Commentary Magazine


Never Give a Sucker an Even Break

For a comic or a wit, the enviable thing is to be so celebrated that one is given credit for the humor, repartee, and amusing anecdotes of others. Oscar Wilde was in this splendid position; so, too, closer to our own day, were Dorothy Parker and Oscar Levant. Outside the arts, Winston Churchill was assigned the honor of many a brilliant remark he never made. So, again, was W. C. Fields, the great American vaudevillian and movie comedian.

Here, for example, is a story told about Fields on his deathbed. Allow me to present it as a movie scene, the form in which he, a scenarist himself, might best have appreciated it:

It is a late winter afternoon. Fields is in bed in a New York hospital, under an oxygen tent and lashed to an IV. He is obviously in a very bad way. His lawyer, his agent, and his mistress sit in vigil. From outside one hears the sound, faint but distinct, of newsboys hawking the afternoon papers. Fields signals the three to his bedside.

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Fields: (weakly) Poor little urchins out there. No doubt improperly nourished, ill-clad. Something’s got to be done about them. Something’s got to be done.

He closes his eyes. His lawyer, agent, and mistress return to their chairs. Twenty seconds later, Fields, even more weakly than before, signals them to return. They lean in close to hear what figure to be his last words.

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Fields: On second thought—screw ‘em.

Almost nothing about this story turns out to be true. William Claude Fields died—on Christmas day, 1946, at the age of sixty-six—in California. He had lapsed into a coma roughly a month earlier. A nurse and his secretary kept the deathwatch. In his grandson’s account, he regained consciousness for the briefest moment, put a forefinger to his lips, winked, and departed the planet.

The apocryphal version, if I may say so, is better—better because it is more in harmony with the way those of us to whom Fields has given immense pleasure tend to think of him. And the way we have tended to think of him, of course, is as the great American curmudgeon. He was the man who, when asked if he liked children, replied, “I do, if they’re properly cooked.” A gardener, Fields is said to have fastened a note to his rose bushes: “Bloom, you bastards! Bloom!” Will Fowler, the son of the writer Gene Fowler, remembers Fields chasing a swan off his property, calling out, “Either shit green or get off the lawn!” When a young man who claimed to be Fields’s illegitimate son showed up at his home, the butler asked what he ought to be told. “Give him an evasive answer,” Fields said. “Tell him to go f—himself.”

Will Rogers, a contemporary of Fields, famously said that he never met a man he didn’t like (causing George Jessel to say that he once had a wife who felt the same way, and it turned out to be no bargain). With Fields it was just the reverse—at least if his public persona can be believed. But the gap between the private and public Fields, between his personal life and his show-business life, is a complicated subject. Happily, it has been untangled for us in a recent biography by Simon Louvish, Man on the Flying Trapeze1

Louvish goes through what he calls the “Fields legend” in the spirit of a fact-checker extraordinaire. Some of the corrections he enters into the record cause, at least in me, a brief stir of regret. I did not enjoy learning, for instance, that Fields is not, after all, buried under a tombstone that reads, “I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” Others range from the relatively inconsequential to the genuinely substantive. We learn from Louvish that Fields did not leave home at age eleven, as he claimed, but at eighteen; he did not deposit money in different bank accounts all over the world, but managed his finances quite sensibly; instead of hating children, as his movie roles often called upon him to do, he was a devoted grandfather; no misogynist, he found women delectable and was able to make himself charming to many; far from being a pinchpenny or stingy, he was something of a sport.

But it is not as if Louvish has discovered the real W. C. Fields to be a pussycat, a bird-watcher, or a teetotaler. Even in this account, he remains a pretty wild old boy: a skirt-chasing, heavy-boozing, lyrically profane man. Nor, in other respects, is the general effect of Man on a Flying Trapeze deflationary. Far from it. For what Louvish is really at pains to demonstrate in this book has less to do with the private W. C. Fields and more to do with the performing one: a highly self-conscious entertainer who carefully developed his skills to the point where they became art.

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Fields, who was born in 1880, liked to pretend in later life that he had grown up in a Dickensian atmosphere, mistreated and manhandled by a father who forced him to leave home as a child and scrounge a livelihood in the streets of Philadelphia, where he engaged in petty crimes and wild escapades. Simon Louvish tells us otherwise. Fields’s father, whose name was Dukenfield, worked as a commission merchant for fruits and vegetables, and although he drank his share, he and his son went at each other less violently than the son would later claim. Still, the household—“poor but dishonest,” in Fields’s characterization—was at least verbally pugnacious; his mother in particular was known for mumbling sarcastic asides in a manner her son would later adapt to brilliant comic effect.

