Biography of W. C. Fields (January 29, 1880 – December 25, 1946)
William Claude Dukenfield, better known as W. C. Fields, was an American comedian, clown, juggler, and writer. Fields’ comic persona was a misanthropic, hard-drinking, lazy, con man and egotist. The character remained a sympathetic character despite his supposed contempt for children, dogs, and societal convention.
W. C. Fields’ early years
W. C. Fields made a habit of exaggerating, rewriting, and creating whole fictions about his childhood. Some things are clearly known, however.
W. C. Fields was born William Claude Dukenfield in Darby, Pennsylvania, the oldest child of a working-class family. He had a strained relationship with his short-tempered father, James Lydon Dukenfield, who served in the American Civil War. His mother was Kate Spangler Felton.
W. C. Fields ran away from home repeatedly, beginning at the age of nine, often to stay with his grandmother or an uncle. His education was sporadic, and did not progress beyond grade school. At 12, he worked with his father selling produce from a wagon, until the two had a fight that resulted in Fields running away again.
He told stories of his childhood as a runaway who lived by his wits on the streets of Philadelphia from an early age. Like much of his statements about his life, they should be taken with a grain of salt. However, he clearly had a talent for juggling, and a performance at a local theater inspired him to practice and develop his skills. At age 17, he was living with his family and performing a juggling act at church and theater shows.
W. C. Fields in vaudeville
Inspired by the success of the “Original Tramp Juggler”, James Edward Harrigan, Fields copied a similar costume of scruffy beard and shabby tuxedo and entered vaudeville as a tramp juggler in 1898. Here, he began using the the stage name W. C. Fields that he’d make famous. His family supported his ambitions for the stage and saw him off on the train for his first stage tour. Contrary to his later character (and appeal), he didn’t speak onstage. In 1900, to stand out from his competitors in vaudeville, he changed his costume and makeup, and began touring as “The Eccentric Juggler”. He manipulated cigar boxes, hats, and other objects in his act. Thankfully, parts of this routine are reproduced in some of his films, notably in the The Old Fashioned Way (1934).
By the early 1900s, he was regularly called the world’s greatest juggler. He became a headliner in North America and Europe, and toured Australia and South Africa in 1903. When playing for English-speaking audiences, he found he could get more laughs by adding muttered patter and sarcastic asides to his routines.
He married for the only time to a fellow vaudevillian, chorus girl, Harriet “Hattie” Hughes on April 8, 1900. She became part of Fields’ stage act, appearing as his assistant, whom he would comically blame when he missed a trick. Hattie was educated and tutored Fields in reading and writing during their travels. Under her influence, he became an enthusiastic reader and traveled with a trunk of books. In 1904, they had a son — William Claude Fields, Jr. The marriage didn’t last, and in 1907 they separated, but never divorced. It was acrimonious, and W. C. Fields accused her of turning his son against him.
W. C. Fields on Broadway
In 1905 Fields made his Broadway debut in a musical comedy, The Ham Tree. The role required him to deliver lines of dialogue, which he had never before done onstage. He later said,
“I wanted to become a real comedian, and there I was, ticketed and pigeonholed as merely a comedy juggler.”Curtis, James. W.C. Fields: A Biography. New York: A. Knopf, 2003, p. 85.
He continued touring in vaudeville until 1915. Beginning in 1915, however, he began appearing on Broadway in Flo Ziegfeld’s Ziegfeld Follies revue. He delighted audiences with a wild billiards skit, complete with bizarrely shaped cues and a custom-built table used for a number of hilarious gags and surprising trick shots. Part of his pool game is reproduced in some of his films, notably in Six of a Kind (1934).
The act was a success, and Fields starred in the Follies from 1916 to 1922, not as a juggler but as a comedian in ensemble sketches. In addition to several editions of the Follies, Fields starred in the 1923 Broadway musical comedy Poppy, wherein he perfected his character as a colorful small-time con man. He would re-use (and re-create) the musical several times in future years. In 1928, he appeared in The Earl Carroll Vanities.
His stage costume from 1915 onward featured a top hat, cut-away coat and collar, and a cane. This is the visual look (with changes to the hat, etc. depending on the movie) that he kept for the rest of his career.
W. C. Fields in the movies
In 1915, W. C. Fields began his film career with two silent films, Pool Sharks (which he wrote, and demonstrated some of his pool routine) and His Lordship’s Dilemna (demonstrating some of his golf routine). He was busy enough on stage that he didn’t make another film for 9 years.
Another son is born
In 1916, the still-married W. C. Fields began a romantic relationship with Bessie Poole, an established Ziegfeld Follies performer. They had a son, William Rexford Fields Morris, on August 15, 1917. Neither performer was willing to raise the child, and he was placed in foster care. Despite having Bessie sign an affidavit that he wasn’t the child’s father, he financially supported him until William turned 19.
