Monday, April 28, 2008

INTERESTING PEOPLE--WILLIAM CLAUDE DUKENFIELD: NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK

Better known to most of us as W.C. Fields, he began his career as a traveling juggler doing everything from chainsaws to cigar boxes.  He graduated to vaudeville and burlesque and moved on to Broadway shows, movies and radio shows.  He became famous for his clever retorts delivered in his unique and recognizable style.  Many entertainers in recent years like Rich Little, Tonight Show's Ed McMahon and even Family Feud's Richard Dawson still do tribute to his act.  Fields still generates laughs even if most people today aren't old enough to remember Fields, the person.

He created a hard drinking, misanthropic persona--he hated children, animals and women (except the wrong kind) and the City of Philadelphia. He was quoted "I don't discriminate, I hate everyone equally."

Early in his career, he performed extensively in England where he was known as Wm. C. Fields, rather than W.C., presumably to avoid confusion with the ubiquitous "W.C." (water closet) signs all over Europe which designate public rest rooms.  But actually, given his distinctive sense of humor, those signs may appropriately describe Fields. Some people confuse him with Blues musician W.C. Handy.  It's not clear what the British called Mr. Handy (Wm. C. Handy?) who apparently never performed there, but his St. Louis Blues was a favorite of King Edward VIII.  But that's a subject for another day.

Back to Fields; although he was probably proficient in stand up comedy, his best moments and quotes were in response to the questions and actions of his co-stars and others.  For example, when asked how he liked children, he responded, "parboiled".  On another occasion, he said, "I like children--fried."  Or, "anyone who hates children and animals can't be all bad."

Born in Darby, Pennsylvania, Fields began his show business career at age 18 in Philadelphia.  His family was a normal middle class family, supportive of his ambitions.  His father, James, an English immigrant, was a baker and a huckster.  Young W.C. helped him in the latter pursuits.  Fields got married in 1900, and a few years later, he and his wife, Hattie, a vaudevillian herself, split up.  She had pressured him to settle down to a respectable trade, which he was reluctant to do.  Fields did continue to support Hattie and their son, William Claude Fields, Jr.  Fields loved and spent time with his grandchildren.

His interactions with the likes of the voluptious Mae West, Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy, and Groucho Marx were classics. He starred with Mae West in My Little Chickadee.    Fields' creative mind devised characters with names like Otis Criblecoblis, Charles Bogle, Larson E. (read larceny) Whipsnade, and Egbert Souse (pronounced soo-ZAY). 

In movies he often played the part of hustlers and carnival barkers, as well as the hapless husband dominated by a witchy wife or mother-in-law.  

Many of his gags related to excessive drinking.  From the movie Mississippi: "While traveling through the Andes Mountains, we lost our corkscrew.  Had to live on food and water for several days." On other occasions, he said the same thing about a safari in Africa and also the wilds of Afghanistan.   "I never drink water because of the disgusting things that fish do in it".   Other drinking gags: "It was a woman who drove me to drink, and I never had the courtesy to thank her for it."  And "If I had to live my life over, I'd live over a saloon."

Referring to the blue laws in his home town, "I once spent a year in Philadelphia.  I think it was on a Sunday." and "Last week I went to Philadelphia, but it was closed."

On the movie set, he kept a pitcher of martinis which he called his "lemonade".  One day a prankster switched the contents with real lemonade.  Fields was heard to yell, "Who put lemonade in my lemonade?"

He was asked if he knew anything about electricity.  The reply was, "My father occupied the chair of applied electricity at State Prison."

My personal favorite is, "Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people."

Fields frequently appeared on ventroliquist Edgar Bergen's radio show where he traded insults wwith Bergen's dummy Charlie McCarthy:  "Ahhhh, a woodpecker's dream." and "Who's the dummy here?" The movie, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man played off that rivalry.  Incidentally, his friends like Bergen called him Bill, although Charlie McCarthy called him other things.

In private life, Fields was a generous man, although he had his moments.  For example, Groucho Marx related that Fields was irritated that curious tourists would come up his driveway.  So he hid in the bushes by the house and fired BB pellets at the legs of the trespassers.  While Fields or his studio promoted his ornery persona, he did some good things for people.  He actively promoted and supported entertainment opportunities for Blacks and Jews when it was not fashionable to do so.

Fields died on Christmas Day, 1946.  Allegedly, his last words were, "On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."  Actually, he wsa reciting an old vaudeville joke among comedians that they's rather be dead than play Philadelphia.  Several days earlier, on his deathbed, a friend stopping in and caught the athiestic Fields reading the Bible.  His retort:  "I'm looking for loopholes."

A footnote:  Singer Jimmy Buffett was born on the same day that Fields died and has actively promoted that fact.  It is mentioned in the booklet for Buffett's CD, Christmas Island. 


KENNETH SUSKIN

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1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

dukenfield said he didn't mind children if " they were par boiled"

not fried aas you say he drank 2
quarts of gin a day. His bulbous nose was from sleeping out in the elements. He ran away from home to
get away from domineering dad and
became the world's greatest juggler."

January 3, 2010 at 8:56 AM  

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