Nationality: American. Born: William Claude Dukenfield in Philadelphia, 10 February 1879 or 29 January 1880. Family: Married Harriet "Hattie" Hughes, 1900. Career: 1893—hired as juggler at Pennsylvania amusement park, then worked as "comic juggler" and "silent humorist" in vaudeville; 1901—toured Europe for first time; top billed at Folies Bergère, Paris, and in London, command performance at Buckingham Palace; 1905—first appearance in Broadway play, The Ham Tree ; 1906–24—worked consistently on Broadway and in various revues, including, from 1915, Ziegfeld Follies; 1914—on Broadway in Irving Berlin's Watch Your Step ; 1915—first film, Pool Sharks , based on vaudeville act; 1916—began to introduce dialogue into act; 1923—created role of Eustace McGargle in successful Broadway show Poppy ; 1925—in Sally of the Sawdust , film version of Poppy , directed by D. W. Griffith; 1930—first sound film, two-reeler The Golf Specialist ; 1932–33—made series of shorts for Mack Sennett; 1935—only straight dramatic role, Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield ; from 1937—on radio, often with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. Died: In Pasadena, California, 25 December 1946.
Pool Sharks (Middleton); His Lordship's Dilemma (Haddock—short)
Janice Meredith ( The Beautiful Rebel ) (E. Mason Hopper) (as British sergeant)
Sally of the Sawdust (D. W. Griffith) (as Prof. Eustace McGargle); That Royle Girl (D. W. Griffith) (as father)
It's the Old Army Game (A. Edward Sutherland) (as Elmer Prettywillie); So's Your Old Man (La Cava) (as Samuel Bisbee)
The Potters (Newmeyer) (as Pa Potter); Running Wild (La Cava) (as Elmer Finch); Two Flaming Youths ( The Side Show ) (Waters) (as Gabby Gilfoil)
Tillie's Punctured Romance ( Marie's Millions ) (A. Edward Sutherland) (as Ringmaster); Fools for Luck (Reisner) (as Richard Whitehead)
The Golf Specialist (Brice—short) (+ story, uncredited)
Her Majesty Love (Dieterle) (as Lia's father)
Million Dollar Legs (Cline) (as the President of Klopstokia); If I Had a Million (Taurog or Humberstone) (as Rollo); The Dentist (Pearce—short) (title role, + story, uncredited)
The Fatal Glass of Beer (Bruckman—short) (as Mr. Snavely, + story, uncredited); The Pharmacist (Ripley—short) (+ story); International House (A. Edward Sutherland) (as Prof. Quail); The Barber Shop (Ripley—short) (+ story); Hip Action (Marshall—no. 3 of series How to Break Ninety ); Tillie and Gus (Francis Martin) (as Augustus Q. Winterbottom); Alice in Wonderland (McLeod) (as Humpty Dumpty)
Six of a Kind (McCarey) (as Sheriff "Honest John" Hoxley); You're Telling Me! (Kenton) (as Sam Bisbee); The Old-Fashioned Way (Beaudine) (as the Great McGonigle, + story); Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (Taurog) (as Mr. C. Ensworth Stubbins); It's a Gift (McLeod) (as Harold Bissonette, + story as "Charles Bogle")
David Copperfield (Cukor) (as Mr. Micawber); Mississippi (A. Edward Sutherland) (as Commodore Jackson); The Man on the Flying Trapeze ( The Memory Expert ) (Bruckman) (as Ambrose Wolfinger, + co-story as "Charles Bogle")
Poppy (A. Edward Sutherland) (as Prof. Eustace McGargle)
The Big Broadcast of 1938 (Leisen) (as T. Frothingill/S. B. Bellows)
You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (George Marshall; Fields sequences directed by Cline, uncredited) (as Larson E. Whipsnade, + story as "Charles Bogle")
My Little Chickadee (Cline) (as Cuthbert J. Twillie, + co-story); The Bank Dick ( The Bank Detective ) (Cline) (as Egbert Souse, + story as "Mahatma Kane Jeeves")
Never Give a Sucker an Even Break ( What a Man ) (Cline) (as the Great Man, + story as "Otis Criblecoblis")
Show Business at War ( March of Time series) (De Rochemont)
Follow the Boys (A. Edward Sutherland) (as guest); Song of the Open Road (Simon) (as himself); Sensations of 1945 ( Sensations ) (Andrew L. Stone) (as guest)
"The Dentist" ep. of Down Memory Lane (Karlson—compilation)
Drat! Being the Encapsulated View of Life by W. C. Fields in His Own Words , edited by Richard J. Anobile, New York, 1969.
Fields for President , introduction and commentary by Michael Taylor, New York, 1971.
W. C. Fields by Himself: His Intended Autobiography , commentary by Ronald Fields, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1973.
