The American comedian W. C. Fields (1879-1946) appeared in many of the classic early motion picture comedies.
The son of an immigrant Cockney vegetable peddler, W. C. Fields was born William Claude Dukenfield on April 9, 1879, in Philadelphia, Pa. At the age of 11 he became a vagrant on the city's streets. He survived by stealing, was frequently arrested, and so damaged his nose in alley fights that its swollen bulbosity later became part of his comic trademark, as did the hoarse voice that was partly produced by childhood colds.
Fields practiced juggling fanatically, becoming one of the most skillful performers in history. At 14 he got his first professional booking. Within 3 years he was an established entertainer and, driven by his obsessive fear of falling back into poverty, had begun his lifelong clamor for better pay and better billing.
By his early 20s (during which Fields entered a brief, though never legally dissolved, marriage) such comic inventions as his famous "pool table" act made him an international vaudeville star. Several years as a headliner in the Ziegfeld Follies and George White's Scandals (1915-1922) won him recognition as a "talking" comedian.
The starring role of Eustace McGargle in the 1923 hit play Poppy provided the rudiments of the comic character Fields would make his own. After completing his first four silent movies, which were unsuccessful, he returned to vaudeville, starring in Earl Carroll's Vanities. At 51 he headed for Hollywood—rich, famous, and determined to conquer the film industry.
It took Fields a year to get a job. His seven two-reelers for Mack Sennett led Paramount Pictures to give him a cameo part in a feature film; the comic sequence that Fields invented, with himself as the vengeful enemy of miscreant motorists, established his powerful screen personality. With International House (1932) he won a long-term contract for featured roles in 16 comedies, including Tillie and Gus and Million Dollar Legs (in which he met Carlotta Monti, his companion for the rest of his life).
In the mid-1930s Fields's rocklike constitution crumbled, partly because of his heavy drinking. During a convalescence he casually started a new career as a radio comedian, quitting 3 years later at the peak of nationwide popularity.
At 60 Field's health improved, and between 1938 and 1942 he enjoyed the (artistically) finest years of his life. He starred in David Copperfield, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, My Little Chickadee, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, and The Bank Dick.
After 1942 there were no more jobs. Fields spent his last days in a sanitarium. He died on Christmas morning, 1946. He left a character who entered American folklore: an engagingly pompous and malevolently cold-eyed humbug who spoke for all who ever secretly yearned to cheat at cards or retaliate against such institutions as the law, banks, and motherhood.
Further Reading on W. C. Fields
The best book about Fields is Robert L. Taylor's touchingly funny W. C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes (1949). Carlotta Monti, W. C. Fields and Me (1971), is a memoir about Fields by his former mistress. Other useful works are Donald Deschner, The Films of W. C. Fields (1966), and William K. Everson, The Art of W. C. Fields (1967).
Additional Biography Sources
Fields, Ronald J., W.C. Fields: a life on film, New York: St.Martin's Press, 1984.
Gehring, Wes D., W.C. Fields, a bio-bibliography, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984.
Taylor, Robert Lewis, W.C. Fields: his follies and fortunes, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.