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Toward the Black Pussy Cafe

With both Rogers and Fields it is worth bearing these origins in mind. Rogers’s offhand delivery always implies a man doing something else—playing with a rope or looking up from a newspaper. (In those pre-monologue days, a comedian was expected to be usefully occupied.) In Fields’s case, the keynote is a narrow concentration on his own concerns at the total expense of everything else. Many of his asides are not heard by the other actors at all and would not be understood if they were. And they have no connection with the needs of the plot. “Either they’ll have to move that pole or vaseline the joint,” he murmurs as he slides into the Black Pussy Cafe; and we are reminded of the solipsist beginnings of his act.

Buttressing this effect of majestic irrelevance is another quality derived from his stinginess: he would not let any of his old material go, but insisted on inserting it willy-nilly into movies where it had no business. Taylor reports a running dialogue between Fields and Mack Sennett, which would start with Sennett declaiming on the organic nature of comedy, the need for everything to have a reason, and would end with Fields saying, “I think I’ll work my golf act into this two-reeler about the dentist.” The result is an oeuvre of dazzling bits and pieces, but only one great movie (The Bank Dick).

If this artistic stinginess was based on artistic insecurity, the instinct was probably sound. Fields had hoarded very well, but when he moved away from those tested routines his comic taste remained uncertain to the end, and he made some uncommonly disappointing films. His most reliable work, to my taste, consists either of his early vaudeville routines—the golf game, the pool game, the fatal glass of beer (“It’s not a fit night out for man or beast”)—or their offshoots, i.e., sketches of generic similarity, in which the movements are stylized and the tongue is free to ramble. Conversely, his weakest moments come when he tries to let his visual imagination out a notch, as in the airplane sequences in International House and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, where his urge to let fly, artistically, clashes with his native narrowness and his juggler’s affinity for commonplace objects.

When Fields fails, the effect is peculiar: it is not as if a joke hasn’t worked, but as if it has not even been made. That is, one wonders why he thought that particular idea was funny to begin with. It is as if his art were trying at times to be something other than comedy. (Those gruesome little scenes between husband and wife—funny?) Comedy was his mode, the thing he had learned so bloodily, but one wonders whether the handsome young chap in the early photos, who looks as if he’s posing for the Andover yearbook, wouldn’t have liked just a little bit more.

What we do know is that he worked uncommonly hard to educate himself, taking an autodidact’s delight in long and unusual words, which later did him a comic favor but may have started out more seriously. Linguistic pretension is a staple of American humor as it is of Cockney, but the taste is not confined to comedians. (A reading by Fields of the later Henry James would about cover the range of cultural aspiration, in an era when even fastidious Americans had to go and overdo it.) Anyway one senses more than once that Fields is sniffing around literature itself with a poor boy’s wistfulness. Fields: “That’s a triple superlative. Do you think you can handle it?” Mae West: “Yeah, and I can kick it around.” Alas, literature in any form other than parody would almost certainly have been beyond him. His early letters are incredibly stilted and ill-phrased, and it is something of a miracle that he wound up such a master of phrasing. But he could only be a master in comedy; and perhaps he used fancy words humorously because he could not get them quite right seriously. His non-comic writing remained as stiff as a schoolboy’s to the end: not the least of reasons for hating his family.

Fortunately for everyone he discovered Dickens, and thus found a quasi-literary mode for his gifts, which would have to do. His Mr. Micawber was a masterpiece: and if critics object that he was just being himself—well, that is the whole point. He read Dickens constantly and wanted to play Dick Swiveller next. This he could also have done as himself. For all Dickens’s variety, his orotund word-mad wind-bags have a strong family resemblance.

Oddly enough, Carlotta Monti, the fun-loving mistress (“Our respective senses of humor dove-tailed,” she says solemnly, as Ann Hathaway might mention her sense of rhythm), does the most justice to the Dickens connection, possibly with a little help from Cy Rice, her collaborator. She notes the similarities between the funny names they both used—though fails to note that this is one further connection with the larger Cockney tradition. Dickens was a great frequenter of London theater, where the humor of quaint names coupled with braggadocio goes back at least to the sixteenth century. Ronald Fields, in one of his brighter moments, observes that “Fields stole as much from Dickens as Dickens took from people like Fields; he plagiarized Shakespeare’s Falstaff just as Shakespeare copied an Elizabethan like Larson E. Whipsnade.”

