Some men, when they laugh, sound like geese hissing, others like grumbling goslings; some recall the sigh of woodland pigeons, or doves in their widowhood; others the hoot-owl; one an Indian rooster, another a peacock; others give out a peep-peep, like chicks; for others it is like a horse neighing, or an ass heehawing, or a dog that yaps or is choking, some people call to mind the sound of dry-axled carts, others, gravel in a pail, others yet a boiling pot of cabbage; and some have still another resonance, aside from the look on their face and the grimacing, so variedly diverse that nothing parallels it.
from Treatise on Laughter by Laurent Joubert (1579)
How easy it is to imagine the great W.C. Fields reciting the passage above, savoring the sounds of words for their own sake, accenting and elongating certain syllables in that unmistakable drawl, one that linguist William Labov ascribed to his native Philadelphia. And surely the barnyard of laughter evoked by Joubert (pioneering physician and colleague of Rabelais) could double as description of the unruly vaudeville and burlesque houses where Fields paid his early dues. Rabelaisian they were, as Orson Welles could attest:
But Bill, if you can believe such a thing, was even funnier on the stage. They took me to see him in Ziegfeld’s Follies and I laughed so hard they got worried and took me out of the theatre. All next day I had to be kept in bed. Quite literally, I’d laughed myself sick.
Laid low by laughter; comedy as an efflorescence of pain. As Fields himself once said, “I never saw anything funny that wasn’t terrible. If it causes pain, it’s funny; if it doesn’t, it isn’t.”
When it came to pain, Fields had an overflowing reserve from which to draw. Andrew Sarris once wrote that The Bank Dick “virtually demolished the mythology of the American family,” but for young Claude (as he was then known), the job had been done at home long before that. Against the domestic chaos of his early youth and a violent father’s short fuse, he did the only thing a kid could do: run away, repeatedly. Choosing the beatings he faced by bullies on the Germantown streets over those that awaited him at home makes the latter’s intensity all the more vivid.
But for all the violence the street possessed, the possibilities for self-invention there seemed endless. Fed up with a succession of punishing after-school jobs (like rising at 3:00AM daily to deliver ice), Fields looked to models outside the mainstream of commerce, through flourishing underground economies or plain old petty crime. He began to envision a life narrative against the grain of the Horatio Alger fantasy-world governed by fair play; the game was rigged, after all, so why not be one to do the rigging? This was the source of the boisterous scalawags who figure so prominently in his films: card sharps, carnival barkers, sellers of patent medicine.
His back-alley apprenticeship with a local con man offered up the obvious benefits of a steady stream of cash; not so apparent were the lessons that provided up dividends in the years to come. One was derived from their standard con, something Fields mysteriously referred to as “the old army game.” Alternately known as “the shell game” and “thimblerig,” this was the precursor to the contemporary three-card monte (using peas and walnuts instead of cards). It had—so far as knowing Fields is concerned—a couple of important facets: one was in the ability to play the “game” itself which, truth be told, was basic sleight-of-hand. In terms of dexterity, Claude came primed for this, having first learned the rudiments of juggling while helping out on his father’s fruit cart.
The other key facet to the con was in the use of language to accomplish their misdeeds, attracting a crowd and distracting the suspicious. For itinerant hucksters, finesse was necessary in staying one step ahead of the law; many of Fields’s characters gifted in such verbal misdirection—The Great McGonigle in The Old Fashioned Way and Larson E. Whipsnade in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man to name two—can be traced back to that tenuous existence. Trespassing on the grounds of polite society, their declamatory skills (the more colorful the better) were the main defense against expulsion—in movies as in life.
But Fields had ambitions beyond the hustle. His first steps into performance per se were modest—church functions and medicine shows. Philadelphia, rivaling the Bowery in its claim to the title of “the cradle of vaudeville,” was a tough market in which to find a break, and juggling alone was of limited appeal. Augmented with schtick derived from other local performers, his comic ability was slow to evolve; in his early years, according to his sister Adele, he wasn’t even particularly funny. It was not until years later with the Ziegfeld Follies that he began to speak on stage; later, recalled his agent, “he would reprimand a particular ball which had not come to his hand accurately, and mutter weird and unintelligible expletives to his cigar when it missed his mouth.”
It’s no surprise then that his contempt for standard protocol, which grew out of these beginnings away from the so-called legitimate stage, found little sympathy in Hollywood. “I would not call him an actor,” declared George Cukor, his director in David Copperfield; “he was a wonderful sort of entertainer and a wonderful performer.” Damned by faint praise: Cukor, as great a director of actors as there ever was, nonetheless had some fairly narrow ideas about cinematic artistry. The professional disdain, though, was mutual; so far as Fields was concerned, the best thing a director could do was to stay out of his way. A subplot within The Bank Dick (written by Fields under the pseudonym of Mahatma Kane Jeeves, so-named as an inside joke to Welles) makes this explicit: in that scenario, Fields’s character is improbably brought in by a film producer to replace his director who’s been incapacitated by drink; the message was hard to miss.
Andrew Sarris had the insight to consider Fields as a “nondirectorial auteur,” suggesting the nuanced view often lost on Sarris’s followers that true artistic vision was never the director’s alone. By the mid 1930s, Fields had no qualms about circumventing a writer or director when faced with weak material, often going straight to the executive level. By then he had earned enough clout to begin to dictate terms to the studio; his governing ethos was that categorical boundaries were there to be destroyed. His increasing power in everything from casting decisions to the final word on scripts, though, came at great cost: “It’s hard to tell,” he once complained, “where Hollywood ends, and the DTs begin.”
