Hollywood biographer Curtis (James Whale, 1998, etc.) reveals the bibulous, wisecracking comedian as occasionally brilliant and too often misunderstood, but somehow less than the sum of his parts.
Born near Philadelphia in 1880 to a working-class family of English descent, William Claude Dukenfield feared the abusive rages of his drunken father and learned penury from his alcoholic mother, from whom he also inherited his larger-than-life nose. As an adolescent juvenile delinquent and occasional runaway, he developed a knack for juggling, patched together a mostly stolen act, and broke into small-time show business, shortening his name to the less cumbersome W.C. Fields. He polished his act in Atlantic City and New York, finally achieving fame for his brilliantly timed slapstick spoofs in the Ziegfeld Follies. A few of his routines ended up as silent films (some directed by D.W. Griffith), while he developed his gift for prolix repartee on stage. Fields’s comic persona evolved from the montebank in the 1923 play Poppy and the henpecked husband in the 1927 silent The Potters to his sound-film apotheosis as a garrulous, bumbling swindler pestered by children, dogs and other innocents, a character of a vast popular appeal that reached its sentimental climax in the 1935 role of Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield. One of Hollywood's highest-paid comics, he was a sucker for hard-luck cases but gave only meager financial support to his illegitimate son, W.C. Jr., and was pointlessly cruel to his estranged wife Hattie and their son Claude. Famous for his hilarious but disruptive ad-libs, Fields sabotaged his radio career with booze-fueled irascibility, which also nearly ruined numerous Hollywood productions, including his famous 1940 collaboration with Mae West, My Little Chickadee. It took seven years of legal squabbles for his heirs to carve up his $750,000 estate after he died of cirrhosis on Christmas Day, 1946.
A thorough accounting of Fields’s stage and film appearances that, while setting many records straight, never quite takes the measure of the man. (100 b&w photos)