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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.

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.

  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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