. Not for cause, just for time. This was extremely common in Broadway shows, especially ones with a variety component. When ya run long, ya gotta cut. Still it must have been a major disappointment when this show went on to be a major hit. Fields’ consolation came the following year, when his Broadway career truly began.
Fields first stint in the Follies was more tentative than his participation in subsequent editions. It was essentially an on-the-job audition. Plenty of performers were tried in the Follies and then let go for a wide variety of reasons. But Fields was a hit, and somehow his contributions fit right into Flo Ziegfeld’s revue format. In his inaugural year, Fields was able to do his trick pool table routine he’d been developing in vaudeville for years. But, as he was a newbie, the turn was incorporated into a sketch starring Ed Wynn, a Follies veteran. An occurrence during a performance of this sketch one night became a legendary show biz anecdote. As part of the action, Wynn crept under the pool table and started making faces at the audience. For this crime, one night Fields is reputed to have cracked Wynn over the head with a pool cue and knocked him out cold. Fields proved he was able to hold his own in the 1915 Follies, not only with Wynn, but also the likes of Bert Williams, Leon Errol, Ina Claire, Bernard Granville, Mae Murray, the Oakland Sisters, Olive Thomas, and the dance team of Ann Pennington and George White (the latter of whom would go on to employ Fields in his own revue a few years later). Shorty Blanche was hired to be Fields’ valet this year; in a few years time he would graduate to performing with Fields in the sketches. Last year I attended a wonderful celebration of the centennial of this landmark of the life of W.C. Fields; read all about it here.
Ziegfeld Follies of 1916
Having proven himself in the previous edition, Fields was given much more to do in 1916. He was in many more comedy sketches, and got to demonstrate a versatility that perhaps even his modern fans would not suspect he was capable of. In comedy sketches, he played Hamlet and Teddy Roosevelt, and did a funny routine with Bert Williams and Sam Hardy (who later worked with Fields on his film Man on the Flying Trapeze). He was even in a musical number called “Njinsky” with Fanny Brice and others. In what was to become a Fields staple in revues, he did another sports-related comedy sketch, supplanting the pool routine with one about croquet (in later years he would also do ones on golf, tennis and baseball). Fields’ co-stars in this edition included Ina Claire, Bernard Granville, Marion Davies (with whom he would appear 8 years later in Janice Meredith), Bird Millman, Ann Pennington, and Frances White.
Ziegfeld Follies of 1917
This is fondly remembered as perhaps the best year of the Follies ever, at least for comedy fans. It was the debut year for both Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers, and Fanny Brice, one of the Follies’ earliest stars, returned. Fields became fast friends with all of them. Cantor was the youngest of the bunch; Fields mentored him and roomed with him went the company went on the road. Also in this edition, Fields appeared in two sketches with Walter Catlett, later to become a beloved Hollywood character actor himself: “A Game of Tennis” and “One of the Six Best Cellars”. Also in the show were Bert Williams, the Fairbanks Twins, Carl Hyson, and Lilyan Tashman.
Ziegfeld Follies of 1918
This edition of the Follies is famous for being the one in which Fields introduced his routine “A Game of Golf”, which he later incorporated into so many of his movies (“Stand clear, and keep your eye on the ball!”). This is also the edition during which Fields met chorus girl Bessie Poole, who would become his longtime companion for years. Lillian Lorraine, who’d been an early star of the Follies from 1909 through 1912, returned. Also in the show were Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, Savoy and Brennan, the Fairbanks Twins, Ann Pennington, Joe Frisco, Marilyn Miller, Bee Palmer, Harry Kelly, Martha Mansfield, Billie Ritchie, and, in the chorus, Doris Eaton, later to become famous as the Last Ziegfeld Girl.
Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic (1919)
Fields had planned a foreign tour in 1919 so he didn’t participate in the Follies that year. But then the tour fell through. To full his schedule, he played several of Ziegfeld’s more informal cabaret revues instead. The Midnight Frolic was a sophisticated show staged in the rooftop club atop the New Amsterdam Theatre. In this production, Fields introduced a sketch called “The Family Ford”, about all the tribulations of a family trying to load the car up for an outing. Also in the show were Fanny Brice, Frances White, Ted Lewis, Doris Eaton, Martha Mansfield, Chic Sale, and Savoy and Brennan.
Ziegfeld Nine O’Clock Revue (1920)
This was a supper show, for which Fields revived his golf and croquet sketches. Will Rogers and Savoy and Brennan were in the cast.