Taylor, Robert Lewis, W. C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes , New York, 1949.
Everson, William K., The Art of W. C. Fields , Indianapolis, 1967.
Deschner, Donald, The Films of W. C. Fields , New York, 1969.
Monti, Carlotta, with Cy Rice, W. C. Fields and Me , Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1971.
W. C. Fields in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break and Tillie and Gus (scripts), London, 1973.
Parish, James Robert, and William T. Leonard, The Funsters , New Rochelle, New York, 1979.
Fields, Ronald J., W. C. Fields: A Life on Film , New York, 1984.
Gehring, Wes D., W. C. Fields: A Bio-Bibliography , Westport, Connecticut, 1984.
Rocks, David T., W. C. Fields—An Annotated Guide , Jefferson, North Carolina, 1993.
Gehring, Wes D., Groucho and W. C. Fields: Huckster Comedians , Jackson, Mississippi, 1994.
Johnston, Alva, "W. C. Fields," in New Yorker , 2–16 February 1935.
Obituary in New York Times , 26 December 1946.
Tynan, Kenneth, "Toby Jug and Bottle," in Sight and Sound (London), February 1951.
Robinson, David, "Dukinfield Meets McGargle," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1967.
McVay, D., "Elysian Fields," in Film (London), Winter 1967.
Gilliat, Penelope, "W. C. Fields," in The Movie Star , edited by Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1981.
Millar, Gavin, "No Children or Dogs," in Listener (London), 18 August 1983; see also 29 September 1983.
Gehring, Wes D., "W. C. Fields: The Copyrighted Sketches," in Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1986.
Freeman, Everett, "Close Encounters with W. C. Fields," in Saturday Evening Post , December 1987.
Denby, David, "Diary of a Mean Man," in Premiere (New York), September 1989.
Hamburger, Philip, "On the Whole," in New Yorker , 8 March 1993.
Edwards, Anne, "W.C. Fields: The Cantankerous Comedian at His Country Estate," in Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), April 1994.
Gehring, Wes D., "John Bunny: America's First Important Film Comedian," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), April 1995.
Mazzocco, Robert, "Milking an Elk," in New York Review of Books , 30 November 1995.
* * *
A successful vaudeville juggler, W. C. Fields underwent a slow metamorphosis to become one of the outstanding comedians of the sound film. He seems a reincarnation of an ancient comic type: there is something of the braggart soldier from Roman comedy, the strutting capitano of the commedia dell'arte, or Shakespeare's Falstaff. He is also the bungling husband, harassed by his wife—a comic type common to the classical Greek stage, the medieval tale, Restoration and 18th-century comedy, and modern times.
Fields's introduction to the sound film proved to be a humble one. He had had prominent roles in 11 mediocre silent screen comedies, and a 20-minute two-reeler made in 1930, The Golf Specialist , merely lifted material from one of his vaudeville routines, a sketch about giving golf lessons to a beautiful girl. The full potentiality of Fields's talent was not realized until he made four shorts for Mack Sennett in 1932 and 1933. He scripted them himself, and at least one film, The Barber Shop , containing a catalog of Fieldsian humor, paved the way for better things.
Fields began to gain more control of his material in the mid-1930s with such works as The Old-Fashioned Way , It's a Gift , and The Man on the Flying Trapeze . These last two works featured the comedian as a dominated husband struggling against great odds to achieve peace of mind and modest success in a humble business venture. The Old-Fashioned Way , on the other hand, was a portrait of the con man trying his best not to give the sucker an even break. The pompous charlatan who quickly retreated when exposed is sometimes considered to be the most amusing character the comedian created, and is subsequently seen in Poppy (a remake of his 1925 silent film, Sally of the Sawdust ), You Can't Cheat an Honest Man , and My Little Chickadee . The bungling, harassed husband would continue to appear in such films as The Bank Dick .
The genius of Fields lies in his ability to effectively combine verbal and visual traits in his comic character. His three masterpieces, It's a Gift , The Bank Dick , and The Man on the Flying Trapeze display this fusion at its best. Along with this he evolved a fully developed comic portrait of a mature man, and this creation proved to be unique not only for the golden age of sound comedy in the 1930s, but also for the great preceding decade of silent comedy. Most prominent in both these periods was the young man with traits of dumbness and naivety. Fields was the only actor to create comic middle-aged characters of enduring greatness.
Critics have long considered Fields the comic king of the 1930s because of his uniqueness, innovation, and many-faceted character. At the core of his personality there is the warmth and charm of a Falstaff even though he snarls and mutters insults. Even in weak films the power of his acting comes through. As with Chaplin, we have begun to associate the man with the character, and when that happens, the artist's work becomes a permanent creation.