Back to the movies
He had a supporting role in Janice Meredith (1924), and filmed the first adaptation of Poppy the next year as the silent film Sally of the Sawdust. Next was The Old Army Game — which included a silent version of the porch routine he later expanded on in It’s a Gift. Paramount Studios teamed him up with Chester Conklin for three films which are now lost … and were commercial flops.
In 1930, he made his first short sound movie, The Golf Specialist — reproducing one of his Follies sketches. He made his first talking movie the next year in Her Majesty, Love.
Talking movies at Paramount
W. C. Fields began making 13 movies for the Paramount film studio, beginning with the hilarious Million Dollar Legs (1932). With 1934’s International House, he became a major Hollywood star. He followed with It’s a Gift (1934), Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) — all hilarious comedies. Next, he did a rare serious movie, playing the comedic Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield. The next year, he made Poppy as a talking comedy, and The Big Broadcast of 1938 with Bob Hope, Martha Raye and Dorothy Lamour. Despite the film’s success, W. C. Fields’ drinking became a problem during the shooting.
In 1933, W. C. Fields met a young actress named Carlotta Monti. They had an off-again, on-again relationship over the remaining years of his life. They frequently lived together, with her taking the role of his mistress. She later wrote the book, W. C. Fields and Me, which was later made into a biographical film after his death.
In his early years as a professional juggler, W. C. Fields didn’t drink alcohol at all; it would affect his performance. Over time, however, he began drinking, more and more heavily, to the point where it affected his health and career. By 1938, his behavior — and ill health — discouraged other movie offers. So, he turned to radio, and began his celebrated feud with Edgar Bergen’s famous ventriloquist character, Charlie McCarthy.
During this time, he was attempting to wean himself off the bottle, and recover his health somewhat.
W. C. Fields returns to the movies
With his radio popularity, and some of his health back, W. C. Fields made a return to making movies with Universal Pictures in 1939. Some of his funniest work came from this period, with You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939), My Little Chickadee (1940), The Bank Dick (1940), and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) — his last starring role.
During the 1940 presidential campaign, Fields authored a book, Fields for President, with humorous essays in the form of a campaign speech.
W. C. Fields was unknowingly part of a tragedy in the life of Anthony Quinn. On March 15, 1941, while W. C. Fields was out of town, Christopher Quinn, the two-year-old son of his neighbors, actor Anthony Quinn and his wife Katherine DeMille, drowned in a lily pond on Fields’ property. Grief-stricken over the tragedy, he had the pond filled in.
W. C. Fields’ film career slowed considerably in the 1940s. His illnesses, and continued drinking, confined him to brief guest film appearances. An extended sequence in 20th Century Fox’s Tales of Manhattan (1942) was cut from the original release of the film. Clearly, the funniest of the five stories in the anthology, it has W. C. Fields giving a temperance lecture. Seriously! But, the punch bowl has been spiked … Clearly, W. C. Fields’ real-life drinking hadn’t abated by this time, as Phil Silvers recalls in his biography:
One day the producers appeared on the set to plead with Fields: “Please don’t drink while we’re shooting—we’re way behind schedule”… Fields merely raised an eyebrow. “Gentlemen, this is only lemonade. For a little acid condition afflicting me.” He leaned on me. “Would you be kind enough to taste this, sir?” I took a careful sip—pure gin. I have always been a friend of the drinking man; I respect him for his courage to withdraw from the world of the thinking man. I answered the producers a little scornfully, “It’s lemonade.” My reward? The scene was snipped out of the picture.Phil Silvers, This Laugh is On Me: The Phil Silvers Story
W. C. Fields enacted his billiard table routine for the final time in Follow the Boys (1944), an all-star entertainment revue for the Armed Forces. In Song of the Open Road (1944), Fields juggled on screen once more. His last film, the musical revue Sensations of 1945, was released in late 1944. By then his vision and memory had deteriorated so much that he had to read his lines from large-print blackboards.
In 1944, Fields continued to make radio guest appearances. His last radio appearance was on March 24, 1946, on the Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show on NBC. Just before his death that year, Fields recorded a spoken-word album, including his “Temperance Lecture” and “The Day I Drank a Glass of Water”, at Les Paul’s studio. The session was arranged by one of his radio writers, Bill Morrow, and was Fields’ last performance.
Death of W. C. Fields
W. C. Fields spent nearly the last 2 years of his life at the Las Encinas Sanatorium in Pasadena, California. In 1946, on Christmas Day—the holiday he said he despised—he had a massive gastric hemorrhage and died, at the age of 66. Carlotta Monti wrote that in his final moments, she used a garden hose to spray water onto the roof over his bedroom to simulate his favorite sound, falling rain.
His cremation, as directed in his will, was delayed pending resolution of an objection filed by Hattie and Claude Fields on religious grounds. They also contested a clause leaving a portion of his estate to establish a “W. C. Fields College for Orphan White Boys and Girls, where no religion of any sort is to be preached”. After a lengthy period of litigation his remains were cremated on June 2, 1949, and his ashes interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale.