This post is sort of a follow-up to our earlier one “Unfilmed Fields: 20 Films W.C. Fields Might Have Made But Didn’t.”
W.C. Fields worked with some of the great Hollywood directors (D.W. Griffith, George Cukor, Leo McCarey, Norman McLeod, George Marshall, Gregory LaCava) as well as some decent ones (Fred Newmeyer, Eddie Sutherland, Chuck Reisner, Eddie Cline, Clyde Bruckman, Arthur Ripley) and some well-known, prolific hacks (William Beaudine, Norman Taurog). And he worked closely with great producers like Mack Sennett and William Le Baron. Here’s a lost opportunity I thought of the other day — how great would it have been if PRESTON STURGES had directed W.C. Fields? There was a certain amount of overlap in their stock companies: Franklin Pangborn especially, and both worked with Edgar Kennedy, Jimmy Conlin etc. And the film Sturges did with Harold Lloyd, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock comes close to showing what such a thing might have been like, with its circus and alcohol themes. YES, the boozing on the set might have gotten out of hand. Sadly, they both passed out of (in?) Hollywood around the same time, but, gosh, it would have been swell. (Someone brought up the good point that Sturges was a stickler for his carefully crafted lines, whereas Fields loved to paraphrase and ad lib, making for potential conflict. C’est la guerre. It’s all academic anyway!)
And here’s ANOTHER one I thought of! Fields would have been GREAT in a movie with WILL ROGERS. Rogers starred in a series of great comedies (many directed by John Ford) in the early 30s. Like many of Fields’ comedies of the time, most of them had small town settings. Both men were friends and colleagues from their Follies days — I can see the pair of them interacting in one of these small town comedies PERFECTLY, maybe with Rogers as the town judge, and Fields as a guy he has to keep locking up, or the Mayor, or both. Sadly, Rogers died in a plane crash just as Fields career in talkies was catching on. Anyway, just day dreaming — that’s what I do!
And while we’re on Fields’ Follies cohorts….Fields DID appear on screen some of them, including Marilyn Miller, Leon Errol, Marion Davies and Louise Brooks. But there are some people Fields was teamed with in Follies comedy sketches who also had film careers in the talking era whom he never shared a screen with. How great would it be to see him opposite comedy giants Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, Ed Wynn, or Walter Catlett?
And while he was teamed with some top stars like Mae West, and (early in their careers) both Bob Hope and Bing Crosby (in separate movies), I wonder what team-ups with some other similar heavyweights might have been like. For example, a possible co-starring with Marie Dressler was discussed. It’s an exciting prospect, one easily imagines her doing the kind of thing Alison Skipworth and others did in the role of Mrs. Fields, but with a lot more heft and star power. Unfortunately she passed away in 1934, just as Fields’ solo career was really getting rolling. Jack Benny is another tantalizing one. His film career was similar to Hope’s and Crosby’s in the 30s; both Fields and Benny had appeared in (different) editions of the Big Broadcast series, and had done comedy on radio together. So close and yet so far! And then there are his drinking buddies! It might have been interesting to see him co-star with John Barrymore, as a couple of old drunken thespians. Or to see Errol Flynn play Prince Hal to Fields’ Falstaff.
Another pairing that might have been inevitable had Fields lived a bit longer (and one that is kind of surprising did not occur in the 4-5 years after Never Give a Sucker an Even Break when Fields was more than available and dying to do a real movie), was a teaming with the reigning Universal comey stars of at the early ’40s, Abbott and Costello. I don’t claim it would have necessarily been good, but would have been smart producing, at least! He’s in publicity pictures with them (see above), and he appeared on radio with them. And he’d appeared in films with other radio stars like Burns and Allen and Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. But Abbott and Costello were waxing hot in the early ’40s, just as Fields was starting to be eclipsed. It may be that Fields’ ego couldn’t bear what such a screen teaming may have looked like (nor could Costello).
And what about a teaming with the biggest one of them all, Charlie Chaplin? Probably never likely…Chaplin tended not to surround himself with his equals (he kept conspicuously distant from his old Karno colleague Stan Laurel, for example…I’ve always thought something like insecurity must be the reason). And Fields’ had bad-mouthed Chaplin as a “damn ballet dancer”. But both men had shared screens with Chester Conklin and Jack Oakie, and Chaplin later threw a bone to Buster Keaton, every bit his equal, in Limelight. The President of Klopstokia perhaps could have interacted believably with Adenoid Hinkel.
The photo at the top of this post suggests another possibility: one thing the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields shared in common was Margaret Dumont as foil. After finishing her last comedy with the Marxes, The Big Store, her next picture was Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, with Fields, followed by a re-teaming with him in Tales of Manhattan (1942) (their sequence was cut, essentially for being better than the rest of the movie). I don’t know how Fields would function in a movie with all three Marx Brothers (although I have my theories). But I can also see a team-up with solo Groucho along the lines of Copacabana.
Lastly, in The Bank Dick, we get to see Fields alongside one of The Three Stooges, Shemp Howard. The Stooges’ comedy was generally of a lower intellectual order than Fields’, but ya never know…he wouldn’t have been the first brainy comedian (Keaton springs to mind) to be shoe-horned into the Columbia comedy factory. Or if that tack seems unfortunate, consider the 1951 western feature Gold Raiders, in which the Stooges shared a marquee with George O’Brien. As we saw In My Little Chickadee, the western genre worked well for Fields as well!