6/3/09 - w.c. fields

In today's excerpt - W.C. Fields (1880-1946), one of America's greatest comedians, whose film masterpieces were It's a Gift (1934) and The Bank Dick (1941). One of Fields more enduring quotes is that 'You can't cheat an honest man. Never give a sucker an even break or smarten up a chump':

"William Claude Dukenfield was born in 1880, into a working-class neighborhood of Philadelphia, to a volatile British immigrant bartender named James Dukenfield and a tough lady with a sense of humor named Kate, whom young 'Whitey' rather alarmingly resembled. At the age of eleven, Fields got into a violent argument with his father—something about an unfortunately placed shovel—and walked out on his family. He lived a peripatetic and grubby existence, sleeping in leaky culverts, eating handouts in local bars, but in his words, 'It was a glorious adventure and every boy in the neighborhood would have been glad to change places with me.' ...

'Young Fields discovered a way out by diligently mastering the art of juggling, making his professional debut at the age of seventeen. Along the way, he experienced hard times. He worked for a scam artist who ran a shell game; he was pressed into service where he had to pretend to drown twice a day in Atlantic City to attract crowds for a vaudeville show; he worked for a series of managers to whom, he said, 'salaries were only polite fictions.' ...

"It was in the Ziegfeld Follies that Fields found his comic voice—literally. He made a breakthrough in 'A Game of Golf' in 1918 and wound up recycling bits from that sketch for years. Although Fields had been performing his pantomime juggling act for nearly two decades, audiences now split their sides at his baroque neologistic formations and his strange muttered ways of spitting out curses. He also began writing his own sketches—and wound up reviving and revising the same two dozen scenarios throughout his career. ...

"Fields came into his own by breaking away from Ziegfeld in 1924 and starring in a stage vehicle called Poppy a sentimental carnival tale that gave him the role of a lifetime—in fact it gave him a role that he'd play, one way or another, for the rest of his lifetime. Professor Eustace McGargle is a master of flimflam flummery who tries to marry off his daughter into a higher social circle. ... With his role in Poppy Fields became fixed in the American popular consciousness as the high-hatted con man with a marked deck in his pocket.

"POKER PLAYER: Uh, is this a game of chance?

"FIELDS: Not the way I play it, no. ...

"[Another distinctive trait was] Fields's seeming antisocial curmudgeonly behavior: despising his wife and mother-in-law, snarling at dogs, kicking little kids in the behind. 'I was the first comic in history to pick fights with children,' he said. ...

"Unlike many other Broadway comedians, he hadn't been hurt by the stock market crash—he saw the Wall Street bubble for the con it was. 'If these stocks are so good, why do the presidents of these companies want me in on it?' he asked sensibly. 'They don't know me, they don't give a damn about me.' ...

"For many, It's a Gift is his masterpiece. It was the perfect expression of his comic philosophy—'If anything can go wrong, it will'—wedded to his ability to juggle not only objects but also life's unpredictable obstacles. By the end of the film, despite every dream and effort going up in smoke, Fields manages to look on the bright side. 'You're drunk!' someone protests to Fields. 'And you're crazy,' he replies. 'But I'll be sober tomorrow and you'll be crazy for the rest of your life.' ...

"When he made his other masterpiece, The Bank Dick, in 1941, no other star in Hollywood had above-the-title billing and carried contractual responsibility for writing and directing as well as performing. ...

You've heard the old legend that it's the little put-upon guy who gets the laughs, but I'm the most belligerent guy on the screen. I'm going to kill everybody. But at the same time I'm afraid of everybody—just a great big frightened bully. There's a lot of that in human nature. When people laugh at me, they're laughing at themselves. Or at least the next fellow. ..."



Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon


Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America


Twelve Hachette Book Group


Copyright 2008 by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon


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