Was W.C. Fields a Racist?

The headline is a trick question. Everyone who lived between 1880 and 1946 was a racist by our standards, so of course W.C. Fields was. His professional friendship with Bert Williams, and a single over-used sentimental quote about him are often used as evidence that he wasn’t one. But here are some other well documented facts:

  • He left money in his will for the establishment of the “W.C. Fields College for White Orphan Boys and Girls”. [Emphasis mine]. The stipulation seems to have been a knee-jerk reaction to the news that the black dominated Pullman Porters union was excluding whites. Ya know, because Pullman Porters are at the top of the food chain. After he died, the probate judge threw threw that proviso out, stating “Mr. Fields, in his lifetime, could have discriminated against other races,” he said, “but he cannot in death call upon the state to undertake the administration of his affairs and supervise a corporation which overrides the constitutionality of equality of rights common to all races.”
  • In two movies, You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man (1939) and My Little Chickadee (1940), Fields uses comic variations on the expression “n—r in the wood pile” (i.e. a hidden threat). In the first film he refers to “a Ubangi in the fuel supply”, and in the latter, an “Ethiopian” in same.
  • In The Bank Dick (1940), there is a scene where he is standing in line at the bank, realizes there is a black man behind him, and does a terrified double take.
  • Also in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939), there’s a lot of hay made of the association of black workers as circus razorbacks, the guys who load and unload equipment, put up the circus tent, etc. (there’s similar stuff in Walt Disney’s Dumbo). In one scene Fields approaches a group of them and says “Who’s the head Ubangi here?” and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (one of the few genuine black stars ever in a Fields movie) answers “Is you talking to us colored boys?” Fields physically strikes him at one point. In another scene, Charlie McCarthy does a blackface routine, and you could pin that on Edgar Bergen, but for the fact that Fields wrote the script.
  • Mississippi (1935) is set on a Mississippi showboat in the antebellum South, with all that that entails, including matter of fact acceptance of slavery, the use of the term “pickaninnies” and the casting of John Larkin and Libby Taylor in stereotyped servant roles. This film also features a recurring comedy routine about all of the Indians that Fields’ character has murdered with his machete. There is also humor at the expense of Native Americans in My Little Chickadee and The Fatal Glass of Beer.
  • His first speaking role was in the 1905 musical The Ham Tree, starring the blackface minstrel team of McIntyre and Heath. It should be pointed out that blackface, universally condemned today, was widely accepted at the time
  • The Wild Man of Borneo (1941) with its racist “ooga booga” wild man scene was originally intended as a vehicle for Fields, though Frank Morgan eventually played the part.

Just a few fun facts to contemplate for Black History Month. For those inclined to attempt to rebut this, you might ask yourself: why? Who do that? Why, in the grand triage of a million human wrongs would your first impulse be to “set the record straight” about one dead guy, rather than to simply concede that an entire class of people shouldn’t be dismissed and insulted for the amusement of the majority? Having written over 100 articles about Fields on this blog, I require no lectures or instruction on Fields’ excellence as a comedian, as a half dozen of you have already had the temerity to proffer. Feel free to do that after YOU’VE written 107 articles about W.C. Fields and produced a festival in his honor. I never said “Don’t watch the movies.” I never said he wasn’t brilliant. I didn’t “cancel” anybody. I merely said, “Here are some flaws and pitfalls that should not be repeated”. If all you have in response is indignation and pushback, I can only conclude that you’re good with those old attitudes. In which case, thanks very much for letting the rest of us know. Libraries and websites and shelves behind the bar are full to bursting with praise for the comedian. Try holding your tongue and letting the record be balanced on this one miniscule occasion.

Oh, and I also never said he was the only person in show business who was culpable. The entire industry was — very nearly to a person. So why single Fields out, you ask? If you’ve read this blog carefully, I haven’t. Perhaps today I am simply less inclined to apologize on behalf of this particular comedian. There will be more to follow.