Born on this day in 1880, Fields dropped out of school at the age of 11 to tour in vaudeville, which was undoubtedly as educational as things got in the 1890s; by the time he was 21 Fields was being billed at 'The Eccentric Juggler' - precisely the sort of excellent moniker he'd never have gotten had he stayed in school. Just five years later he made his Broadway debut in The Ham Tree, at which point the already notable eccentric had begun juggling an increasingly busy career.
As a performer, even Fields' chosen apparel embodied the contradictions of his persona. Yet it was precisely by dressing as a 'genteel tramp' that he was able to expand his potential audience; rich and poor alike could both laugh at and empathize with such a character, as they could be drawn to a con-man with a heart of gold, especially during the tough times of the Great Depression. Fields was canny, however, in taking an archetype which was already popular from an established medium (namely the circus clown) and imbuing it with a sophistication which was more in keeping with the times - times which themselves were increasingly sophisticated thanks to the explosive growth of mass media in the first three decades of the 20th Century.
One of the first movie stars, Fields was appearing in two-reelers* as early as 1915, but due to his stage commitments was unable to appear in features prior to 1924, when he was released from his contract with the Ziegfeld Follies. Having appeared on Broadway in a musical comedy called Poppy he later reprised the role on film; another early film role was Sally of the Sawdust for pioneering movie director D.W. Griffith. As Fields' fame grew so did his reach into forms of media - roles of increasing length and popularity in the movies soon led to radio appearances, where his distinctive voice and patter reached a wider audience in a single broadcast than the average vaudevillian could possibly dream of. Alas, he died before he could make his debut on television, whose intimacy would have suited him and his abilities, and whose reached would have fired his ambition.
Just the highlights of W. C. Fields' movie work would do any film actor proud... Alice in Wonderland (1933), The Old Fashioned Way and Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934), David Copperfield (1935), You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939), My Little Chickadee and The Bank Dick (1940), and his last starring role Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) are among the finest comedies of an era renowned for its quality films. The best of these he made with his kind of dame, Mae West; alas, she pulled her diva shtick over billing on My Little Chickadee and a promising partnership came to an abrupt end after just one outing.
But what of Fields' curmudgeonly affect? Well, while he was undoubtedly as complex as any creative person, he was said to be both privately generous and fond of his grandchildren - in contrast to the many kid-hating penny-pinchers he'd played on stage and screen. His dislike of Christmas Day - ironically the day he died, in 1946 - was probably more related to his dislike of sentimentality that anything else. Then again he was also a mean drunk who used to pepper sight-seers outside his home with a pellet gun!
By the time he died Fields had left her with enough anecdotes to fill a memoir of their life together; a book which was later made into a movie of the same name - W.C. Fields and Me - starring Rod Steiger as Fields and Valerie Perrine as Monti, who herself appeared as an extra in it. It was minor consolation, though; as he got older, and sicker, and drunker he grew more and more into the bastard he'd spent the previous half century creating. It was left to Monti to bear the brunt of that cruelty...
Not only are many of Fields' films available on DVD at long last, a more recent assessment of him appears in Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W. C. Fields by Simon Louvish - and wouldn't you know it, there's a copy of that very book in the library of the Pop Culture Institute!
*At approximately twenty minutes in length, the two-reeler is considered the forerunner of the sitcom.
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