The Truth about W.C. Fields and Philadelphia

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A little post occasioned by the fact (blogged about earlier) that today is the birthday of Pennsylvania. As you may have noticed, we have been intensely focused of late on a certain famous Pennsylvanian, comedian W.C. Fields. If people only know a few things about Fields (and they generally do — only know a few things, that is –) it’s that: a) he (or his character, or both) were closely associated with alcohol; b) he (or his character) hated children and dogs; and c) that he (or his character) hated Philadelphia.

It’s amazing how a legend grows in the modern era. These, most famous (supposed) aspects of his character, seem to me to have been most solidly hammered home by Fields’ radio work, and thereafter by word of mouth, passed down by parents and grandparents and great-grandparents who remembered the radio work…to younger generations who were never exposed to it!

As for these legendary traits: Yes, Fields was a boozer in real life. But in the movies, you only see that REALLY stressed a few times, mostly his later films (after that had become a staple of his radio comedy). In the earlier pictures, it’s alluded to from time to time, in a scene or two, but never the focus — the Hays Code wouldn’t allow it.

I have no idea where the dogs thing comes from.

As for kids, in the movies, he feuds a couple of times with Baby Leroy, and is generally tortured by children in most of the films. But it is an odd impulse to frame it as HIM disliking THEM. They are presented as monstrous. His character is merely reacting as would any rational person who wasn’t a mindless dolt. Are you supposed to LIKE people who are screaming at you, throwing things at you, insulting you? As it happens, in real life, he loved his son and his grandchildren, was perfectly and appropriately doting on babies, as everybody else is.

In which he gets to know his grandson during the small amount of time he has left. For more family photos like this, go to www.wcfields.com

In which he gets to know his grandson during the small amount of time he has left — like a normal person. For more family photos like this, go to http://www.wcfields.com

And so we come to the last unaccountable thing, his supposed hatred of his hometown Philadelphia. For most of my life I have regarded that as something of a head-scratcher. He is reputed to have disliked the place; I just never understood: a) why that was supposed to be funny. Kind of “arch” of him, okay, but out and out funny?; and b) if he hated it, why? The real life answer is, he didn’t hate it particularly (or at least completely), nor did he hate ON it with frequency, if at all, beyond a single quip or two. There is in particular a single quote, a quote so famous it has practically swallowed the man up. It seems to have metastasized like Tulip Mania. People know it and laugh at it, but I’m like “Whatever”.  It’s just a kind of disparaging comment, the sort of thing any entertainer who has seen the world might make about his provincial birthplace.

Is Philly provincial? In his vaudeville days, Fields had played New York, London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna, and had been to far flung places like Australia and South Africa. And let’s not forget other great American cosmopolitan cities like San Francisco and Chicago.But Philadelphia is also a great American city. Have you been there? It’s not just tremendous, it’s tremendous culturally. In Fields’ day it was known as the Birthplace of Vaudeville, and it had been FULL of theatres since long before Fields’ time. So, what’s to disparage? Well, Philadelphia had been founded by Quakers. Much like Puritan Boston, it was a place where saloons closed early, and where the culture was traditional and conservative, even as recently as Fields’ time. Fields family hadn’t approved of the theatre (most families of the time, the 1890s, wouldn’t have). So, to a certain degree, it left a bad taste in his mouth.

There is an anecdote I came across in one of his biographies, in which he was a teenager just starting out, and a church social wouldn’t let him juggle cigar boxes, because they once contained the Devil’s Weed, and so he stole all the umbrellas out of the umbrella stand on his way out the door. That is an illustration of why he might have disliked the culture of Philadelphia without being a public demonstration of that.

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Philly, 1890s. Yep — lotta churches

And so he made (and didn’t make) some famous jokes. The first was his fictitious epitaph, which he cooked up for Vanity Fair magazine in 1925: “Here lies W. C. Fields. I would rather be living in Philadelphia.” It’s often misquoted with variations. It is not his actual epitaph. His tombstone just has his name and the years of his life inscribed on it. As for the other joke? He is NEVER known to have uttered the other famous remark often misattributed to him, “that [he] spent a week there one night.”

I have just re-watched ALL of his movies in preparation for Fields Fest. The only references in his films to Philadelphia sound more like fond reminiscences, usually in connection with the “Cauhauxin Hose Glee Club” or the “Tehachapi Glee Club”.  No jokes about how he hates Philadelphia. At the end of My Little Chickadee he does say, “I’d like to see Paris before I die. Philadelphia will do!” The joke is that Paris the greatest city in the world, and that Philadelphia is far from being Paris. That’s a pretty mild insult.

And Fields’ comments for Gene Fowler’s famous biography of him are likewise just fond memories.  I have only listened to some of his radio appearances, and I have not encountered Philadelphia references there either, but it’s possible that the radio work is the source of the legend, as I have not heard all of it.

In real life? For a time, his wife and child lived with his parents and extended family in Philadelphia and Fields returned to the town periodically to visit them between theatrical bookings. It wasn’t as though he fled never return to again. Afterwards? He was a star of Broadway and movies, a creature of New York and then Hollywood. Why would ANYONE leave those luxurious enclaves? No particular animus. Just the one dig. Philadelphia remains proud of him anyway.

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