Fields left home not in discouragement but for a life in the theater. As a boy, he had begun to juggle, and he worked hard at this charming, strangely elegant, and utterly useless art. He had fine eye-hand coordination, could do trick shots in pool, manipulate cards, and juggle just about anything less than his own weight. To innate talent he added powerful discipline. The mature Fields told a story—not refuted by Louvish—of working at home on a trick until the man who lived downstairs came to complain about the ceaseless din of falling objects, at which point Fields put him off by telling him about a little trick with paring knives that, if executed as prescribed, would have resulted in fairly serious injury.

Jugglers were then a standard act on the bills of every variety theater, and one had to carve out one’s own niche, find a specialty within the specialty. Fields’s first attempt along these lines was to wear a tramp’s outfit and do a fine turn with five cigar boxes which a reviewer described as setting at “naught all laws of gravity.” In the verbal byplay accompanying his juggling, he reacted with puzzled comments to the miscreant behavior of his recalcitrant hats, boxes, and canes. In the words of a British vaudevillian quoted by Louvish, Fields “would reprimand a particular ball which had not come to his hand accurately, whip his battered silk hat for not staying on his head, . . . mutter weird and unintelligible expletives to his cigar when it missed his mouth.”

The climb of the young W. C. Fields was steady and not all that slow. A watchful caretaker of his career, he was soon able to get himself booked into better and better theaters, and his biographer is able to supply us with some of the great show-biz names who appeared on the same bills with him: the Keatons, Fanny Brice, Sarah Bernhardt, Harry Houdini, Maurice Chevalier, Ed Wynn, the Marx Brothers, and Eddie Cantor, the last of whom became a fairly close friend. Touring abroad before World War I, where the fees were especially good, Fields played England, Germany, the Folies Bergères in Paris, and Australia.

His only serious miscue was an early marriage, which produced a son from whom he would become estranged. His wife’s name was Harriet Hughes, and she claimed to be related to the aristocratic Lees of Virginia; Fields’s riposte was that she was really from the Levys of Brooklyn. Although he would later be reconciled with his son—a grandson, Ronald J. Fields, would even assemble a book, W. C. Fields by Himself, that attempted to rescue Fields from the self-created legend of his misanthropy—he divorced his wife and never remarried. One of his great comic subjects, in fact, became the nightmare of domesticity. Wives in Fields’s routines do not get off lightly.

His life was in any case hardly set up for marriage. Regularly on tour during the early years of the century, he played the then-famous Keith circuit and later became one of the comic stars of the Ziegfield Follies. As time went on his verbal comedy came to occupy as large a share of his act as his physical comedy. Louvish reports that in those days he never repeated jokes—something not true of his later career, when he became an assiduous recycler of his own material. “It is hard to say which we admire most,” a reviewer of the day noted, “his remarkable skill [at juggling] or his irresistible drollery.” Another reviewer, in the San Francisco Chronicle, averred that Fields possessed “more of the real spark of comic genius than almost any who styles himself so in the legitimate field.” Heywood Broun and Alexander Woollcott both praised him in print. The word, in short, was getting around.

By 1920, Fields was earning big money, a grand a week, and a few years later he left Ziegfield to join the George White Scandals. He had long before begun to write his own scripts, and he even made a single silent movie, a muddled and chaotic effort called The Pool Shark (1916). In it he wears a hopeless mustache—his “third eyebrow,” he called it—and cannot be said to have established anything resembling a memorable character. Yet, with his fine weather eye, he had sensed that the action—which also meant the money—was henceforth in movies. He aimed to score big in Hollywood.

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Sound, the talkies, is what made W. C. Fields. His voice—that fine con-man drawl, “nasal and grating,” as Louvish describes it, “with that know-it-all tinge coupled with an eternal ennui”—was the most potent single weapon in his arsenal. Splendidly rhythmic, absolutely distinctive, capable of providing exactly the effects he required of it, his was one of the great comic voices of all time. Many explanations have been offered for its origin: the legacy of years of devoted boozing and smoking, the product of cold Philadelphia winters, and so forth. Louvish argues, convincingly, that it was a work of pure invention, like Fields’s walk, looks, gestures—the whole package.

