Even more than his bulbous nose, baby blond locks or battered top hat (which would invariably end up on the top of his cane rather than his head), it is W.C. Fields’ voice that distinguishes him in our memory. Equal parts carnival barker and bardic poet, Fields made ballyhoo sound like opera. As he grew older and his frame bulkier, his voice became increasingly lithesome, exhibiting an uncommon playfulness and range. Fields could shout at the top of his lungs, speak out of the sides of his mouth, or insult you under his breath, but he always brought a melody to his speech, such that one often thinks of Fields as much as a vocalist as a humorist.
The 1930s saw many fine comedic actors, but W.C. Fields was in a class all his own: he was unequivocally the talkies’ first great clown. He was also one of the few silent comedians to fully make the transition to sound. Charlie Chaplin was mute for the first decade of sound, and Buster Keaton, with his frog-like voice, was never as comfortable with dialogue as he was with silence. Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy proved up to the challenge with speaking roles, but Fields, with his verbal gymnastics, more than excelled in the new format. Perhaps, his transition was so succesful because he had already made the leap from silence to sound once before: on the vaudeville circuit, when he graduated from being mute juggler to comedic star.
While most actors of the early talkies were concerned with proper elocution and intelligibility, many of Fields’ best witticisms are muttered so discreetly that they’re obscured by our own laughter. To many actors, the microphone was a foe, capable of wrecking their careers; to Fields, it was another of life’s petty annoyances. His defiant attitude made all the difference in his performances, and it shows in his casual yet confident delivery of dialogue, a leisurely pace out of touch with his fast-talking contemporaries. As David Denby wrote in Premiere, “Fields flirted dangerously with the new recording equipment, teasing inaudibility more than once, modulating his voice as if he were too proud to speak loudly, too isolated to perform with the other actors. Only we heard him.”
To catch all his witticisms, repeated viewings are necessary—as well as a handy dictionary. “Agh! Broke my metatarsal bone,” Fields off-handedly laments during a circus brawl in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, a fancy way of saying he broke his foot (or, more likely, just stubbed his toe). As inimitable as his voice is W.C. Fields’ vocabulary, an amalgam of 19th century literary erudition (often mispronounced), mangled foreign expressions, and saloon slang (which reveals traces of his own upward mobility from impoverished high-school dropout to international vaudeville sensation to Hollywood star). As he says in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, smelling a bar of soap, “Ah, c’est bon, as they say in French. Perfume de la mountain goat.” In his own way, Fields is amongst the most literary of all screen comics, with a Lewis Carroll-esque sophistication and fondness for wordplay. Take this line from The Bank Dick: “The jockey was a very insulting fellow. He referred to my proboscis as an adscititious excrescence.” Such big words for a fittingly big nose—or is the jockey referring to another part of Fields’ anatomy? Looks like the censors missed that one! Fields obviously didn’t heed Mark Twain’s advice, “Never use a twenty-five-cent word when a ten-cent word will do.” Then again, if he had, Fields’ humor would have lost much of its subtlety. Even without a dictionary, it’s a hoot just hearing such obtuse words spoken so fluidly and casually.
Fields’ movies are about getting even with the world, and it’s poetic justice that an uneducated scalawag would independently develop such a deep understanding of the English language and world literature outside the walls of academia. James Curtis’ W.C. Fields: A Biography describes this transformation, beginning with Fields’ wife tutoring him while on the vaudeville circuit, an education he continued by sitting in bars reading alone after shows. Later, he tutored Eddie Cantor between performances in the Ziegfield Follies, even making him read out loud from the dictionary. Fields even hung out with the likes of H.L. Mencken, with whom he would discussion Ibsen. It was Fields’ way of thumbing his nose at the education system, and class hierarchy in general (a favorite target of Fields’ humor). He got his street-smarts from the school of the hardknocks, and he got his books-smarts in the same way.
Incorrect pronunciation became its own artform in Fields’ movies. In Poppy, Fields addresses Countess DePuizzi (pronounced dee-PWEE-zee) as “Countess DePussy,” a play on words that shouldn’t have gotten by the Hays Office (this was 1936, after all, and the Production Code was in full effect). Tillie and Gus finds Fields talking about “bean fisheries”—that is, “beneficiaries.” An offshoot of this tendency is the Freudian slip, like when Fields says, “This way, scums–er, chums” in The Big Broadcast of 1938. Language reveals, and language conceals. Fields’ true meanings are hidden in plain English, for those that are careful enough to listen. Fields knew that most people didn’t listen closely, so words became his weapons. As he says in It’s a Gift, “C’est finie—meaning, you can’t fool me.”
Because of the Production Code, W.C. Fields couldn’t swear, but he got around it through a catalog of old fashioned idioms and some I think he just made up. Either way, these expressions recur throughout his movies: “Godfrey Daniel!” (The Man on the Flying Trapeze); “Shades of Bacchus!” (It’s a Gift); “Tears of Falstaff!” (You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man); and “Gildersleeves! Great snakes!” (You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man).
Taking notes during a Fields movie is a good way to improve your vocabulary. Do you know what he means when he orders a “poultice” from the Black Pussy Café in The Bank Dick? Me neither. Look it up like I did—you’ll get a laugh. These are a few other ways to bone up on your Scrabble game while getting a few laughs: “He pulled a knife on me this long. An assegai.” (The Bank Dick); “This mummy sitting over here inveigled me into a game of chance entitled draw poker. I knew from the start I’d have to shoot him. It was all I could do to get his money from him.” (Tillie and Gus); “I refer you to my amanuensis, Mr. Marmaduke Gump, our manager.” (The Old Fashioned Way)
When it comes to one-liners, W.C. Fields is hard to beat. Million Dollar Legs has one of my favorites: “The Constitution says I can’t hit a man under 200 lbs.” Pacing is key to Fields’ delivery, such as this prolonged line from The Bank Dick: “I’m very fond of children. Girl children. Around 18 or 20.” He’s also a master at backhanded compliments, like “She’s all dressed up like a well-kept grave” from The Old Fashioned Way, or “I voted for you in the last election…five times” from You’re Telling Me. And when it comes to wisdom, no one was as worldly (or otherworldly) as Fields, as evinced by this jest from You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man: “Getting married is like buying a new horse, or going into a strange saloon.”
Line for line, arguably the most consistently witty and clever of Fields’ films is The Bank Dick, which Fields himself wrote under the pseudonym “Mahatma Kane Jeeves.” The actor’s gifts as a raconteur are on full-display as he portrays Egbert Sousé (“accent grave over the E”). His gift of gab first lands him a job as a film director (“In the old Sennett days, I used to direct Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the rest of ‘em,” he fibs), and later the honorary position of “bank dick” after he is caught sitting on top of an unconscious bank robber (whom he did nothing to apprehend).
As both the screenwriter and the star, W.C. Fields gives himself buckets of great scenes. In one scene, Fields recounts to bartender Shemp Howard a story about “boondoggling” with a cod liver oil mine one snowy winter in Cape Cod. If that sounds like a pointless, harebrained scheme, that’s because it is: to “boondoggle” is to waste one’s time and money. The monologue is a minor tour de force of circular illogic. And then there is Egbert’s sales pitch about why his soon-to-be son-in-law should steal $500 from the bank to invest in a beefsteak mine. In Egbert’s own words, “Beer flowing through the estate over your grandmother’s paisley shawl…Fishing in the stream that runs under the arboreal dell. A man comes up from the bar, dumps $3500 in your lap for every nickel invested. Says to you, ‘Sign on the dotted line,’ and then disappears in the waving fields of alfalfa.” More confused than convinced? So was Egbert’s future relation. Egbert’s response? “Don’t be a luddy-duddy! Don’t be a mooncalf! Don’t be a jabbernowl!” Ok, I’m sold.
Funny how a high-school drop-out turned silent vaudeville juggler wound up becoming the silver screen’s preeminent linguist. It’s the type of irony that wouldn’t be out of place in a W.C. Fields movie.