DTs or not, Fields’s later films are marked by stunning incongruity: grace of movement by a less-than-graceful physique. He used his body as the situation dictated—clumsy when it was called for, and circus-balletic when one has written him off altogether. Moments like the scene in You’re Telling Me!, in which he struggles with a newly acquired ostrich, ask us to reconsider the very meaning of the term “athletic.”
It was the voice, though, that prevailed. His detour into radio following the termination of his contract with Paramount further proved his verbal mettle, rounding out an incomparable mastery of language, sound, and sense. Along with his distinctive cadence, Fields had unparalleled instincts for the ways that words could be directed through modulation of tone and calibration toward their targets. Sometimes speech was rendered in the manner of the drunk who performs a feat of physical challenge just to prove his sobriety; at other times, language was a means towards mystification. With the comportment of a fallen aristocrat, Fields played the cockalorum like no one else. His tall tales, with their sham almanac wisdom and Latin fit for a pig, could be as weird as a story by Raymond Roussel. The fun he had with names alone—Elmer Prettywillie, T. Frothingill Bellows, Cuthbert J. Twillie—shows an abiding love of excess and a knack for puffery.
As his film career proceeded, Fields showed an increasing propensity to look backward. Silent films were remade as talkies (So’s Your Old Man remade as You’re Telling Me!, and the theatrical version of Poppy remade as Sally of the Sawdust and remade yet again as the film Poppy), vaudeville sketches as interludes within broader narratives (Six of a Kind, The Old Fashioned Way); many of the stories themselves take place within a not-so-distant past. The vast amounts of recycled material are perhaps based on the late-in-life realization that his best work had been created in an ephemeral medium—movies became a means of preserving a legacy.
One way to view the gap between his career success and the ineffectual characters he created is to consider it as counterfactual cinema, Fields’s imaginings of his own life’s failures. Whatever they may have lacked in biographical truth was compensated by their surprising emotional resonance in the midst of the Great Depression, as in moments like You’re Telling Me’s funny failed suicide attempt aboard a train. Only a great artist could access psychic wounds experienced years before and inject them with a social relevance very much of the moment.
Fields’s characters are commonly separated into two types: flamboyant con-man, or misunderstood, put-upon husband. This ignores the fact that in certain films—The Pharmacist, Tilly and Gus, The Bank Dick, and others—the two types merge as one. The misunderstood husband was, if one looks just a little closer, simply the huckster with a cleaner set of suspenders, trapped in a domesticity playing out more like a life sentence. In the end, both types shared a never-ending struggle for legitimacy, seeking after a place where their currency could be recognized.
A more useful distinction might be made in terms of voice alone, distinguishing between the carnival barker’s bunkum (or “outdoor voice”) in You’re Telling Me!, and the muttered commentary (or “indoor voice”) heard in films like It’s A Gift. By accepting the latter as a sure mark of authority’s presence, we begin to get a sense of those most feared within his world: wives, mothers-in-law, and, to a lesser extent, police. Young children were usually little more than puppets to be manipulated by Mother to conspire against him. His housebroken masochists are the sexless Stateside kin of von Sternberg’s Professor Unrath, whose degradation was the grown-up echo of what he suffered at home as a child.
Fields’s “indoor voice” often hovered at the threshold of audibility(surely an influence on Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye), and at times at the edge of sense. His creativity with curses—also known as “minced oaths”—were like intelligence tests that determined if you were smart enough to realize you’d been insulted. Their targets could just as easily be characters within the narrative frame as the Hays Office censors outside of it. For the psychoanalytically inclined, there’s a great deal here to relish beyond the comic surface.
Fields seemed to intuit the role that the voice played, bringing themes of vocal origin and power to the fore. Initially picked for the title role in The Wizard of Oz, Fields bowed out shortly before production. Scheduling conflicts were the oft-cited reason, but could the deflating moment where the identity of Oz is unveiled have perhaps undermined his convictions about the voice as source of power? One can only speculate.
The inanimate nemesis known as Charlie McCarthy is another case altogether; initially trading insults on the Chase & Sanborn Hour radio broadcasts in 1937, the repartee between Fields and Edgar Bergen’s wisecracking dummy had been a huge popular success. Animosity lingered for months, however, after a spontaneous on-air crack by Fields about Bergen’s toupee turned nasty, ending with Fields storming off the set. In his fine biography of Fields, James Curtis recounts an incident during production of You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man where, working together for the first time since that incident, the tension between Fields and Bergen still lingered. The shoot was a laborious affair, beginning each day with a meeting amongst principals to review script changes for the day to come. Bergen, highly critical of Fields’s revisions, insisted on speaking exclusively through dummy Charlie, which naturally annoyed Fields to no end. As actress Constance Moore recalled, the tension quickly became unbearable:
[O]ne day, Mr. Fields exploded and banished Charlie McCarthy from the set. That piece of wood was banished from the set. And his chair too! That little canvas-backed chair that said ‘Charlie McCarthy’ on it was quickly picked up by one of the gofers and it was taken from the set. And of course, Mr. Bergen had nothing else to say from then on.
For Fields, there was no sublimation; with minced oaths and mumbled asides, his was an id stripped bare—revealing lusts, hostilities, and sometimes a deeper darkness.
“Life is really one long headache,” he wrote in 1935, not long before his collapse fueled by alcohol and overwork, “the morning after the night before. It is a mirror moved all around town by a one-eyed truckman…By the time he finally gets it into the hands of the fellow who knows what to do with it, the thing’s worn out, and he’s got to go back to the warehouse for another mirror.”