Finishing the Definitive W.C. Fields Trilogy

Three and a half years after treating of the first volume of Arthur Wertheim’s definitive tri-part W.C. Fields biography, my recent period of forced immobility allowed me to sit still and finish the other two volumes this past week. What a joy! Wertheim’s is the first biography to benefit from access to the W.C. Fields collection of the Motion Picture Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library. In his introduction, he confides that he was inspired by the landmark exhibition The Peregrinations and Pettifoggery of W.C. Fields, which we reviewed here (a decade ago!). These next two installments are worthy follow-ups to the first volume, constituting not just a great read, but a useful resource on the life and career of W.C. Fields, one of the 20th century’s greatest stage and screen comedians.

Volume Two is W.C. Fields from the Ziegfeld Follies and Broadway Stage to the Screen. This volume is organized around Fields’ relationship (somewhat antagonistic) with Flo Ziegfeld, from first impressions to the bitter end. It gives in-depth descriptions of Fields’ comedy sketches from Broadway revues, a special pleasure, almost like getting some additional movies from the Great Man. One of the great losses to time and tide is his tennis sketch, which unlike his famous pool and golf routines, was never filmed. (By the time of his great comedies of the ’30s and ’40s Fields lacked the necessary vigor and control to execute the tennis business). But it, and all of his other sketches are described, and quotes from his correspondence illuminate their creation. The book tells of Fields’ special relationships with such stage co-stars as Ed Wynn, Eddie Cantor, Bert Williams, and Will Rogers. The most inspired and original chapter compares the lives, careers and philosphies of Fields and H.L. Mencken! And it touches on Fields’ first early flirtation with cinema in 1915. All in all it is a worthy successor to Volume One.

The third installment in the series is W.C. Fields from Sound Film and Radio Comedy to Stardom. The title of this one frankly bugs me — Fields’ stardom predated both his sound films and his radio career. Overall, I found this volume the weakest in the series. Granted, the bar for this phase of Fields’ life is much higher. It is the best known part and has been amply treated (even the private stuff) in many previous biographies. This volume is largely padded with descriptions of Fields’ sound films, which are both available to watch, and to read about in other books. Oddly, Fields’ silent features of the late ’20s get relatively scant attention here, and that is where the more extensive treatment would be welcome. They don’t have their own section in the book, although they are referred to many times, as many of them were remade into his better known talkies. But since half of Fields’ silent features are lost, and the remaining ones are lesser known by the public, including Fields fans, that’s the very phase of his career that needs the most attention. But here and there one encounters treasures in this volume too, such as a terrific photo of Fields with his primo drinking buddy John Barrymore. And the reminder that in 1938, at one of the many low-points in his film career, he starred in Lux Radio Theatre’s production of Poppy (it’s extant — listen to it here!). And lots of good stuff on his contentious relationship with Universal, and the back-and-forth with Mae West on My Little Chickadee. 

One thing I must point out, and it’s an indication of the scale of the problem that I mention it all, as I’m usually pretty forgiving about small lapses of this sort: these two volumes are riddled with typographical errors and incorrect word usages. One or two here and there are inevitable. But my count ran into the dozens. I won’t list examples, as people are normally paid to do that. If someone was paid to do so in this case, a refund is warranted. Wertheim’s research and his writing are terrific, but the editing, at least in these two volumes is fakakta. The spelling errors are more numerous but also more forgivable. Everyone makes them, so in this case it’s just carelessness. More worrying to me, because it appears to be part of a larger trend in the publishing world, is the misuse of vocabulary. I’m encountering this increasingly among younger writers and editors. (Example in the present case: “downtrodden”, where “downcast” is clearly meant. Things like that). I’m not sure how such things make it to print, but the idea of libraries full of books with those kinds of lapses is pretty mortifying. If there is another edition, someone should take it in hand and weed out all of those errors.

But I won’t let that be the last word on this trilogy. It’s too valuable for that. Fields fans and scholars MUST own all three volumes of this book for the new insights it contains. Thanks to Wertheim, the book on W.C. Fields has literally been rewritten.