Little that Fields did was without calculation, either in his stage and movie performances or, for that matter, in the creation of his own legend. Although he was capable of shenanigans—including drinking on the set—he was, Louvish writes, “the most disciplined of actors when he was working for those he respected,” among them the directors D.W. Griffith, Joseph Mankiewicz, Leo McCarey, and George Cukor. For an actor, he was also fairly well read; he had a special love for Dickens, from whom he happily stole the use of comic names and broad-stroke caricature. He understood, with genuine intellectual precision, the mechanics if not the wellsprings of comedy. In a magazine article of 1934 he noted that “you usually can’t get a laugh out of damaging anything valuable,” and he also believed that “it’s funnier to bend things than to break them.” With perfect pitch and timing, he bent them just about as far as they could go.

Fields’s voice was the ideal conveyance for the kind of highly verbal comedy in which he came more and more to specialize. To begin with, there was his rich and ornate vocabulary. (Whenever I read H. L. Mencken, Fields’s exact contemporary and another brandisher of an ornate vocabulary, I always hear a Fieldsian intonation.) Fields loved language, juggled it as expertly as he did his cigar boxes and hats, played it not only for laughs but for sheer sensuous pleasure. He cared enough about language to compile a now-lost dictionary of his own neologisms, which included the word “philanthroac” (one whose mission in life it is to take care of drunks who do not desire his care).

The level of literacy in many of Fields’s movies is quite high. In My Little Chickadee (1940), which he wrote with his co-star Mae West, he refers to her character, whose name is Flower Belle Lee, as “yon damsel with the hothouse cognomen.” Later in the movie he tells her that she is “the epitome of erudition,” adding, “a double superlative. Can you handle it?” (Miss West replies: “Yeah, and I can kick it around, too.”) There is even in this movie an example of what I believe academic literary critics nowadays call “intertextuality”: “Come up and see me sometime,” is Fields’s final utterance, echoing the most famous of all Mae West one-liners; to it, she replies, “Yeah, I’ll do that, my little chickadee.”

Fields was especially good at delivering innuendo, those comical asides and afterthoughts in which all his movies are rich. “I’ve never struck a woman in my life,” he avers in the short film The Golf Specialist (1930). Hold one full beat. “Not even my own mother.” More than just an instrument for conveying words, however gaudy, Fields’s voice aimed at projecting something larger—a fully developed persona.

The great early movie comedians all had their own imprint: Charlie Chaplin’s ability to wring pathos out of a charming underdog resilience; Buster Keaton’s passive melancholy with its high threshold for frustration; the Marx Brothers’ let-’er-rip anarchical zaniness. Fields’s comic character may have been the most highly formed of the lot. When he was in control of a movie—he often wrote his own material, or used writers who knew his character the way a bespoke tailor knows his customer—then, as Louvish says, “the comic business, the gags, always illuminate[d] character, and all comedy stem[med] from the character, not from some mechanical plan.”

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Actually, there were two Fields characters. The high-toned, often grouchy con man was one; the greatly put-upon husband or “sucker” was the other. From movie to movie he could slide easily from one to the next, and he could also play his con man for pathos, as in his brilliant portrayal of Mr. Micawber, the sesquipedalian optimist, in George Cukor’s version of David Copperfield (1935). But there was no doubt in Fields’s own mind about which was the harder trick to pull off. He once told a journalist: “Making you laugh at the hard-boiled three-card-monte man who is trimming a sucker is one thing—and not so easy—but making you laugh at the sucker is something else.”

Of the two chief Fieldsian characters, the con man and the degraded husband, my own preference is for the latter. My Little Chickadee and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) have their fine moments, but I like Fields when he is less snarly, less frightening, less likely to cuff a child too enthusiastically; when he is not adding to the world’s anarchy but is instead—like the rest of us, if to a much higher power—a victim of it.

In most of the movies in which Fields plays the chump, his character is locked in a hideously mistaken, a completely disastrous, marriage. Although he does not ask much—a drink with the boys, a night out at the wrestling matches—even that turns out to be too much. His wife is inevitably a harridan in a print dress, and sometimes there is a pompous and contemptuous stepson or a hopeless older daughter going with the wrong young man; added to the mix is often a younger son or daughter who is the Platonic ideal of the brat.

The put-upon husband is seen to best effect in It’s a Gift (1934), about the Bissonette family—needless to say, the wife in the movie insists on pronouncing it Bissoné. Simon Louvish claims It’s a Gift as his own favorite, and it is also mine. Among its riotously funny bits is an extended scene in which the grocery store of Harold Bisonnette, the character played by Fields, is nearly destroyed by the maunderings of one Mr. Muckle, a blind man whom Fields implores to remain seated (“Take it easy, Mr. Muckle, honey, just stay seated, Mr. Muckle”) while a bullying customer keeps yelling that he needs ten pounds of kumquats. The whole thing amounts to a form of juggling by other means, and at scene’s end all the balls are on the floor. As the blind Mr. Muckle leaves, Fields reports: “He’s the house detective over at the hotel.”

