w.c. fields' revival -- 9/15/23

Today's selection -- from W.C. Fields: A Biography by James Curtis. The comedian W.C. Fields reached the pinnacle of stage and movie fame in the early 20th century but was then forgotten. His career would see a posthumous revival in the 1960s:

“Ironically, Hattie's death came just as a revival of interest in W. C. Fields was beginning to grow. In 1966, Donald Deschner's The Films of W. C. Fields became the first modern book on Fields, followed in 1967 by William K. Everson's The Art of W. C. Fields. Late that year, Universal put their four starring Fields vehicles back into service in glistening new 35mm prints. Grouped into two double features, they outgrossed most modern films at the Fairfax Theatre in Los Angeles and the 72nd Street Playhouse in New York City, prompting a national release in 1968. Next came the distribution of his Paramount features in 16mm, and sales of a photo poster skyrocketed. Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster hosted a one-hour CBS tribute in his honor, in which they affectionately described him as ‘a combination of Mr. Pickwick and Frank Nitti.’ Wedged between Karlheinz Stockhausen and Carl Gustav Jung, he was also one of the cultural icons surrounding the Beatles on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. With the Vietnam War at full throttle, W. C. Fields, along with Humphrey Bogart, became a potent symbol of cynicism and rebellion to the generation of his grandchildren. 

“For Claude Fields, the renaissance lasted barely eight years. He took advantage of his father's newfound popularity--arguably greater than at any time in Fields' natural life--by affiliating himself with Raymond Rohauer on the distribution of his father's shorts, appearing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and even playing his father once for a show called Curtain Call. Back in his beloved New York, he took his teenage kids through Central Park, up to Columbia University at 116th Street, and on to Baker Field at 216th and back, joyously straphanging on the subway, his cherubic face reflecting a delight he rarely exuded in earlier days. ‘I must have spent a year of my life here,’ he said nostalgically. In 1970, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and he died on February 16, 1971--like his father, at the age of sixty-six. 

Fields in 1938

“More books followed, including the groundbreaking W. C. Fields by Himself, compiled by Ronald J. Fields from his grandfather's papers and scrapbooks, and a heavily ghosted and self-serving memoir from Carlotta, W. C. Fields and Me. Throughout the decade of the 1970s, Fields' image was licensed to sell scores of products, ranging from aftershave and neckwear to battery testers. To market corn chips in the days following the demise of the Frito Bandito, a cartoon character named W. C. Fritos was invented. (‘Greetings my little chip-a-dee,’ he'd drawl in animated commercials.) In 1976, a movie was finally made of Fields' life, but it was a sorry affair starring the singularly unfunny Rod Steiger, and it flopped deservedly. 

“All that remained left to do was to put him on a postage stamp, which was done in a ceremony at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on January 29, 1980, the true centenary of his birth. A parade of costars, Mary Brian, Buddy Rogers, Constance Moore, and Grady Sutton among them, advanced to the podium, relating tab versions of their favorite anecdotes. The image on the stamp itself was somewhat sanitized for mass consumption--no bottle being anywhere in sight--but, happily, he was pictured juggling, tossing balls in the air between takes on the set of Poppy, thoroughly engrossed in the exercise and oblivious to all else around him. In attaining philatelic immortality, Fields followed his old friend Will Rogers, as he so often had on the bill of the Ziegfeld Follies. That the two men were now coupled in centennials and dual commemorations would have pleased and amused them both, and no one thought to mention that, on the whole, Fields would rather, as he had once suggested for an epitaph, be living in Philadelphia."

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James Curtis


W.C. Fields: A Biography


Alfred A. Knopf; First Edition


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