Unlike Charles Chaplin, to whom he was frequently and often enough favorably compared, Fields had no worldview. About the great issues of the day — modernism, capitalism, fascism, matters that particularly preoccupied Chaplin at this time — he had nothing to say. His comedy remained specific and highly situational. He was ever the bleakly beleaguered victim of a relentlessly hostile, petty and uncomprehending world. Misunderstood and abused, he might, in the final moments of a film, be accidentally rewarded by the fates, but that did not soften his fundamentally dyspeptic view of human nature, fighting back with what weapons came to hand — a sotto voce wisecrack, a patently false endearment, even an act of physical vengeance that usually failed to land definitively on target. His was essentially the comedy of entrapment. The open road, fresh with optimistic possibilities, which Chaplin’s Tramp so often found at the final shot, was never available to Fields.
Over the past few days I’ve been rekindling my youthful enthusiasm for FIelds with James Curtis’ fine biography (the book that Schickel was reviewing). I was never drawn to the self-caricature of the late Fields — the alcoholic con man and snake-oil salesman of movies like You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man or My Little Chickadee. These movies, made when he was sixty or more, were produced following a bitter year-long illness from which, it seems to me, he never fully recovered.
At his best, Fields was an excellent comic actor, and I treasure the films of his mid-period (about 1933 to 1936) more. In his caustic satires of middle-class America, Fields often played a small businessman, an inept garage tinkerer, or a back-office toady who sought temporary escapes from familial and professional tedium and stress (the purchase of a Florida orange grove or, less ambitiously, just an afternoon at the fights) and was roundly punished by circumstance or something somewhat more malignant for his attempts to find escape. Surprisingly, Fields was also at home in period comedies like The Old Fashioned Way (about a disheveled traveling theatrical troupe in 1897), Poppy (about a petty grifter and his adopted daughter in the late 19th century), and an adaptation of Dickens’ David Copperfield (in which he played a most effective Micawber without even attempting a British accent). In these films there was always an underlying melancholy to his character, never quite resigned to failure but accepting it, believing, perhaps, that it was his fate. Fields could also be quite touching, and the affection his father figures exhibited — especially to his characters’ daughters (Fields’ relationship to his own real-life son was fraught with frustration and dismay) — is profound and moving.
The time is ripe for a critical reassessment of Fields’ career, which hasn’t been attempted since William K. Everson’s 1967 The Art of W.C. Fields. Just this month, Taylor Trade Publishing reissued W.C. Fields by Himself, a 1973 collection of essays, ephemera, and letters by Fields and edited by his grandson, Ronald J. Fields (I devoured this book when it was first published), and last October Universal issued a five-DVD set, the W.C. Fields Comedy Essentials Collection, which collects 18 of Fields’ films from Paramount and Universal, most of them classics (among which I would place You’re Telling Me, The Man on the Flying Trapeze, and It’s a Gift, an unintended trilogy of small-town America satires) and all of them necessary to an understanding of his career. In addition, many of Fields’ silent features, unavailable for years and some previously considered lost, have finally been unearthed and are being restored and distributed.
Fields may not have had the influence on American comedy of other great clowns. He was never as frantic and absurd as the Marx Brothers, never as sentimental or balletic as Chaplin (though Fields, who spent his early career in vaudeville and burlesque as a mute juggler, could demonstrate an elegant physical grace when he had to), and not as slow-witted as Laurel and Hardy. He was not a great, innovative filmmaker like Chaplin or Keaton. On the other hand, without Fields there would be no Basil Fawlty or Larry David, his most obvious descendants. David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm character may be a resident of a much higher income bracket, but he is also buffeted by the same cosmic, metaphysical indifference to his comfort and happiness as was Fields.
But Fields was, in many ways, the most mature, most adult, most linguistically creative of them all. It was recognized as far back as 1935, when Andre Sennwald wrote the below perspicacious appreciation of him for the New York Times. Sennwald’s tongue, admittedly, may have been lightly in his cheek, but not entirely. It ran under the headline “W.C. Fields, Buffoon: Timidly Suggesting That an Affection for Him Is a Form of Confessional” in the January 13, 1935, issue of the newspaper and is reproduced below; below that is this week’s video, the “Mr. Muckle” scene from It’s a Gift, one of Fields’ masterpieces. If I raise this afternoon’s glass of zweigelt at Cafe Katja to Fields, his work, and his memory, it’s no less than appropriate.