Placing this in a Far Western setting, as in My Little Chickadee, Fields reproduces the host of English swindlers and con men who ripped off the territories. Yet this is only one aspect of Fields and should not be overstated. I would not dream of claiming this flower of Philadelphia for England, although his grandfather did have a Cockney accent. Fields cannot be reduced to techniques and traditions, even if these have been scandalously overlooked by the trauma-mongers. No technique for instance could account for his nose—though it might account for his voice (has any commentator really told us what he sounded like in real life or when young?). But there is something about the inner Fields that is elusive and bothersome, and holds our attention in a way that mere talent could not. Put it like this. I have always felt that the idea of Fields is funnier than Fields himself; that even the face and voice he has taught us to remember are not quite the real ones. (I am always surprised when I attend a Fields movie by how wrong his imitators are, and by some troubling quality in his face that no cartoonist has captured.) There is something about Fields himself that leaves one staring vacantly after the laughter is over.

Goddamn the whole friggin’ world and everyone in it but you, Carlotta,” are the last words Miss Monti records. The same comic techniques can be used for vastly different purposes: when Oliver Hardy fluttered his hands, it expressed embarrassment or foolish pleasure; with Fields, it was naked distaste, a horror of being touched, equal to Twain’s and Kaufman’s, plus a reaching for his wallet—touched in that sense too. He hated people, all right, although in fits and starts. His bursts of generosity and meanness alternated so violently as to be almost physically painful to watch. No one has properly calibrated this to the rhythms of his drunkenness—e.g., when he calls FDR “Gumlegs, our President,” we know it’s sanitarium time—but even on his good days, and with friendly biographers like Taylor and Monti on hand, there is a gray bile in the air that must have tormented the good-natured side of him. I tend to shy away from Freudian terminology (Freud on humor being even more undebatably disastrous than Freud on women), but if Ben Jonson was, as Edmund Wilson says, the greatest of anal playwrights, Fields would have been the perfect actor for Jonson, just as he was perfect for the extravagances of Dickens.

To some small extent, his misan-thropy, like Groucho’s, was a product of stinginess and not just its cause; if you like someone, you may have to give them something. (Also as with Groucho, his misanthropy was professionally necessary, the essence of his comic point of view, so there was every reason to cultivate it and none to restrain it.) In an incredible lifetime of letters to his estranged wife, sunnily explained by Ronald as showing “the strain of trying to maintain a relationship largely by letter,” W. C. whines and curses about the money he has to send her and cries poverty, even when he is doing handsomely with the Ziegfeld Follies. The self-pity and sheer hatred of giving come close at times to hysteria. Ronald says, “Only a few people knew of the love he still harbored for [his wife],” so out of deference to the living we’ll leave it at that: except to say that publication of these letters will not add to the number.

So loving someone briefly (his wife Hattie became a vaudeville widow almost immediately) had cost him plenty: and the itch was raw until he died, leaving Hattie virtually disinherited. Yet it is worth noting that he did keep the connection with his wife going and that he did not divorce her to marry Miss Monti—and that he left Miss Monti, his loyal mistress of fourteen years, even less money (twenty-five dollars a week to be precise, bequeathing the rest to an orphanage for “white boys and girls, where no religion of any sort is to be preached”). Stinginess was his ultimate weapon against his near ones, a fluttering of the hands against their embrace; yet it was mixed with a punctilious sense of obligation, of hanging on to them even if it cost him. Domesticity had a horrible fascination for Fields, as one might guess from his subject matter, so long as it was kept horrible enough, “with the wedding knot tied around the wife’s neck.” That was the only kind of home he knew, and he could never quite leave it. He lied about running away as a boy, and he lied about running away as a grown-up. The de-mythologizers win that one. Fields was secretly respectable, during the gaps in his drunken dreamlife.

On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia” was his chosen epitaph, and one’s mind travels back to the Dukenfields’ household to see what he meant by Philadelphia, and the first sound one picks up is James Dukenfield’s big hand rattling off little Claude’s ear. If that was his earliest view of humanity, it can’t have appealed to him much. And if he loved his father, he might have decided the returns on loving weren’t worth it. A lifetime of parodying and downright imitating his father and his whole wretched family would seem more to the point.

And yet. There is a jaunty confidence and determination in those early photos that argue against any sickroom theory of Fields and his comedy. And he left too many heart-broken friends behind to have been the deformed clown of romantic legend. His humor is not just some neurotic compensation, but a cunning assault on Art, in the limited conditions of his life, and in its way a triumph of character. By his prime in the 1930s he had so welded his act to his life that he could “think he was W. C. Fields” and get away with it—though Ronald’s book reminds us that he couldn’t always. One must, like Taylor and Monti, follow the master’s own selections. Never mind. A man who can slash his Jack roses with his cane, snarling, “Bloom, damn you—bloom for my friends,” cannot be tamed by any number of relatives, even the horrific ones of W. C.’s nightmares. The family in The Bank Dick stand stiffly on the porch in their Sunday best: Egbert Sousé, Fields’s dream of himself, his masterpiece, escapes down the driveway to the Black Pussy Cafe and freedom.

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