Milking an Elk

A master of both insult and befuddlement, he was agreeably both a scamp and a dupe. And he rose to the fore of his eminence as an entertainer at a time in the history of popular culture, during the Twenties and Thirties in America, when it was still possible for quite ordinary folk—the small-town businessman, the churchgoing housewife—to accept that deep down they were—as he so frequently kept telling them—nothing but mean, dumb, and irredeemable. He spoke haughtily of Charlie Chaplin as “that ballet dancer,” testily of Walter Winchell as a “little schmuck,” and impolitically of Mae West as a “plumber’s idea of Cleopatra.” And on the subject of love, he was no less determinedly emphatic. “There was a woman who drove me to drink,” he conceded, “and I never had the sense to thank her.”

A devotee of Morpheus, he was prodigious in his ability to fall asleep on the top of a pool-hall table, in a barber-shop chair, or on the crowded floor of some Hotel Street saloon. In this, if in a more genteel vein, he was much emulated by Calvin Coolidge. To the sweet Rochelle Hudson, his adolescent daughter in Poppy, where he was that resonant pedant, Professor Eustace McGargle, he counseled endearingly: “Let me give you one word of advice. Never give a sucker an even break.” He was a mythomaniac. And it was long his Plutonic claim to have undergone a terrible childhood, that, for example, not only was he born, as he wrote, in some “old melodrama,” but, indeed, grew up in a hole stuck fast in the ground, from which he saw everything, and learned even more. As for the spectacle of life, he regarded it, in general, as a shabby affair, about as coarse as the flesh of the burbot, the only member of the cod family, he noted, ever to exist exclusively in fresh water—which in his eyes, at least, was yet another black mark against the esteemed virtue of sobriety.

Fanatical about everything, he was most fanatical about money. On tour in Johannesburg—he was a supreme juggler—he insisted on being paid his weight in gold. Often it was his fancy to keep a series of bank accounts in a series of foreign lands. And yet like the habits of the fellow countrymen he so affected to despise—“I am free of all prejudices,” he blandly asserted, “I hate everyone equally”—he would always be, “for the nonce” or beyond, proverbially short of dough. His signature on a contract in Hollywood—whenever he made a film there—would inevitably spell trouble. Once during the shooting of The Big Broadcast of 1938, Mitchell Leisen, the director of the film, suffered a heart attack. And once during the shooting of International House, on location at Long Beach, California, there was an earthquake.

He was mordantly averse to the bubble bath, Charlie McCarthy (whom he dubbed “a termite’s flophouse” or “an animated hitching post”), the Nativity Scene, the Brahms “Lullaby,” the Canis familiaris (if he were out for a stroll, a dog would obligingly cross over a street and take a bite out of him), and, of course, all displays of honesty.

He was Alfred Jarry for the common man. And his memory was merciless. In the old days of vaudeville, it was his sorry fate to encounter himself, one blithe afternoon at Columbus, Ohio, that great football town, on the same bill as the four Marx Brothers. He never forgave them for this. And he was a star on Broadway, in the Ziegfeld Follies or George White’s Scandals, when the venerable E.H. Sothern was still doing Shakespeare, or when the hefty Wallace Beery was still running around on stage in drag, or when even Sophie Tucker was yet the pert and calescent Sophie Tucker of the old speak-easy era, long before, as he cogently reminded us, “she got respectable and became Kate Smith.” He went far back.

Short of stature and portly in girth, puffed at the hips, he had a figure that often resembled the shape of an egg, much in the mode of a drawing by Tenniel of Tweedledum or Tweedledee. And his countenance bore, if cast in the proper light, an unmistakable affinity to the rumpled majesty or bovine serenity of Victoria Regina. (See the John Decker portrait of him.) He had, as well, a bulbous nose that was as red as a lollipop and exacerbated by eczema, and a capacious pate, set off, in solitary splendor, with the ghost of a cowlick. His voice, undoubtedly the most arresting aspect of his theatrical genius, was peevishly nasal or churlishly plaintive; often, too, it could reverberate like the sound of a creaking door. He wore, usually, spats and a cravat, kid gloves, polka-dot pants, and a wide bowler hat, accompanied, at times, by a large black morning coat, in the lapel of which there sprouted a carnation, which he would sniff at daintily. No matter. He always looked dumpy and déclassé—or as if ever on the alert for his next meal ticket.

His fingers, moreover, were the nervous and expressive fingers—however squat and thick—of a roadhouse card-sharp. And his smile, at best, was an amiable snarl. He smoked a stogie, and waddled as he walked, maneuvering, as he did so, a Malacca cane, much as the stentorian Dr. Samuel Johnson is said to have kept maneuvering a club along the rowdy streets of London, in order to stave off the pestiferous hooligan.

