W.C. Fields: Juggler to Comic Genius
The Homely Boy Who Stuttered
William Claude Dukenfield, commonly known as W.C. Fields, was born on January 29, 1880 in Darby, Pennsylvania. The comedy pioneer died on December 25, 1946 in Pasadena, California from pneumonia. In between birth and death, he developed into a comedy genius who was both raucous and cantankerous, who broke every politically correct rule in the book, and starred in vaudeville, burlesque, theatre, film, and radio from the late 1800s to the mid 1940s.
W.C. Fields grew up in Philadelphia during an economic boom, but his family—parents and four siblings—didn't experience much prosperity and they were illiterate to boot. Young William was a homely boy and had a noticeable stutter. He was not polite or sophisticated as a young boy and often rubbed people the wrong way. Like his father, Fields grew up angry, drank too much, and talked too loud (if he talked at all). Despite all this, he had the drive, self-confidence, and fortitude necessary to make it big in the entertainment business.
“I was in love with a beautiful blonde once. She drove me to drink. It’s the one thing I’m indebted to her for.”
— W.C. Fields, Never Give A Sucker An Even Break
A Philadelphia Huck Finn
Biographers disagree about when Fields left home--some say it was eleven, others eighteen. What was certain was that as a young boy, Fields often ran away from home and wandered the streets of Philadelphia, living in fields, boxcars, and freight trains with the hobos. He scrounged for money and food and oftentimes had conflicts with adults, especially his father.
He loved his mother but she didn't give him much emotional support in dealing with his alcoholic, overly critical, and volatile father.
His chaotic street life resulted in robbing bakeries, a pool hustler, working on food trucks, ice wagons, and periodically landing a respectable job at a a department store or a cigar shop.
He grew up in a culture where children and pets were not revered. Children were seen and not heard while pets were treated like animals and not humans as they are today. It certainly made sense that Fields didn't grow up to be an animal lover or a supporter of children's rights.
Developing His Persona
How did Fields make it to be such a star in the entertainment industry? How did he make such great comedies as "You Can't Cheat an Honest Man," My Little Chickadee," and starred with other icons like Mae West and Edgar Bergen?
According to his biographer, W.C. Fields had something to prove to all the people that thought he wouldn't amount to much, as well as wanting to get away from provincial Philadelphia. For much of his life in entertainment, he maintained a consistent irracisible personality. He believed that if he was going to be a sarcastic drunk--he would be damn good at it. His movie persona was about an everyman who couldn't catch a break; a personality that resonated with a lot of working class men who tried to make a buck but were met with hardship and frustration.
As a child, he seldom attended school and had numerous run-ins with the law. As an actor, he was not brilliant, lovable or admirable but relatable to the common man. He was beat up by bullies as kid, but often played a bully as a movie star. He prided himself on not having a moral fiber in his body while raising up a glass of whiskey to make a toast.
Fields refined his persona by donning a top hat and tails, talked with a mumbling drawl and presented as one who was well off even though he was as poor as dirt. He projected the negative side of humanity with humor, willing to use any kind of means to get what he wanted. His characters may have made bumbling choices and took it on the chin a time or two, but they always got up from the floor and cracked a joke.
Juggling to Stardom
Juggling would be young Fields first real passion in the entertainment industry. When the traveling shows and circuses passed through Philadelphia, it was the jugglers that caught his eye.
Fields didn't want to be just a juggler, he wanted to be a comic juggler who mixed in humorous sketches. He dressed like a tramp on stage and rarely talked during his routine. He swiped fruit and vegetables from his father's inventory and practiced relentlessly, observing famous jugglers like Cinquevalli who could juggle eight objects at a time and eventually Fields got opportunities to juggle in traveling vaudeville and burlesque shows across the country and Europe. He quickly gained the reputation as being one of the best jugglers of his day.
From juggling, Fields became a star in the Broadway musical comedy "Poppy" (1923), in which he played a colorful small-time con man. He subsequently branched out to Hollywood to make quite a few iconic comedies. He played Harold Bissonette (pronounced Biss-o-nay), a grocer beset with aggravation in "It's a Gift," and the Great McGonigle, the dishonest head of a traveling theatrical company in "The Old Fashioned Way," along with many other short films.
When asked if he was religious, Fields replied "I study the bible for loopholes."
Any Dog That Drinks With Me Can't Drink Wine
Leo Rosten, then Time Magazine writer, once said about Fields, "Any man who hates dogs and babies can't be all that bad."
According to a blogger who goes by the name of Trailfez, Fields' dislike for babies and dogs was all a put-on. He was, by all accounts, kind and friendly to young Freddie Bartholomew when the two made “David Copperfield” in 1935.
He didn't despise canines, either. In a United Press story from 1945, the bulbous-nosed W. C. Fields offered a congenial home to Pepe, the dog drunk who got the blind staggers on muscatel.
“I’m a martini man, pure and simple,” drawled Fields who used quart jars for cocktail glasses. “And any dog that drinks with me can’t drink wine.”
Fields said he read about Pepe in the newspapers after police picked him up as a confirmed wino who was using alcoholic barks to tip off his human friends that the cops were approaching.
Why My Interest in W.C. Fields?
We both grew up on the city streets of Philadelphia. We had dysfunctional, alcoholic families and a father in the produce business (my dad was not critical or alcoholic but my uncle and grandfather were). We both felt that Philadelphia was way too provincial for our tastes and eventually settled in Southern California. We stuttered as children and often were teased by bullies, but we overcame our speech defects and we turned out to become productive adults.
While we both loved humor, I only wish that I was as motivated, hard-working, and possessed his enormous talent in the comedy field. Then again, I wouldn't want to pay the price for stardom like Fields unfortunately did, dying young and alcoholic. I prefer growing old in Southern California and enjoying its sunshine and beaches without a hangover.
5 Interesting Facts About W.C Fields
- He had 700 hundred bank accounts across the United states, opening up accounts everywhere he went. Some of which have not yet been discovered by his heirs.
- Fields loved his grandmother and would often stay with her when he'd have run-ins with his father.
- He first wife, Hattie, starred with him in Vaudeville and Burlesque shows as his assistant.
- He despised Christmas and, ironically, that was the day he died.
- Fields was a very good pool hustler as a teenager.
What negative characteristic did you like best about W.C. Fields?
My Five Favorite W.C. Fields Quotes
"Here lies W. C. Fields. I would rather be living in Philadelphia." His proposed but unused epitaph