Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Comedian W.C. Fields starred in My Little Chickadee and The Bank Dick.
Awards: Hollywood Walk of Fame
Born in Philadelphia on January 29, 1880, W.C. Fields was a versatile comedian who showcased his talents on the stage, on the screen, and on the airwaves. Fields began his career as a juggler in vaudeville shows before he made the leap to acting. Fields starred in both silent films and talking pictures before he began writing screenplays. After a serious illness, Fields took his comedy routines to the radio. His career options dwindled as he was plagued by an addiction to alcohol and a recurring illness. He died of a stomach hemorrhage on Christmas Day, 1946, in Pasadena, California.
W.C. Fields, originally William Claude Dukenfield, was born on January 29, 1880, in Philadelphia. Fields, who derived his stage name from his initials and the latter part of his surname, was born to James Dukenfield, an Englishman, and Kate Felton Dukenfield, a native Philadelphian. W.C. Fields seems to have been greatly influenced by his mother's sense of humor. His mother would greet neighbors, then mutter caustic comments under her breath. As Wes D. Gehring notes in W.C. Fields, a Bio-Bibliography, "the apparently congenial address followed by the cutting aside is the cornerstone of Fields' comedy."
Fields' family was poor, and as the firstborn, Fields felt it the most: "I was the oldest child. We were all very poor, but I was poor first." He helped his father sell fruit from a fruit cart, and then moved on to peddling newspapers. Rather than call out the headlines to passersby, Fields would call out the obituaries or filler stories that involved strange names, showing his preference for "euphonious appellations," a quirk that would appear in Fields' later screenwriting efforts.
At the age of fifteen, Fields witnessed the Byrnes Brothers' juggling act and saw a way to escape poverty. He immediately began practicing, starting with the fruit from his father's cart. He diversified and began juggling all sorts of items, building both suspense and comedy into his routine. A strained relationship with his father caused Fields to leave home the next year. After leaving, Fields felt keenly the education he was missing and became an avid reader, enjoying works by Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
Fields struggled to make a living while trying to establish a juggling career. He was able to join a New York-based burlesque company called The Monte Carlo Girls that toured in American small towns, but his only real pay was experience. While touring with this company, Fields found himself stranded in Kent, Ohio, when the company's manager fled the hotel with his bills unpaid. Fields had to sell his own coat to gather enough money to return to New York. He then took work in a dime museum, an exhibition house of performers, allowing him to gain not only further experience, but also a paycheck. By sixteen, Fields was talented enough to appear onstage as "W.C. Fields, the Tramp Juggler" in the Orpheum vaudeville show.
From the late 1890s, Fields toured across the country in vaudeville houses, establishing a reputation for his juggling skills. As Gehring argues, Fields set himself apart by realizing "the comic importance of human vulnerability." Fields notes, "Although my specialty was juggling, I used it only as a means to an end...I invented little acts, which would seem like episodes out of real life; and I used my juggling to furnish the comedy element." In 1900, he married Harriet Hughes, a chorus girl from the vaudeville shows. Hughes assisted Fields in his juggling act until she gave birth to their first son, William Claude Fields, Jr., in 1904. The birth of her son necessitated Hughes's retirement, and Fields supported his wife and child through weekly checks. The couple remained separated for the rest of their marriage, and Fields' attitude towards Hughes seems to have partly inspired his onscreen depiction of the henpecked husband.
By this time, less than a decade after he started his career, Fields had become known worldwide for his juggling skills. He set a goal for himself of earning a thousand dollars a week, and to achieve it he began to take his act abroad when the American vaudeville houses closed in the summer. Thus, by performing in Europe, Fields was able to work year-round. Fields's international bookings also increased his prestige; on October 11, 1913, Fields performed in front of King Edward VII at Buckingham Palace.