A misanthrope, commonly in the guise of some fly-by-night entrepreneur, he would characteristically preface each belligerent greeting with the cheery salutation: “My friend.” Or an inveterate tippler, the bane of the WCTU, he would lecture exhaustively across the footlights on many an Orpheum or Keiths circuit, or before the mike at the “Chase and Sanborn Hour,” about the evil of what he called “spiritus fermentus” or the devil’s brew. “Now don’t say you can’t swear off drinking,” he disarmingly protested. “It’s easy. I’ve done it a thousand times.” And a misogynist, he would duly celebrate the putative joys of domesticity. “A couple who intended to get married, which they did,” he recalled fondly, “but not to each other.”

Nothing that he said was ever, to be sure, particularly funny, and still less was it witty. And yet his distress at being a hostage to the more calamitous possibilities of our human condition was invariably uproarious. His fans could watch him engage patriotically, if disappointedly, in one get-rich-quick scheme after another to soften his passage on the via dolorosa. (See Fools for Luck.) Or frolic at a golf course or a Sunday picnic, in a paddle-boat race or a rickety automobile, in a marathon game of Ping-Pong at a fashionable society ball or in a swindler’s game of poker at an upright frontier bar, in a papier-mâché airplane high over the Bund of pre-war Shanghai or dubiously beneath the Big Top on a flying trapeze. Or even, in one redoubtable two-reeler, Mack Sennett’s The Fatal Glass of Beer, teach the hoi polloi, East or West, how to “milk an elk.” Still, it did not help much. He always knew that Philadelphia—his birthplace and the City of Brotherly Love (once described by him with superlative disdain as “the greatest cemetery in the world”)—would be lying in wait somewhere.

He was a bibliophile and autodidact, his grandiloquent turns of phrase—he might look up at a sky and deem it “Tyrian blue”—influenced (much as historians are loath to admit it) the noble rhetoric of Winston Churchill; and his attitude toward Mrs. Grundy and other civic ills—as the President of Klopstokia in Million Dollar Legs, he snapped: “Put yourself under arrest”—added immeasurably, we have no doubt, to the saturnine sparkle of H.L. Mencken.

In 1934 he portrayed that affable, if incorrigible, Piccadilly duffer, Mr. Micawber, with Freddie Bartholomew, in the George Cukor film version of David Copperfield (after Charles Laughton had rejected the part), as if he were also, mirabile dictu, that execrable homunculus, the notorious Mr. Quilp, in The Old Curiosity Shop—but it gave to his performance a touch of sclerotic impishness which many the world over were to find exquisitely poignant. And he held firm to the tautological belief that in life, style was everything and everything was style, so much so that when, late in his career, when he was already in his sixties, he appeared opposite Mae West (surely a near contemporary, give or take a decade or so), in the teasing mésalliance of My Little Chickadee, it was as if the Irresistible Force had finally met the Immovable Object. And yet, who among us will easily forget the two of them, tin-horn gambler and cow-town adventuress, strangers on a stagecoach or a wagon train, lolloping across the Old West, the Indians asseverating on the warpath nearby, and he musing sonorously over her: “Flower Belle! What a euphonious appellation! Easy on the ears and a banquet for the eyes!…Ah, what symmetrical digits!”

Dauntless as he was in the pursuit of the accoutrements of culture, he always wanted to play the eponymous hero of The Pickwick Papers. But though Orson Welles and Griffith, with whom he had made the old silent Sally of the Sawdust, twice sought to sell the property to the Hollywood studios, each time they failed. While over at Metro, once Frank Morgan was chosen over him, he lost out incarnating for posterity the fabulous Wizard to Judy Garland’s Dorothy; and then over at Fox, in a sequence from the all-star production of Tales of Manhattan, his tête-à-tête with the divine Margaret Dumont (on loan from Groucho) ended up, regrettably, on the cutting-room floor. Addicted as he was to innumerable aliases—“Every name I use is an actual name I’ve seen somewhere,” he admitted to Norman Taurog, “and if I think they’re funny I’ll remember them”—unquestionably the most resounding in that line of endeavor was the tripartite “Mahatma Kane Jeeves” (see The Bank Dick), closely followed by the somewhat more truncated glory of “Larson E. Whipsnade” (see You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man).

But either on screen or on stage, either gamboling in a drawing room or addressing a sweltering tribe of Watusi deep in the belly of the African veldt, or smashing a cue stick most ungallantly through Ed Wynn’s trick hat, he seemed to be—whatever the site, whatever the year—a citizen of a world that was almost entirely of his own invention. And yet he was pestered there by a nemesis he could never quite fathom or name, a world in typically Carrollian fashion that he would soon discover to be populated lamentably with the reverse of everything: feckless pimps, luckless gamblers, effete lion tamers, illiterate diplomats, venal magistrates, and a bevy of chorus girls who might on an instant become—as with Cora Witherspoon or ZaSu Pitts—harridan or frump. And if he could hear what no one else did, still he was assiduously deaf to what everyone else heard.