The impediment to a sober appraisal of a master buffoon like W.C. Fields resides in the reviewer’s compulsion to be ponderously witty in his discussions of the comedian’s work. Let us drop the elephantine irony this morning and approach a great man with becoming humility and awe. Since it is the function of the funny man to massage the tortured ego of his auditors by showing himself to be even more witless and subhuman in his deportment than they are in theirs, it is natural for his hearers to adopt toward him a falsely inflated sense of superiority. Thus the clown fulfills his divine mission at the moment that his public regards him with amused aloofness. Mr. Fields is a great comedian because he traffics in high and cosmic matters relating to man’s eternal helplessness, frustration and defeat. It is a fitting tribute to his eminence that most of the filmgoers who are privileged to observe him are content to laugh at his brilliantly conceived and subtly executed jocosities. A few, sensing the parable of man’s eternal disillusion which Mr. Fields manages to suggest even when he is most painfully lunatic, are sometimes a little sad in the midst of their laughter, knowing suddenly that they are mocking themselves. Not to be aware of the tragic overtones in the work of this middle-aged, whisky-nosed, fumbling and wistfully incompetent gentleman is to be ignorant of the same tragic overtones in the comedy of Don Quijote de la Mancha. To be of the belief that Mr. Fields is no more than a funny man is to hold the opinion that Gulliver’s Travels is a book for children and that the Spanish bullfight is planned as a contest between a man and a beast.
An applicant for membership in the society of ardent admirers of Mr. Fields is entitled to know that several of the sober items in the master’s career bear a gratifying resemblance to the lunacies in which he deals professionally. There is, for example, the curious situation which persuaded him, at age 11, to flee the family homestead in Philadelphia. It appears that the young William Claude Fields carelessly left a shovel lying on the front walk of the house in such a location that his father, returning home from work, stepped on it and was smitten upon the shin by the handle. It turned out to be the identical shin which had recently been aggravated in an altercation with a buggy. William Claude, without tarrying to discover the extent of the damage, set out immediately for distant parts. The initiate in the cult of Fields worship is also entitled to the information that the master, according to the newspaper files for 1928, found himself embroiled in an impasse which is equally aromatic of the kind of low comedy which Mr. Fields has been known to employ in his fictions. Being teamed on the vaudeville stage with a bearded comedian, he invented a happy gag in which he was to release a canary from his partner’s muff. It happened, though, that the confused canary bumped its head so energetically against the scenery in its efforts to escape that several members of the Humane Society forthwith arrested the innocent Mr. Fields for violation of the cruelty statutes. You are invited to draw your own conclusions.
Even when, as in his new work It’s a Gift, Mr. Fields traverses the screen with not much more in the way of technical assistance than the presence of a camera and a camera man, he is somehow able to illuminate the universal truths with unerring accuracy of intuition and with lavish comic results. In It’s a Gift he presents for our amusement that part of the human composition which is plagued by persistent frustrations, bullied by an inescapable sense of inadequacy, and tormented by the problems involved in complex associations with other human beings. His sufferings at the hands of a nagging wife compose an allegory which, in bewildered and halting moments or revelation, celebrates the misfortunes of the meek, the spineless, the awkward and the spiritually disinherited. When the befuddled griefs of Mr. Fields are submitted to the inspection of the dominant and proud ones, the assured and the successful and the enviably correct ones, they seem to be merely the flattering antics of a fool, who intends you to laugh and to preen yourself in the contemplation of him. But to those who love him best Mr. Fields is the great healer, taking unto himself grievous human burdens and in the same breath teaching his disciples to crucify him with laughter as his reward for purging them of their futilities. His sad and patient conduct as he is harassed by his spouse comes to have a special meaning for all of us who are condemned to be the shamefaced victims of our fellows and the mockery of our friends as a result of persistent lapses from what the world esteems to be sanity and correctness.
This, approximately, is the skeleton portrait of the Fields devotee. Born into a world which is in the habit of shouldering him contemptuously into the gutter, he finds himself the aggrieved and innocent object of assault from every side. He lacks a nice talent for evading the importunities of insurance agents, haberdashery salesmen, panhandlers and magazine subscription salesmen. He is unversed in the art of hanging up the telephone receiver on the shimsical conversations of strangers who desire him to guess who this is. Buttonholed by long-winded bores in corridors and elevators, he is without the audacity to escape. Approached at public bars by unhandsome ladies in their cups, he becomes a patient victim out of cowardice rather than from the absence of a sense of discretion. He wilts before the overbearing and unmannered puling of office tyrants and is unversed in the technique of stifling the outpourings of the braggart. Hastily he adds a nickel to his tip in a restaurant when the waiter skulks ominously nearby, and he is without the moral fiber to resist offering a gratuity to the boy in the barber shop whose meager service is the brushing of his hat. Briefly, he is present in every man and dominant in many. When Mr. Fields cringes before the rage of a bullying wife, scrapes the floor in his hasty salaams to some one who is his superior only in lung power, or asserts his stunted ego in cautious admonitions to unarmed babies, he is distorting a universal characteristic so meagerly that only the fool in his audience is deceived. In short, this sublimated Caspar Milquetoast is holding the mirror up to nature.