Fields growing reputation enabled him to participate in the Ziegfeld Follies of Broadway in 1915. Fields stayed with the Follies for the next seven years, perfecting the blend of juggling, acting, and pantomime in his stage routines. He also saw his salary increase from $200 to several thousand dollars a week. During this time, Fields was inspired by the people he saw every day. He confessed:
I always had made up my own acts; built them out of my knowledge and observation of real life. I'd had wonderful opportunities to study people: and every time I went out on the stage I tried to show the audience some bit of true human nature.
Fields' next venture was also on Broadway: he had a leading role in the hit musical, Poppy, in 1923. In this musical, which re-made his career, Fields played Professor Eustice McGargle, a grafter who tries to use his own daughter in one of his cons. This role allowed Fields to display his humor with the spoken word, a showcase that ironically led to many offers for parts in silent films. As Fields explains, "I couldn't get a straight offer for the silent drama until I got a speaking part on the stage." Fields reprised the role of McGargle in his first major silent film, Sally of the Sawdust (1925). Although Fields's performance garnered critical praise, such as a Variety review that said "so does he here scream his screen debut as a film funny man in Sally...He gives a smoothness to his comedy stuff that cannot be missed," Fields himself was unhappy with the way the film had been edited since it often diminished the comic effect of his performances.
During the remainder of the decade, Fields acted in eight more silent films, including It's the Old Army Game (1926) and Fools for Luck (1928). It's the Old Army Game featured another successful antihero role for Fields. In this film, Fields played druggist Elmer Prettywillie, whose comedy routine rises out of the frustrations of his daily life. Fields's performing style, honed during his time with the Follies, was aided by his physique. His cartoon-like body, with a bulbous nose and round torso on top of skinny legs, added to his antihero persona, which he frequently showcased in the form of the harried husband or disgruntled worker. Fields's one-liners, such as "I am free of prejudice. I hate everyone equally," only added to his comedic portrayal of the misanthrope. Fields's famous quotations about children (he preferred them "boiled or fried") and alcohol ("Now don't say you can't swear off drinking; it's easy. I've done it a thousand times"), allowed him to create an easily recognizable comedic persona.
Fields was often self-conscious about the way films tried to change his character from the image his comedy style had created. As a result, Fields frequently ad-libbed or pitched his own jokes and concepts in films, whether or not they seemed to make sense to anyone else. Fields revealed his frustrations with the studio film system when he said:
The writer, director, supervisor, and the assassin of humor, known as the cutter, must have faith in me and believe in me and not hate me or at least be friendly toward me...when they are dealing with me, they must accept me as I am and not gang up on me.
In 1931, Fields, at the age of 51, finally made the jump to Hollywood. That year, he made his debut in a sound feature, Her Majesty Love. In this film, Fields played a former vaudevillian juggler who loved to drink. The dialogue in the film reveals Fields's characteristic humor about both women and drinking. When he thinks his daughter is tipsy, he responds, "It's a very good omen for marriage. I was half-stewed when I proposed to your mother."
During the next two years, Fields had leading and supporting roles for Paramount films before he began scripting and starring in them. By 1933, Fields had written screenplays for four short films: The Dentist, The Fatal Glass of Beer, The Pharmacist, and The Barber Shop. Fields drew material for his screenplays from a variety of sources. The plots were often based on his silent film movies or vaudeville skits, while the language frequently relied on humor typical of Dickens's novels. The characters were usually caricatures, with laughable names gleaned from his days as a newspaper peddler. Fields preferred to underwrite his scripts and then improvise on set, a practice he found "a far better premise both economically and practically. When they are over-written it makes the picture more costly, and when you begin deleting scenes entirely or cutting them, it ruins the story and the smoothness."
In 1934, Fields appeared in five features: Six of a Kind, You're Telling Me, The Old-Fashioned Way, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, and It's a Gift. His performance in these films met with critical acclaim and led 1930s Film Critic Otis Ferguson to write, "Fields was the best comedian then working in motion pictures." The performances also, as in the case of The Old Fashioned Way, highlighted Fields's juggling skills. Although Fields had a loyal following, his work was usually more popular with the critical community than with audiences. Critics considered It's a Gift, which features both Fields's writing and his acting, his greatest work. Film Historian William Everson believed the movie was "among the finest comedy work from any period and any country."
