I’ve long been interested in bearing down on the process by which W.C. Fields evolved from one of vaudeville’s greatest jugglers into the screen comedian we all love today. It’s a little mysterious, right? I had a general sense that he began to work comedy business into the juggling, then did sketch comedy including several routines that later became incorporated into his films. But what hadn’t dawned on me until I began to parse it out was the extent to which these routines were related to his juggling — in essence they were an outgrowth of the juggling, combining his crazy, whimsical imagination with his almost superhuman physical dexterity. Though the content of Fields’ revue sketches began to diversify as years went on, in nearly every revue that he appeared he had at least one physical routine based around sports or games, and this was the tether back to his juggling career, and the thing for which he was best known prior to his films. In fact, so great was his association with gaming routines that he was sometimes compared to British music hall comedian Harry Tate and even accused of plagiarizing him, much as he (much more obviously) had appropriated aspects of the act of tramp juggler Harrigan during his earlier days. But, in addition to the physical dexterity required for these tricks they also form a theme, a kind of metaphor throughout his work. Almost every one of his movies features one of these old stage routines, or alludes to them.
THE SHELL GAME
The shell game, a.k.a. “the old army game” is of course the traditional street con wherein the perpetrator manipulates three walnut half shells (or cups, or what have you) inviting onlookers to bet on which one is covering a pea he has shown to be under one of them. The game involves sleight of hand, and requires the same kind of dexterity required of a magician or juggler, combined with distracting patter. Fields had reportedly learned the the routine during his Philadelphia days at the knee of a character named Bill Daily, a.k.a “The Professor”, who was also his first manager. Initially the Professor’s confederate, he learned the routine himself and later claimed that if he were stranded in a town between vaudeville gigs, he could make a few bucks on the sidewalk at the shell game: “It’s the old army game! A child can play it! Five’ll getcha ten, ten’ll getcha twenty…” He alludes to the con of course in his film It’s the Old Army Game (1926) and actually demonstrated in all the stage and screen versions of Poppy.
Fields’ pool routine is the mother of all that came afterwards. All his subsequent game-related sketches (leastways the ones employing balls) are variations on this one. Looking to expand beyond the juggling routines he had been doing onstage for about seven years, in 1903 he introduced a stage bit that involved a trick pool table, working every comic variation he could think of into the business, including funny pool cues, sections where he had difficulty threading a normal pool cue through his fingers, juggling style manipulations of balls and cues, and the wow finish, where all the balls went into all the pockets at the same time. The routine was so popular that it provided Fields’ entree to Broadway and films in the same year, 1915, when he was retired to do the bit in the Ziegfeld Follies and in his first comedy short Pool Sharks. Later, he would revive variations of the routine in his movies Fools for Luck (1928, his last silent film), Six of a Kind (1934), and Follow the Boys (1944). Regarded as a holy object, W.C. Fields’ pool table is now on permanent display at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles:
Given the size of a golf course as compared with a pool table, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Field’s golf routine originated onscreen as opposed to onstage. He first included a comical golf game in his second film His Lordship’s Dilemma (1915), not coming up with a stage version until 1918, when he introduced it at the Follies. He revived it the following year in Ziegfeld’s 9 O’Clock Revue, and then brought versions of it to several films: So’s Your Old Man (1926), The Golf Specialist (1930) The Dentist (1932), You’re Telling Me (1934), The Big Broadcast of 1938, and there is a brief office putting bit in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941). By my count, he performs this routine more than any other, and it is hence probably even better known than his pool playing business. In the unlikely event you’ve never seen it, as with the pool routine it involves endless preamble to ever teeing off, with crazy, twisted golf clubs, and an annoying caddy who causes endless interruptions.
