COMEDIANS ARE OFTEN known for their single, unwavering personality. Amongst the icons of classical Hollywood, hapless Charlie Chaplin was always the Tramp, imperturbable Buster Keaton was always The Great Stoneface, and middle-class go-getter Harold Lloyd was always The Glasses Character. W.C. Fields is unique in that he managed to create an army of unforgettable characters that were distinct in their own ways. Yet all were unmistakably “W. C. Fields.”
Fields was many things on-screen—a proselytizing misanthrope, a skilled raconteur, an embittered husband, a frequent imbiber, and a kicker of children and small dogs. He was also the rare honestly crooked man in a crookedly honest world. The essence of Fields’ persona can be divided into two main types that are related like opposite sides of the same coin. He is both cinema’s most crushable charlatan and the working class everyman beaten down by life’s mundane frustrations. The two roles are a call and response: Con Man Fields is the yin to Conned Man Fields’ yang. Together they’re like object lessons in how to navigate the modern world. Cheat or be cheated.
IN HIS MOVIES, Fields plays the educator, enacting for audiences the hard-earned lessons from his own life. He was born in 1880 in Darby, Pennsylvania, a suburb southwest of Philadelphia. Years later, he would joke that his ideal epitaph would read, “Here lies W. C. Fields. I would rather be living in Philadelphia”—a characteristically wry joke laden with bitterness, considering that for most of his life Philadelphia was the last place he wanted to be. His family was poor, and Fields spend much of his youth on the streets. He ran away from home often, was involved with kid gangs, and more than once had to steal to eat. The situation at home was far from ideal. One can see the roots of Fields’ philosophy in an anecdote recorded by James Curtis in his excellent W.C. Fields: A Biography. While Field’s father was on the street peddling produce, mother was undercutting the family business by hawking the very same produce out the back door at half cost. (She kept all the money for herself, naturally.) Fields learned early on that honesty didn’t pay and that everyone—family, friend or foe—would play you for a sucker if you didn’t sucker them first. Fields eventually traded petty thievery for sideshow scams. He fell in love with juggling, which became his ticket out of Philly and his passport to travel the the world on the vaudeville circuit. (Traces of his act can be seen in films such as The Old Fashioned Way.)
The sources for Fields’ dominant character types can be found in his biography: the browbeaten husband, the itinerant entertainer, the skilled juggler and shady actor (not to mention his recuring foil of a nagging, miserly wife). Fields’ characters are always on the run, either one step ahead of the law or forever behind the eight ball. Stagnation and domesticity are the enemies of his characters. Life’s traps lay behind every corner—family, job, debts, cops—and Fields’ characters must navigate these obstacles in order to survive. How to skip work and get to the wrestling match (The Man on the Flying Trapeze) and how to skip town before the law catches up with him (You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man) both stem from the same driving motivation to deliver Fields from the perils and pitfalls of everyday life. In his battered top hat and cane, Fields is the emblem of life, liberty and the pursuit of insobriety.
ONE OF FIELDS’ most iconic tricksters is the recurring character of “Dr. Eustace P. McGargle, F.A.S.N.” an itinerant salesman peddling nonsense credentials and a cure-all elixir, Purple Bark Sarsaparilla. “Good for man and beast, will grow hair and remove warts!” Or, more candidly: “98% alcohol and 2% sweetener.” Fields originated McGargle in the stageplay Poppy in 1923 and reprised the role on celluloid in D.W. Griffith’s Sally of the Sawdust (1925), but it is in Edward Sutherland’s Poppy in 1936 that Fields delivers what is arguably his definitive performance. When he’s not filching people’s hot dogs or turning a profit peddling stray puppies, McGargle runs short cons on anyone dumb enough to qualify as a “sucker”–but it’s all in the name of providing for his daughter, Poppy.
“I’m like Robin Hood,” he explains. “I steal from the rich and give to the poor. Us poor.” McGargle is soon forging papers so his little girl can become the heiress to a fortune, and in risking serious jail time to win them long-con security, it’s somehow improbably endearing. Unlike Fields’ next picture, The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938), which feels more like a mish-mash of skits, Poppy is an ideal counterpoint of humor and drama, and presents Fields at his loveable and chiseling best. Variations on the Poppy scenario appear in The Old Fashioned Way (1934), where Field’s debt ridden acting troupe threatens his daughter’s marriage prospects, and You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939), where Fields’ daughter must choose between marrying for love or marrying for money to bail out their family circus.
