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Toward the Black Pussy Cafe

W.C. Fields by Himself: His Intended Biography

with commentary by Ronald J. Fields
Warner Paperback Library, 510 pp., $1.95

Of all the subjects that don’t need de-mythologizing, one would have thought W.C. Fields was pre-eminent. With comedians in general it seems important that their life and their work be taken as one. “I hear he writes his own lines” is a phrase that echoes from childhood. The lot of the gag-writer is a bitter one: unless he consents to be a performer himself, like Mel Brooks or Carl Reiner, we don’t want to know about him.

Hence, most books about comedians tend to be unsatisfactory. Either they service the myth and give the clown a brain he doesn’t deserve (“The trouble with Groucho is he thinks he’s Groucho,” says one of his old writers) or they tell the truth, as John Lahr did of his father Bert in Notes on a Cowardly Lion, leaving us with a somewhat shrunken functionary, barely worth a book, though Lahr got a good one. Comedians are actors, and in dealing with such there is rarely anything between fan magazine falsehood and terrible disillusionment.

Books about W.C. Fields, on the other hand, tend to be satisfactory even when they’re bad. For instance, his mistress’s book about him, W.C. Fields and Me1 by Carlotta Monti, is hilarious for wholly unintentional reasons. Any book by a chorine that starts out “I can’t deny that he was an anomaly” is going to be hilarious. Fields’s own voice rumbles like this through every phrase. Because Fields really was a comic genius. There was no question where the lines came from or the style, and some of this had to spill into the private life, leaving a fund of great anecdotes that even a goodhearted starlet couldn’t ruin, so long as she followed the master’s directions.

Still, we demand more of Fields than even comic genius. We have to believe he meant it. We want certification that such a one existed: a mean, child-hating con man who was so funny about it that he made these things all right. Staged comedy exists partly to resign us to evil, but for this to work we want more than playacting. As Groucho says of professionals, we want a real old lady crashing downhill into a wall in her wheel chair—only to walk away unharmed.

Robert Lewis Taylor produced a few years back one of the best books ever written about a comedian, W.C. Fields: His Follies and His Fortunes.2 In it Taylor tells just enough truth to qualify as a biographer, including the unfunny horrors of Fields’s alcoholism. But his dominant strategy is to accept Fields’s own version of Fields, which was a work of art built on a dung heap, like so many artists’ lives. He gives us a Fields meaner than any ten men, and yet somehow funny and harmless, where he was probably bitter and brutal. People get hurt and yet they don’t get hurt. Wife and child are deserted, Fields screams with the DTs. Everyone exits laughing.

Since his early years were the least verifiable, it is here that Fields’s remodeling of himself, as transcribed by Taylor, was most thorough. Over the years, Fields spun a version to his cronies, Gene Fowler and the like, that made him sound like a Dickens child: a vagabond, shoplifter, jailbird. This gives his life the convenience of a movie biography in which everything can be explained by filmable incidents: thus, he got his meanness from being swindled by a crooked manager; he got his voice from this and his nose from that. It only needs sketches by Boz to illustrate the turning points. Fields’s devotion to Dickens affected not only his art, as we shall see, but his life, and his fans were quite content that this Dickensian version should be the Fields of record. We conspired in accepting it as the real old lady in the wheel chair.

But now his family has come along, in the person of his grandson Ronald, to tidy him up in a book ironically titled W.C. Fields by Himself: if only he were by himself. But Ronald bounds alongside, keeping a close eye on him at all times, reminding one of the family in The Bank Dick who try to make Egbert Sousé respectable. It seems he did not hit his old man with a shovel and run away from home; he did not do time in the slam (Taylor has admitted that there is no record of him in the Philadelphia jails, but puts it down lamely to his many aliases); he did not even hate children. Photos are introduced showing him rather gingerly dandling his grandson, which can only dishearten his fans.

In short, like many a doting widow, the family has cruelly stripped Fields of his legends, obviously failing to understand what made him great in the first place. If this were all there were to him, we would not be reading books about him at all, let alone this one. I had almost said Ronald Fields has done the impossible and made him dull; but here, since Fields scholarship grinds on and rational enquiry is thrust upon us, a grudging point must be admitted. It is not as difficult as one had supposed to make Fields dull. Without the subject’s face and voice to guide us, we find ourselves staring directly into his subject matter: and the effect is one of a nagging, terrifying boredom.

In fact, I can think of no famous comedian outside of Jack Benny who skirted dullness more perilously than Fields. People who don’t worship him tend to be bored even by his best stuff, and to see no point at all. For he is always threatening to sink back into his material—that world of drunken fathers and harridan mothers and squalling brats that is not funny at all, but desperately bleak. Older children may like Fields for what they take to be his congenial anarchy, but smaller ones are apt to be alarmed by this brutal, boozy adult, smelling of Victorian row-houses and failure. The only anarchy allowed in that world was the freedom of a father to strike his children and this W.C.’s father James Dukenfield availed himself of early and often.