After golf and pool, poker is the game he engages in the most onscreen. This clearly has to do with thematic elements associated with his character and the plots that revolve around him, and it is one of the few areas of overlap he has with the Marx Brothers. It is more an outgrowth of his “shell game” persona. Interestingly he does very little with sleight of hand type card tricks, crazy shuffling or card manipulation, although he undoubtedly either had those skills or could easily master them. I’m not sure why, although one plausible reason may be that, as an old vaudevillian, he had a great respect for specialties. Such business was outside his usual wheelhouse and he may have felt uncomfortable either A) dabbling in a skill of which he not an absolute, acknowledged master; and B) stepping on the toes of the magic crowd. But he is often depicted humorously as a cheating poker player (often playing with decks with large numbers of aces). He had worked it into the original stage version of Poppy (1923), and in such films as The Potters (1927) Tillie and Gus (1933), Mississippi (1935), and My Little Chickadee (1940).
Yes — croquet! This may be one of Fields’ less famous routines, yet it was the second one he devised for the Ziegfeld Follies, and if you think about it, a perfect transition between pool and golf. He debuted it in the Follies of 1916, and revived it in the 9 O’Clock Revue (1919). The one movie you can see it (or some of it) in is Poppy (1936). Fields was in poor health when this film was shot — I bet we would have seen more if he’d been in better shape at the time.
TENNIS (AND PING PONG)
The fact that the tennis routine was never filmed is one of the great losses to W.C. Fields fans! He introduced it in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1917, even before his golf routine, and I can easily imagine how great it was given his skills as a juggler, which he undoubtedly integrated into the bit. You can see him juggle rubber balls off the floor in The Old Fashioned Way (1934).I’ll bet something on that order was in the routine, as well as business with rackets, and stuff with balls on strings (as he’d done in pool and croquet). Also, tennis was Fields’ main active, recreational sport in his personal life. He was reportedly a great player, when he was still fit enough to play. The reason why it didn’t make it to film should be obvious; he was old and sick during the bulk of his film career and not up to the physical challenge any more. I bet it was great. But there is a consolation prize! Fields was a whiz at ping pong as well, it was a game he often showed off at Chasen’s Restaurant, hence the terrific scene in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939). (Thanks, Todd Robbins, for reminding me about the latter).
This may be Fields’ most obscure routine. He devised it for George White’s Scandals of 1922, but it was considered too derivative of his other routines, particularly the tennis one. The usual business with funny bats and balls, crazy ways of hitting, etc. So, though he created and rehearsed it, it didn’t make it to stage or screen. I’d still be curious to see it! In the end, the classic comedians most associated with physical baseball business would be Joe E. Brown and Buster Keaton.
This comes more under the heading of “recreation” than “sport”. W.C. Fields was a major automobile enthusiast. When on tour in the Ziegfeld Follies (at a time when most performers traveled by train), Fields prided himself on motoring from town to town in his open-air auto. Colleagues like Eddie Cantor and Fanny Brice later told hair-raising accounts of the experience of riding with him, as the half-cocked Fields drove down the highway at night at high speed. (On the other hand, consider the lightning quick reaction time and hand control Fields had). In the Follies of 1920, he premiered a sketch called “The Family Ford”, which featured comical business revolving around a family loading up their car for a vacation, a special breakaway car that fell apart at the end of the routine, like Harry Langdon’s. Funny car business winds up in many of his movies. His segment (with Alison Skipworth) in If I Had a Million (1932) is about a brand new car that gets dinged up; It’s a Gift (1934) and The Bank Dick (1940) both have breakaway cars; both You’re Telling Me (1934) and The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) feature Fields chasing runaway tires down the street; and his last two features The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) feature crazy high speed car chases.
Fields’ last gaming business committed to film, as we said above, is the pool routine in Follow the Boys (1944). He had two years left to live at this point. By the time of his last film performance in Sensations of 1945 it was said that his eyesight was so bad he couldn’t see cue cards, so for sure he had also lost the physical dexterity that would enable to do the sort of things that had made him famous as a young man. He has a small bit of business in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, touching in its smallness, and so understated you may never notice how much physical control it required. It’s the scene where he stops off in an ice cream parlor, and has some difficulty delivering a cherry to his mouth with a pair of chopsticks. I find it touching because that was where he was at….his hands still had that control, but he could no longer be so physical with his old, ailing body. But if you’re clued in, you can see the young man in that bit, that same teenager who practiced with fruits and vegetables at his father’s Philadelphia produce stand.