The Old Fashioned Way is a treasure for Fields fans, containing what is perhaps his preeminent act of defiance—booting the obnoxious child star (and frequent Fields foil) Baby LeRoy in the rear—as well as recreations of Fields’ famous vaudeville stunts. Shorn of his bulky coat and top hat, it’s revelatory to see how graceful and limber Fields was. His juggling prowess and cigar-box balancing acts defy words and must be seen to be believed. Ditto Field’s ping-pong routine in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, a classic display of slapstick athleticism. Though he was known for playing plump drunkards, Fields was a highly skilled physical performer. Though it sports Fields’ most iconic title and some of his sagest wisdom (“Getting married is like buying a new horse, or going into a strange saloon…”), You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man is flawed only by the imbalance of screentime given ventriloquist co-star Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. Studios occasionally paired Fields with other name-talent in hopes of bolstering the movies’ revenue; eighty years later, audiences can only watch and wonder, “Why not more Fields?”
FIELDS’ EVERYMAN CHARACTER reached its pinnacle in It’s a Gift (1934), a masterpiece of middle-class malcontent. Fields plays henpecked grocery store clerk Harold Bissonette—pronounced “bis-on-ay” whenever the Mrs. is around. At home, his wife castigates him for smoking at the table, his daughter breates him for ruining her social life, and his son plants roller-skates in his path like landmines. A masterful fifteen-minute sequence set in the grocery store is a paragon of comedic efficiency, with Fields exploiting every nook and cranny of the space for maximum laughs. An angry customer demands kumquats, deaf-and-blind Mr. Muckle lays ruin with his cane and Baby LeRoy unleashes a flood of molasses. Fields follows this sequence with a 10-minute symphony of sound as Harold tries to nap on his third-floor porch while the world refuses to shut up. It’s a brilliant bit of technical mastery, an auditory layer cake of creaking steps, tinkling bottles, scuffing shoes, clanking buckets, rattling chains, squeaking laundry pulleys, rambling insurance salesman, and Mrs. Bisonette’s incessant harangue for Harold to be (what else?) quiet. All things considered, its no wonder that Harold jumps at the opportunity to sell his store in New Jersey and buy an orange ranch in California…even when the salesman warns him the ranch is a bust.
Traces of Harold Bisonette are found even in Fields’ silent-era films, such as Running Wild (1927). Fields plays Elmer Finch, the whipping boy of his own family. The parallels to It’s a Gift are readily apparent: a cheeseparing wife, a selfish daughter, a scheming son, and a biting dog. Things are no better at the toy company he’s worked for 20 years without a raise; a major screw-up with a potential client now threatens to lose him his job. Fields milks mundane tragedy for comic gold then sets things right with a magical ending that is as uproarious as it is ridiculous. More mature is The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935), a cautionary tale about the dangers of suckerdom. Burglars are in the basement, and they’re drinking Ambrose Wolfinger’s (Fields) prized applejack! So, Wolfinger and the night watchmen join the burglars for a nightcap and a rendition of “On the Banks of the Wabash”—naturally—before taking a stroll down to the police station where injustice is served. Wolfinger is pinched for his moonshine and the crooks go free. So begins a disastrous day as Wolfinger figures out how he can skip work and catch the local wrestling match. A wonderfully absurd hymn to the common man, The Man on the Flying Trapeze is Everyman Fields par excellence.
Outside of these two dominant roles, Fields managed to create a number of diverse and memorable characters. There’s the strongman president of Klopstokia who (literally) blows his own horn in Million Dollar Legs, a surreal blend of political satire (government authority is won by arm wrestling) and Olympic Games spoofs that gives the slapstick mayhem of the Marx Brothers a run for their money; the barfly/film director/bank guard Egbert Sousé (“accent grave over the e,” as he often reminds); and the car-crash avenger who takes defensive driving to an offensive extreme in If I Had a Million. My personal favorite is the dulcimer strumming, Yukon gold miner Mr. Snavely in The Fatal Glass of Beer. Already awaiting his son’s release from jail, Snavely’s Sisyphean punishment is to be pelted with snowballs every time he peers out of the door and bellows, “It ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast.” If that plot description doesn’t make much sense, the movie doesn’t either. It’s pitch-perfect absurdia about how, in one way or another, we’re all life’s sucker, forever doomed to get the snowball in the face. In all of his movies, Fields’ characters knew that it was a con or be-conned world.
FIELDS WAS A plainspoken philosopher, and his beliefs are summed up in two of his best titles (which originally appeared as snatches of dialogue in different movies): Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (great advice, a so-so film) and You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man. Why not? As Joe Mankiewicz (who wrote Million Dollar Legs and Fields’ segment in the omnibus If I Had a Million) explains in Curtis’ above cited biography, the expression came from “the Old Army Game”:
“[The expression] was based upon the fact that you let the chump believe that he had seen which walnut the pea was under. An honest man would say, ‘Oh, I think I saw it that time. Better do it again.’ But if he had a little larceny in him, you had him hooked…”
In Fields’ world, only those willing to cheat can be cheated. So, bring on the suckers…
The films of W. C. Fields are playing at Film Forum through May 3rd.