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I do not mean to suggest that Fields’s movies are all marvels of compression and wit, or without their longueurs. Sometimes they almost seem to go into slow motion. In two different movies there are checkers games in which the Fields character waits what seems like forever before giving advice that will result in a player’s being quintuple-jumped. Fields can take endless amounts of time wriggling his golf club before striking a ball, or standing in the door to announce, “Ain’t a fit night out for man or beast”—hold for three full beats—before getting a blast of snow in the puss.

Of greater interest is the world view that underlies and provokes the laughter. The chief subject in Fields’s best movies is false respectability. His is a world where dysfunctionality and viciousness rule—where everyone tries to do in everyone else, and meanness and stinginess abound. Many of Fields’s movies also provide an implicit critique of small-town America in the 1920′s and 1930′s, and especially of its narrowness and puritan hypocrisy; they are, in effect, Sinclair Lewis with laughter added.

The Bank Dick (1940), for example, is set in the town of Lompoc, with its three paved blocks and its many busybodies. Living with four women—a wife, the standard brutal mother-in-law, and two awful daughters—Egbert Sousè (“accent grave over the e,” he invariably adds), who is not permitted to smoke in the house, takes refuge in the Black Pussy Café and Snack Bar, where he tanks up every chance he gets. In a nice Fieldsian bit, he fussily uses his water chasers as finger bowls.

In Fields’s small town, respectability is all on the surface. “I shall make it my business to see that the Lompoc Ladies Auxiliary will be informed,” an old biddy tells the manager of the hotel in which Sousè has stowed a bank examiner he has gotten drunk. Meanwhile, not very far beneath the surface, corruption is the order of the day. “We have three drugstores,” notes the Fields character. “One actually sells medicine.” Dr. Stall, the town physician, advises an emaciated patient to “cut out all health foods for a while,” bidding him farewell with the words, “That’ll be ten dollars. The nurse will return your clothes with a receipt.”

In each of these movies, the improbable demystif ier of society’s false surfaces turns out to be the character played by Fields himself. I suspect that this is what lay behind the revival of interest in him that took place in the late 1960′s and early 1970′s. Suddenly, posters, T-shirts, and coffee mugs began showing up bearing his great red-nosed likeness. In the eyes of a rebellious generation, Fields was an anti-establishment man. The old iconoclast had become, posthumously, an icon.

Sorry, wrong anti-hero. (“Icon,” one can almost hear the comedian drawling, “sounds awfully like ‘I con.’ ”) In life, Fields was a Republican and a great contemner of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, not to mention an isolationist who disapproved of U.S. entry into World War II. In his public persona, he was not only anti-establishment, he was anti-everything. As he wrote in a book of only faintly amusing essays, Fields for President:

And when, on next November fifth, I am elected chief executive of this fair land, amidst thunderous cheering and shouting and throwing of babies out the window, 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 False Shuffle was good enough for my father and it’s good enough for me.

Certainly no one could have been more politically incorrect than Fields, either in his art or in his life. He would say that he was “impersonating a Ubangi,” or slip in the occasional reference to an “Ethiopian in the fuel supply.” Of the ten items for which the con man J. Effington Bellwether (in The Golf Specialist) is wanted by the police, the final one is: “Revealing the facts of life to an Indian.” He liked to make jokes about women’s bottoms. (In The Dentist, 1932, a woman is bitten in the ankle from behind by a small dog. “You’re fortunate,” Fields ripostes, “that it wasn’t a Newfoundland.”) Although many of his show-biz friends were Jewish, Hollywood producers drove him, as Louvish puts it, close to “tipping over into anti-Semitism.” Planning to leave the majority of his estate to found an orphanage for black children in Philadelphia, he became offended by the behavior of a black servant and changed his will to restrict the orphanage to whites. When his friend Gene Fowler told him he was making a mistake and was bound to be misunderstood, Fields replied: “I’ve always been misunderstood.”

The misunderstanding matters little now. The movies remain, and they are still very funny—some of them, for me, falling-off-the-couch funny Over the years, the heavier he grew, the redder his nose became (he suffered from a skin disease called rosacea), the sourer he seemed, the more pleasure he gave and the greater artist he became. He was not everyone’s cup of cognac. But for those of us whose cup he is, he continues to contribute, quite substantially, to the gross national comedy.

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Footnotes

1 Norton, 570 pp., $29.95.

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