His dreams, too—helped considerably by Four Roses—were more apocryphal than those of Nebuchadnezzar. In one such misbegotten reverie, he espied a wan Stan Laurel ambling down the left side of a city street, and then a bustling Oliver Hardy coming down the other. At once he ran into a five-and-dime, where, fortunately, Lyda Roberti (or maybe it was Peggy Hopkins Joyce) stood valiantly at attention in ermine and pearls behind a soda fountain. Only she was on the verge of tears. So he ordered her a cup of coffee, or java—often he could be a stickler for the vernacular—because as he informed her imperiously: “I am the manager of this emporium.” This dream, like so many of his films, one or two of which had saved Universal from the auction block, was poor in development, flimsy in content, scanty of plot, and witlessly surreal. And yet—again like so many of his films—was somehow devastatingly comic.

In not a few of his films he would be cast, incongruously enough, in the role of a family man; it was never clear in any of these films, however, which he abhorred the more: his wife or his children. In Song of the Open Road, one of his last films, he had little to do except listen to the voice of the young Jane Powell bravely essay an aria or two; it was obvious, though, from the glacial expression on his face that he found the experience most excruciating. And doing a scene, over and over, one sorrowful morning, with an obstreperous Baby LeRoy, that “Trojan infant,” as he indelicately called him, would attempt repeatedly to conk him on the head with his bottle, until he was able to spike it with a bit of gin. Thereupon, the quondam delinquent sailed through each and every scene with the veritable aplomb of a Barrymore. “Thus,” he crowed proudly, “have the sublime ingredients of many a Bacchanalian revel triumphed yet once again over those of milk and water.”

No doubt, the equanimity or cracker-barrel politesse (“People who fly into a rage always make a bad landing”) of the gum-chewing and rope-twirling Will Rogers, whom he first met, by chance, when Rogers was an itinerant cowpoke in the tumult of Cape Town at the height of the Boer War, were philosophically beyond him. But perhaps the mulish Buster Keaton, at the mercy of a runaway train or an avalanche of falling rocks, was his true doppelgänger, if in a leaner form. And the secret passion, the great untold inamorata of his life, stealthily worshiped by him in the shadows of his local Bijou, was, one may well imagine, Betty Boop, the diminutive Aphrodite of the animated cartoon, with her shapely legs and undulating thighs, her kittenish face and celebrated wee voice, a valentine of a soubrette.

Yet surreal or no—he was born, incidentally, in 1879, the same year in which Will Rogers was born, and Einstein was born, and Wallace Stevens was born, and just before Rimbaud disappeared into the wilds of Aden—there was little of our century about him. Definitely not a Thirties screwball, or even a Twenties prankster, he was essentially a refugee from the immigrant era of the Gilded Age of Mark Twain, that Beowulfian filibusterer (along with Swift and Dickens, his favorite author)—the gaslit era of his ragamuffin youth, the era of the Kitty Hawk, the Panama Canal, the nascent skyscraper, and the chamber pot. The era, in short, of the closing of the frontier, or when the split between rural and urban life was not quite so apparent, and when the teller of the tall tale in the provinces and the medicine man selling his wares in the din of the metropolis were yet, more or less, one and the same. So he appealed most to those audiences which still had associations with the older moeurs, or decrepit memories, now and again, of Elsie Janis or Artemus Ward, of Tony Pastor or Ambrose Bierce, and thus were able to best appreciate the particular savor of his own infuriated and antiquated brand of whimsy.

Similarly, unlike the delivery of a line by such later comedians as George Burns or Jack Benny, his own was not so much grounded in a fine sense of timing—though in a pinch he could manage that as well—as in his own crotchety sense of himself, ever a martyr in conflict with a lifetime of ceaseless inanity. But of course it was precisely through that crotchety sense of himself that he was to become, in the end, the only contemporary American humorist who was so uniquely a character, in the original fictional meaning of that term—as distinct, say, from the syncopated spiel of Groucho Marx, the rapidity of whose improvised vituperation was to become, in turn, a precursor of the stand-up patter so much in vogue today.

When, in 1946, and before the onslaught of postwar American television, he finally lay dying on a bed at the Las Encinas Sanatarium in sunny Pasadena, Gene Fowler, an old crony out of the Great White Way, visited him. “What are you doing reading the Bible?” Fowler asked. It was then William Claude Fields ( Dukenfield), gently put down the good book close to his breast, and with that weather-beaten twinkle yet aglint in his puffy visage, he who had once so lordly declaimed: “More people are driven insane through religious hysteria than by the drinking of alcohol,” now wryly allowed of the sacred text: “Just looking for the loopholes.”

