w.c. fields and swans -- 10/7/22

Today's selection -- from W.C. Fields by James R. Curtis. The legendary comedian W.C. Fields (1880-1946) and his battle with his backyard swans:

"Fields might have lived on Toluca Lake indefinitely had it not been for the swans. He liked the tranquility and the sense of community, but by golfing into the water as he did, he led the mute swans to believe they were under attack. Territorial and ill-tempered, they retaliated by waddling up on shore and driv­ing him back into his house. Fields tried feeding the birds, as he did the ducks, but that didn't work, and it got so he could go into his backyard only at his own peril. One great bird, who seemed to be the ringleader, had a wingspan seven feet across and quills as thick as pencils. 'The swan was a killer,' said Bert Wheeler, who lived around the corner. 'We all knew about it. Fields had been out shooting mud hens out there one day, and he was trying to collect them, and this swan came at him in the canoe, and Fields took a swipe at the swan with his paddle and fell over. Boy, this swan nearly killed him.'

"Joe Mankiewicz didn't know of Fields' history with the swans when he rented Charles Farrell's house on the lake.

"I was awakened one morning about 2:30 by the damnedest noise I had ever heard in my life. It sounded like the bombardment of Rotterdam. All this beating and screaming and language and thrashing around wasn't far from me, so I looked out the window and all I could make out was a kind of feathered riot -- these enormous swan wings beating on somebody and somebody beating back with a golf club --and I could see vaguely that Bill had taken on these two swans. He had drank himself a good dinner someplace, and he was out there with a golf club. Then the phone rang, and it was Bing Crosby, who lived down at the end of Toluca Lake Avenue. I said, 'Well Bing, Fields is out there beating the hell out of these swans with a golf club, and I can't tell who's winning.' Bing said, 'What kind of club is it? Can you see?' I said, 'I don't know. It's an iron -- maybe a four iron or a five iron.' And Bing said, 'Tell him he's over-clubbed!' and hung up. I grabbed a tennis racket and went down there, but by the time I got there, the swans had retreated and Fields was a mess.

The Threatened Swan, Jan Asselijn, c. 1650

"It wasn't long afterward that Bert Wheeler met producer Milton Bren for breakfast at the Hollywood Brown Derby: 'He was white, he was so mad. I said, "What's the matter?" He said, "A terrible thing happened this morning. I went out to see W.C. Fields today. Got there about nine o'clock in the morn­ing. He had a big bottle of whiskey out in the back yard, and we're drinking out there -- he is -- and all of a sudden a swan came up out of the lake. And Fields got a baseball bat and hit the swan over the head!" I started to laugh right away, but Bren says, "I told him, Mr. Fields, that's the worst thing I've ever seen in my life. So Fields says, 'Well, I told that so-and-so to keep off my property!' "

"When the lease was up, in the spring of 1934, Fields was ready to move. He put the house on a month-to-month and began looking for a place to build. 'I want to put on my rompers and play,' he said. He liked the San Fernando val­ley, where it was warmer, quieter, and farther from the studio. He asked Loyd Wright to find a parcel of land in the Van Nuys area, but work interfered and nothing ever looked quite right. Just before production on It's a Gift began, Fields took a year's lease on a hilltop citrus ranch in Encino. On its seven and a half acres grew oranges, lemons, Mexican limes, apples, pears, peaches, avoca­dos, grapefruit, mangos, guavas, walnuts -- and, yes, kumquats. The last scene of the picture, in fact, was shot on the Encino property.

"Long after he had decamped from Toluca Lake, the legend of Fields and the swans remained. 'Spec' McClure, a legman for Hedda Hopper, spent time at Jim Tully's house in the 1940s. 'Late one afternoon, Jim and I were quaffing some scotch on the terrace overlooking the lake. A flock of swans cautiously waddled into Fields' yard with their long necks stuck forward suspiciously. Jim studied the fearful antics of the swans for a while and then said to me, "For Christ's sake, they must be looking for old Bill Fields!"'"

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James R. Curtis


W.C. Fields


Borzoi Books published by Alfred A. Knopf


Copyright 2003 by James R. Curtis


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