The following year, Fields starred as Micawber in a screen adaptation of David Copperfield, alongside Lionel Barrymore. The role of Micawber, one of Fields's favorite literary figures, allowed the actor to reprise his huckster characterization. Fields had identified with Dickens's portrayal of the beleaguered working classes and outcast children since his own time as a runaway. In fact, some of the common features of Fields's films, such as a loyal daughter, a nagging wife, and a way of playing with words, are all characteristic of Dickens's work as well. The screen adaptation of David Copperfield was met with critical acclaim. A New York Times Review classified the film as "the most profoundly satisfying screen manipulation of a great novel that the camera has ever given us." Gehring concludes that "David Copperfield was probably, during Fields's lifetime, his most roundly applauded cinema achievement."
In the same year, Fields appeared in The Man on the Flying Trapeze, a comedy with parallels to his personal life. Fields, who played Ambrose Wolfinger, a man whose marriage was as strained as Fields's own. His slothful brother-in-law in the film, Claude, has the same name as Fields's son, and from Fields's own accounts, the two Claudes also shared their laziness. Fields's real-life mistress, Carlotta Monti, is featured in the film as his loyal secretary. The next year, Fields only completed one film, Poppy, due to an ongoing battle with pneumonia that worsened into tuberculosis. This period of Fields's life was stressful because he distrusted doctors and was often unwilling to part with his money for their suggested treatments. After his recovery, Fields admitted that illness gave him a new outlook on life:
I feel that this is my second time on earth. I am starting all over again from scratch. It's all borrowed time I am living on, but I'm certainly enjoying it...What I've gone through and come out of by a narrow squeak has certainly made me appreciate living, something I never did before.
Though Fields had a new lease on life, he retained his sense of humor. Though he could not drink (an acknowledged favorite pastime) during his period of convalescence, he joked about it:
I admit I do enjoy a rum omelet for breakfast, brandied peaches or cherries for lunch, and mince pie with brandy sauce—sometimes I have several helpings—for dinner. But I do not drink. On this point I stand firm...I now find I can get a pleasant glow for far less than it formerly cost me.
Due to his illness, which at times he believed would end his career, Fields became interested in radio. In 1937, he lent his voice to the airwaves on TheChase and Sanborn Hour. The program also featured Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen with his dummy, Charlie McCarthy. Fields and McCarthy's bantering feud typified the insult comedy of the time. Fields was able to draw humor from his public and long-established hatred of children, which he turned on the teenage McCarthy. Although Fields only regularly starred on the program for five months, his early involvement and later guest appearances made the program a radio staple from the late 1930s through the 1940s.
In 1938, Universal stole Fields away from Paramount by offering to pay him $125,000 for each film he starred in and $25,000 for each script he wrote. He starred in five films for Universal, of which he wrote four. In You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939), Fields played Larson E. Whipsnade, a circus owner on the verge of bankruptcy. Fields was joined in the film by Bergen and his ventriloquist dummy, Charlie McCarthy. Fields was ultimately unhappy with the film; although he had written a version of the script, the film's producer gave the project to several other writers without including Fields's input. After the completion of this film, the Masquers' Club held a roast in Fields's honor. When author and political scientist Dr. Leo Rosten had to introduce Fields, he uttered the famous line "Any man who hates dogs and babies can't be all bad." The description made the news in the United States and Britain, but, over the years, has been mistakenly attributed to Fields himself.
Fields also was unhappy with the completed script for My Little Chickadee (1940), so he and Costar Mae West decided to write their own scenes in their own styles. Of the experience, Fields said, "During my entire experience in the entertainment world, I have never had anyone catch my character as Miss West has. In fact, she is the only author that has ever known what I was trying to do." In the film, West's character, Flower Bell Lee, is chased out of a small western town, where she encounters Fields's character, con man Cuthbert J. Twillie, on the train. The two are "married" in a fake ceremony, before Twillie becomes sheriff in Greasewood City. This film would become the largest grossing movie Fields made for Universal.