In trying to clean his grandfather up, young Fields has linked W.C. once and for all to that gray world—and not as a rebel, but as a sullenly dutiful son who repaid his bullying father with a trip to Paris as soon as he could afford to. W.C.’s early letters are not particularly funny, but are tinged throughout with the sourness of genteel poverty. The flavor is perfectly captured by Ronald when he describes W.C.’s father as “a commission merchant dealing primarily in fruits and vegetables,” i.e., a fruitstand vendor. That this bogus respectability should linger on through three generations suggests how cloying it must have been and how hard for Fields to hold it at laughing distance. Like Thurber’s relatives in Columbus, whom one suspects of being cold and meanly eccentric in real life, Fields’s family needed a prodigious swipe of the wand to become funny.

Since one must assume for now that Ronald Fields’s documentation is unarguable, the colorful street urchin has to go, and we must look elsewhere for the genius. One startling possibility emerges. Although Ronald shows no mean gift for sniffing out W. C.’s unfunniest material, there is enough of it collected here in sketches and letters to suggest that comedy did not come easily or even naturally to the great man. It is an article of faith among Fields fans that he is always funny: and one remembers the racking chortle of Ed McMahon and the thin strained laughter of the studio audience as a not particularly funny piece of Fields was run on the “Tonight Show.” But some of the material Ronald has assembled, e.g., an early sketch in which a scabrous family battles the London underground, or those leaden, one-joke exchanges with Edgar Bergen (vastly overrated), might tax even the susceptible McMahon. To make them work, one has to keep imagining the Fields persona; without it, they would be weaker than the output of any journeyman gag-writer.

The persona itself was the work of genius, and Ronald’s book suggests that this was more consciously arrived at than we like to think. Fields’s native gifts were industry, physical coordination, and mental retentiveness, plus a downright anal stinginess. The two kinds of retention were possibly connected, and together they account for much of his greatness and misery. Their immediate effect was to make him a master of music hall and vaudeville, where shtiks and bits of business had to be hoarded like miser’s gold. I am told it was not unknown for comedians to pull knives on each other when they suspected their acts were being stolen. One’s act was all one had, and it had to last a lifetime. Fields was superbly equipped for this cutthroat world: or if not he became so. Very few kindly men can have emerged from vaudeville.

Without detracting from W. C.’s uniqueness, I believe it would be rewarding to study the other comedians of the era for technical similarities. For instance, Fields’s habit of throwing up his hands and hunching his shoulders when anyone threatens to touch him might be explained as a reflex flinching from his father’s blows. But if memory serves, Leon Errol had a similar style; and before either of them, God knows what forgotten comedian working the London halls in the 1900s when Fields was starting out who may have inspired them both. In payment, Fields’s hands fluttering at the throat may have taught young Oliver Hardy a thing or two. And so on. Just as the genius of comics is customarily overrated, so their craft and attention to detail is proportionately ignored. In an allied field, it is often forgotten that Sydney Green-street was a D’Oyly Carte veteran and that he played the Fat Man precisely as any Poo Bah would have, while Peter Lorre was a member of Bertolt Brecht’s ensemble. Thus The Maltese Falcon was a mating of acting traditions, and not just of individual actors.

Fields once called Chaplin “a goddam ballet dancer,” but it is no coincidence that they both came out of this London tradition, where techniques in physical comedy had reached a high polish.3 All commentators agree that Fields had ferocious dedication, spending up to two years learning one juggling trick. And his first approach to comedy was probably similar: a dogged humorless mastering of each movement, until his body work was so good that he could make side-splitting silent movies. To this day, there is no actor I would rather see just enter a room and sit down, with the possible exception of Fred Astaire.

The vocal side of his act was carried at first by the physical and has a consequent freedom and experimentation about it, akin to Will Rogers’s offhand patter during his rope-twirling. The people had paid to see a juggler, so the commentary was gravy; and Fields used it partly to cover his mistakes and hold the crowd’s attention, but partly one suspects, semiconsciously, as a man mutters to himself when engaged on an intricate task—I suspect Fields would have talked the same with no one around. The result is a dreamlike free-associative quality closer to poetry than to the world of gags.

  1. 1

    Prentice-Hall, 1971; Paperback Library, 1973.

  2. 2

    New American Library, 1967.

  3. 3

    Since Bob Hope left London as an infant, it is scarcely plausible to connect him with this tradition. Nevertheless this master of the double-take and the hasty retreat would have been physically if not vocally at home in the British music halls.

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