Ziegfeld Girls of 1920
In this revue, Fields was joined by Fanny Brice, Lillian Lorraine, the Cameron Sisters, and others.
Ziegfeld Follies of 1920
In this edition, Fields brought “The Family Ford” to the big time. Also in the cast were Fanny Brice. Ray Dooley, Jack Donohue, Bernard Granville, Moran and Mack, Van and Schenck, Charles Winninger and both Doris and Mary Eaton.
Ziegfeld Follies of 1921
Fields introduced his sketch “Off to the Country” here; it was all about a family trying to get onto a subway car while loaded down with fishing poles and other recreational gear. He also appeared in a Camille parody with Fields as John Barrymore, Fanny Brice as Ethel, and Raymond Hitchcock as Lionel. He also played the referee in a spoof of the Dempsey-Carpentier fight with Fanny Brice and Ray Dooley as the boxers. Brice was the undisputed star of this edition — it’s the one in which she sang “My Man” and “Second Hand Rose”. Also in this one:Van and Schenck, and Doris and Mary Eaton
Fields jumped ship and went over to the competition this year. he enjoyed much more creative freedom in George White’s revue, as White was also in the show himself and didn’t supervise the other acts as closely as Ziegfeld had. Fields introduced a baseball routine (it was cut for being a rehash of his tennis routine) a radio sketch, and a sketch mixing his previous automobile and subway routines. Also in the cast: Dolores Costello, Winnie Lightner (and her sister Thea), and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.
This book musical written by Dorothy Donnelly and starring Madge Kennedy as the titular New England heiress, was a pivotal show for Fields. It was with Poppy that he introduced the florid-tongued, top-hatted 19th century mountebank, Eustace McGargle, the lovable snake oil salesman — the character we would see so often in his later movies. Already a star of vaudeville and revues, Poppy now brought Fields to the attention of serious and important critics like Alexander Woollcott, George Jean Nathan and Robert Sherwood. Walter Winchell had a small part in the ensemble!
The Comic Supplement (1925):
This show of sketches by J.P. McEvoy (with additional material by Fields) provided the OTHER piece of the puzzle we would see in Fields’ movies, that of the irascible, hen-pecked domestic dad. It included a drug store sketch that became the movie short The Pharmacist, as well as a sketch called “The Back Porch” that was incorporated into It’s a Gift. Betty Compson was in this show. Ziegfeld produced this legendary show, but he closed it out of town before it reached New York. But the silver lining was:
Ziegfeld Follies of 1925
Fields brought the best of the Comic Supplement material into the ’25 edition of the Follies and became the hit of the show, which needed the comedy material badly. Also in this edition were Louise Brooks, with whom Fields would soon co-star in The Old Army Game. The show also featured Chaz Chase and Vivienne Segal.
Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1928)
When Fields’s second attempt at a silent career went bust he needed stage work. he was not a fan of the Vanities (a cut-rate and more sensational and sexy version of the Follies and Scandals) but he couldn’t turn down the large amount of money he was offered for appearing. The upside was that out of this show came some of his best sketches: “The Stolen Bonds”, which became the basis for the film short The Fatal Glass of Beer, “An Episode at the Dentists” (which became the film short The Dentist) as well as sketches entitled, “My School Days Are Over”, “The Caledonian Express”, “Fido the Beautiful Dog”. The legendary “Canary Trial” emerged from this production, when Fields was called into court to stand trial for a murdered bird, allegedly killed during the Dentist Sketch. He gave the proceedings all the seriousness they deserved. Also in this show were Louise Brooks, Joe Frisco, Ray Dooley, Lillian Roth (soon to be featured in films like The Love Parade, Animal Crackers and Madam Satan) and Barto and Mann.
Show Boat (1930)
Fields had been intended for Cap’n Andy in the original Broadway production of this Edna Ferber classic, but was unavailable. He as able to have his cake and eat it too by later playing the part regionally for a few weeks, at the St. Louis Municipal Opera.
This show, produced by Arthur Hammerstein, has the dubious distinction of being the only Broadway show W.C. Fields was in that tanked. Not because it was bad, but because it hit the boards at the height of the Great Depression. Fields played a promoter by the name of Q.Q. Quale, and got to do some juggling. This show marked the end of Fields’ 30+ stage career. For the next 15 years it would be just film and radio — for which we should be glad, since they allow us who weren’t around at the time of his stage career, to experience him!
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.