Louise Brooks, in an affectionate memoir of him in Lulu in Hollywood,* has attested to the curious if melancholy fact that contrary to his irascible persona, he was, in actuality, wonderfully kind, but that, even so, he had, or so she believed, no real intimate, other than (and here mostly only in a professional sense) Paul Jones, a producer at Paramount. And that whenever he would stretch out a hand—yearningly enough—toward Beauty or Goodness or Purity of Soul—he would be made to endure yet once again the tabescent trauma of rejection.

It was rumored that as a baby he had the hateful eyes of an old man, while as an old man it was more than dolefully apparent that he had the hurtful eyes of a baby. And though he went round the earth twice, and was as much the habitué of the Southern Cross as he was of the Yankee Clipper, or hobnobbed, de haut en bas, with the great and the near great—including Edward VII, Tom Mix, and J. Edgar Hoover—as well as with those at the bottom of the heap, or played the Palace in New York or the Palace in London or the Wintergarten in Berlin more prepotently than anyone had ever done before, still, as with Methuselah, his favorite expression might well have been—it is yet another sign of his benighted probity—“You’re telling me!”

As a wayward youth from Philadelphia, he early made the acquaintance of the direst poverty, engaging, at times, in acts of poaching or other petty thievery; and then later as a cosmopolitan, if disruptive, adult, making his way as a juggler, he would come to know the inside of many a hoosegow—usually because of drink—both here and in many a distant continent or city—“thrown in the can,” as he once succinctly put it, “in Philadelphia, London, Berlin, Africa, and Australia.” His favorite afternoon was, typically, a rainy one, and he died in the same year as Gertrude Stein—and on Christmas Day besides. Unlike Heinrich Heine, he could not but disagree that God has given us tongues that we may say something pleasant or sweet to our fellow men, though unlike others he was fully aware that Heine was speaking only ironically. In that troublesome, if magnetic, arena of show biz, familiar to him since he was a child, and surely his only real abode, whether in the squalor of skid row or the opulence of Tolucca Lake or a Laughlin Park mansion, he was, again and again—“ay, every inch a king”—the dyspeptic ringmaster of his own solitude.

It’s a funny old world,” he meditatively concluded—this irrepressible slayer of cant and foe of treacle, with an elegiac wistfulness. “A funny old world,” he owlishly reiterated. “And a man’s lucky if he gets out of it alive.” A grand curmudgeon, he thought of everyone but himself as a cigar-store Indian; and then, perennially, a jolly tragedian, he thought of himself—with a valorous little shrug or bow—as doomed from the start.


Screwball comedy, begun in the middle Thirties and ending about a decade or so later, was a distinctively cinematic phenomenon. Though owing a debt to Broadway—the farces of Hecht and MacArthur, the smart set of Barry or Behrman—its mating of verbal and visual wit was, in fact—along with the social-protest movie—Hollywood’s way of finally liberating itself from the staginess of many an early sound film. Whether depicting the silliness of the rich (My Man Godfrey), a trailer camp (It Happened One Night), or a court of law (True Confession), screwball comedy had both a specificity and a sprightliness that were inimitably its own. The antic behavior or zany romanticism, the references to everything from the New Deal to Freud, bread lines to jazz—all suddenly brought to the Hollywood screen an insouciance and cosmopolitanism which mass audiences had never before known. Above all, the irreverence of the screwball comedy was the irreverence of the Zeitgeist, and not, as with Fields and Mae West, the irreverence of the monstre sacré.

West and Fields, by comparison, were like Jonsonian “humours,” creatures of a totally private and timeless universe, Fields eternally the importunate scalawag, West eternally the cartoon femme du monde (“Goodness,” says a hatcheck girl to Mae in her first appearance on film in Night After Night, “what beautiful diamonds”; “Goodness,” famously retorts Mae, “had nothing to do with it, dearie”). What they had for so long been on stage they continued to be on screen. The camera recorded them but in no way enhanced them. Rather, it was they themselves who enhanced the screen by their own larger-than-life presences, each gesture, each inflection complete and indelible and requiring nothing more.

No doubt that is why Gregory La Cava, the director of My Man Godfrey, who had so often guided Fields through the silents and talkies, was unable to use him in the new and mercurial world of the screwball genre. And surely the same is true of Mae West in her relation to Wesley Ruggles, the director of True Confession. Of course it may be that the mad scramble and extemporaneous style of two of Fields’s last films, The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, were his own idiosyncratic way of finally catching up. These films, brilliantly, if haplessly, sui generis, left no heirs.

  1. *

    Knopf, 1982.