Fields also published his first book, Fields for President, in 1940, an election year. Poking fun at Presidential Candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt, Fields wrote:
I shall, my fellow citizens, offer no such empty panaceas as a New Deal, or an Old Deal, or even a Re-Deal. No, my friends, the reliable old False Shuffle was good enough for my father and it's good enough for me.
As the only book he ever published, Fields for President is considered a unique collection of Fields' comedy writing.
Fields received sole writing credit for 1940's The Bank Dick, under the pen name Mahatma Kane Jeeves, a playful pseudonym stolen from a vaudeville skit, "My hat and cane, Jeeves." The film, which is Fields's last anti-heroic cinema classic, focuses on Fields's character, a guard at a small town bank. When Universal complained that the ending was weak, Fields refused to give in to a more exciting ending. Instead, he included a slapstick chase scene that was a favorite of critics and audiences alike.
After 1941, Fields's failing health limited him to supporting roles in three pictures: Follow the Boys (1944), Song of the Open Road (1944), and Sensations of 1945 (1944). After a brief period of giving up alcohol, Fields succumbed to the lure of the drink. He was even more distrustful of doctors with his second illness and claimed that "when doctors and undertakers meet they always wink at each other." Fields lost his battle with alcohol and illness on Christmas Day, 1946, in Pasadena, California. Before he died, he suggested an epitaph for his headstone: "On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia." He was posthumously awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7004 Hollywood Boulevard.
Fields, W.C. Fields for President. 1940. Reprint. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1971.
Sally of the Sawdust. Dir. D.W. Griffith. Perf. Carol Dempster and W.C. Fields. United Artists, 1925.
It's the Old Army Game. Dir. Edward Sutherland. Perf. W.C. Fields and Louise Brooks. Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, 1926.
Her Majesty Love. Dir. William Dieterle. Perf. Marilyn Miller and W.C. Fields. Warner Brothers, 1931.
It's a Gift. Dir. Normal McLeod. Perf. W.C. Fields and Kathleen Howard. Paramount, 1934.
David Copperfield. Dir. George Cukor. Perf. W.C. Fields and Lionel Barrymore. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1935.
The Man on the Flying Trapeze. Dir. Clyde Bruckman. Perf. W.C. Fields and Mary Brian. Paramount, 1935.
You Can't Cheat an Honest Man. Dir. George Marshall. Perf. W.C. Fields and Edgar Bergen. Universal, 1939.
My Little Chickadee. Dir. Edward Cline. Perf. W.C. Fields and Mae West. Universal, 1940.
The Bank Dick. Dir. Edward Cline. Perf. W.C. Fields and Cora Witherspoon. Universal, 1940.
Adamson, Joseph, and Christopher T. Lee. "W.C. Fields." Dictionary of Literary Biography. Ed. Randall Clark. 2nd ed. Vol. 44. Bruccoli Clark Layman, 1986. 137-44.
Boskin, Joseph. "Fields, W.C." American National Biography Online. Feb. 2000. 22 Oct. 2009.
Curtis, James. W.C. Fields: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
Everson, William. TheArt of W.C. Fields. New York: Bonanza Books, 1967.
Ferguson, Otis. "The Old-Fashioned Way review." New Republic 1August 1934: 320.
Fields, Ronald J. W.C. Fields: A Life on Film. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984.
Gehring, Wes D. W.C. Fields, a Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1984.
Sennwald, Andre. "The Capitol Presents a Distinguished Screen Edition of 'David Copperfield'" New York Times 19 Jan. 1935: 8.
Taylor, Robert L. W.C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes. New York: Doubleday, 1949.
Photo Credit: Bain News Service. "W.C. Fields -- Philip Goodman." 1900. Photograph. Licensed under Public Domain. Cropped to 4x3. Source: Online Resource. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, George Grantham Bain Collection.