W.C. Fields: A Wit For The Ages
Actor W.C. Fields in a scene from the movie The Old Fashioned Way Directed by: William Beaudine USA 1934. Source: (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
One of Vaudeville, Broadway, and Hollywood’s first-star comedian, W.C. Fields was known for his persona of an anti-good guy—a hard-drinking, kid-hating, womanizing, curmudgeon—that made him all the more likable and relatable to his audiences. Paired with the fabulous and gorgeous Mae West, Fields was not overshadowed by the buxom blonde. We will remember many of Fields’s quippy one-liners today…most of them are just as relevant today as they were about 100 years ago. Let’s look back at the rags to riches story of one of entertainment’s first funnymen.
A Rough Childhood
Born in 1880 in Philadelphia, the name on W.C. Fields’s birth certificate read William Claude Dunkenfield. Fields was the oldest of five children. His father, a raging alcoholic, was an immigrant with a thick Cockney accent named James Dunkenfield. W.C. Fields only attended school for about four years, then his father made him leave school to help him sell vegetables from a cart—the family’s only source of income.
A Teenage Runaway
Stories differ about how W.C. Fields ended up living on the streets as a teenager. In one story, he left home after fisticuffs with his father. His drunken father, the story says, struck Fields on the head with a shovel so he left home and never returned. Other stories say Fields was older, around 18, when he left to become a street juggler. Either way, the young teen often fell on hard times. At one time, he lived in a hole in the ground. Other times, he stole food to keep from starving. When he was caught and tossed into jail, he welcomed it because it meant he would have a place to stay and a hot meal.
Drowning for Pay?
One of W.C. Fields’s first paying jobs as an entertainer was in 1893 when he worked as a juggler at Fortescue’s Pier in Atlantic City. His act was designed to make it seems as though Fields was a bumbling juggler who kept losing things, but in reality, it was an impressively choreographed routine that showcased his skills as a juggler and entertainer. Still, when business was slow, his bosses offered him another way to earn his pay. Fields would pretend to be drowning in the ocean and had to be fake rescued. His bosses believed that his near-drowning and dramatic rescue would draw a crowd of customers.
A Vaudeville Star
An accomplished juggler, Fields soon joined the Vaudeville circuit. To liven up his juggling act, he told jokes and made witty observations. The audience loved his wisecracks. By the time he was 21 years old, he was headlining his shows. In 1915, he joined the famous Ziegfeld Follies. He even toured the world with his act. Fields was one of the standout stars of the Ziegfeld Follies throughout the early 1920s.
A Broadway Star
In 1923, W.C. Fields starred in his first Broadway musical, Poppy, which was followed by The Comic Supplement in 1924. In these two plays, Fields developed the two distinct stock characters that he used throughout his career. The first was the flamboyant fraud who mocks hard, honest work. The second was the badgered husband. By 1928, Fields was the highest paid Broadway actor of his time, earning as much as $5,000 per week.
The Movie Star
Although W.C. Fields appeared in some silent movie-era films, he really made his mark on the movie industry in the 1930s. He appeared in The Dentist, The Pharmacist, The Fatal Glass of Beer, and The Barber Shop, all to the delight of his fans who appreciated his comedic timing and witty observations, as much as his risqué innuendoes. In the majority of his films, Fields played either one or the other of his stock characters—the con man or the haggard husband.
Mae West, Fields’s Little Chickadee
Although often linked together, Fields only appeared in one film with Mae West, My Little Chickadee, which was released in 1940. West was a fading starlet at this time. At forty years old, she refused to reinvent herself and continued demanding roles of a young, hot character. Fields was sixty and ravaged by alcoholism. The two apparently were at odds during the filming of My Little Chickadee, but the movie remains a comic classic.
A Field of Quotable Quotes
Many of the clever one-line observations credited to W.C. Fields are still used today. He once said, “I like to cook with wine. Sometimes I even add it to the food,” “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull,” and “Never give a sucker an even break.” It is perhaps his witty quotes—most which have stood the test of time—that has helped W.C. Fields live on as one of the great comic geniuses of his time.
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