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Dave Altman
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Georgia
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Posted - 03/20/2008 :  15:35:18  Show Profile  Visit Dave Altman's Homepage Send Dave Altman a Private Message
W.C. Fields


William Claude Dukenfield was born on January 29th 1880. Some sources put his birth earlier on April of 1879. The dates of his movies, which are documented, and a few other dates should be considered accurate, but other details of Fields’ life may not be. Fields’ own description of his life contains errors, probably by design. Comedians are not ones to let the truth get in the way of a better story.

In 1899, when “Bill” was only nine years old, he worked as an entertainer at Fortesque's Pier in Atlantic City, NJ. Among his other duties was building a crowd by pretending to drown in the ocean and being rescued by one of the other performers. This is when he learned to play pool, which is central to many of his comedy bits, on stage and in his movies.

His show business career got a real start when he joined a tour with the Keith Vaudeville Circuit at age 19. Besides his juggling act, he had to shift scenery, play in a musical comedy and perform other odd jobs. Eighteen months on this circuit led Fields to New York City, where he received great reviews and a job with the Orpheum Circuit (which lasted four years) at $125 per week.

The act consisted of about 20 minutes of comedy juggling. Fields entered a stage almost barren of props. He wore old, torn, loose clothing (saving wardrobe expenses) with his face made up to look unshaven. His few props were tennis balls (he could juggle six), a balancing stick, a top hat, and cigar boxes (available for free).

He developed a genius for the conscious error, the retrieved blunder. A review of his act in the San Francisco Examiner summed it up with, "It is impossible to tell whether Fields makes real or fake mistakes in his juggling. He will drop a hat apparently by accident in the middle of some difficult feat and then catch it by another apparently accidental movement. It is all so smooth and effortless."

A good example of this was in his cigar box routine. Standing among a pile of boxes scattered on the stage, Fields would go through a three box routine. While bending very low, he would accidentally drop one of the boxes from his hands, but without missing a beat, he would replace it with one from the floor. Only the careful observer would ever catch this "miss."

Fields claims to have practiced for two years to perfect the trick of kicking a top hat up to a stick balanced on his forehead. Another difficult trick consisted of balancing a top hat, cigar, and whisk broom on his foot, then kicking them up so that the cigar goes to his mouth, the hat to his head, and the broom to his back pocket.

When Fields was 23 years old he married Harriet Hughes, who joined his act as assistant and straight woman, but retired in 1904. They had one son, W.C. Fields, Jr., later took up music, organized his own band at Columbia University, and became a lawyer. While they never divorced, Fields and Harriet separated soon after the birth of their son. However, Fields continued to financially support them both until his death. Fields returned to Europe with his brother (his new assistant) for a second tour. The next ten years involved two world tours, many trips to Europe, and tours of all the best vaudeville houses in the United States.

From 1904-06, Fields played in the musical Ham Tree, as an amusing detective who juggled anything in sight. The play consisted of vaudeville acts tied together by a thin plot. W.C. Fields continued a successful career by doing a command performance for the King and Queen of England in 1913.



Thou shalt not steal - only from other comedians

Fields was quick to protect his material when he felt that others might get credit or financial gain for it. On May 4th, 1912 he placed the following ad in Variety:

To Those Interested be it known
that
W. C. Fields was the first
to take the curtains in the following manner, i. e., walking off the stage as the curtain rises and walking on as it descends.
I can prove I did this first, over three years ago, by Stage Manager Malloy, of Shea's Theatre, Buffalo; Bud Burke, Stage Manager of Colonial, New York; Johnny Hall, of the Orpheum, Brooklyn.
During my absence from the country (having been in Europe for two years) I am informed that another single act has been making use of this mode of taking curtains. While it may be a coincident (which I do not admit nor believe) I am not in a position to state positively that this act has taken that portion of my stage material, but I do wish to stamp my prior right to it, and to recall to those in the profession that the bit belongs to me under the accepted code of ethics in vaudeville.
This notice is published by me for the purpose of compelling the artist now using this matter to also give the date when he first employed it, and where, unless he cares to rest under the imputation of unprofessionalism which must follow silence on his part.
I have suffered much from acts in my own line of work; I don't feel like remaining quiet while another and a foreigner may be using my material in my own country, and asking credit for originality upon it.
Stage managers, who know me and my act are respectfully requested to carefully read this statement. And they will confer a favor by asking anyone using the "curtain business" if he has good right to it, also by informing me of the circumstance when it occurs.
W. C. FIELDS



W.C. Fields was also an artist (cartoonist) and often did his own promotional material.



In 1915, Fields signed with the Ziegfield Follies from 1915-1921, appearing with such stars as Fanny Brice, Will Rodgers, Eddie Cantor and Bert Williams. He presented his billiard, golf and tennis acts during the Follies run, as well as his special humor. By the end of his run with the Follies, he dropped juggling from his act, entirely.

Also in 1915, Field did his first movie, Pool Sharks, when he was thirty-six. While relying on some of his vaudeville humor and routines, it was a silent film, which doesn’t showcase his talent as well as his later films.

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On August 15, 1917, with girlfriend Bessie Poole, he had his second son, named William Rexford Fields Morris.

1923, Fields received star billing in the stage play, Poppy. Although he did juggle in the play, he was considered primarily as a comedian. In a review of Poppy it described his performance, thus; "Not only does he handle lines as deftly as cigar boxes, but he creates an authentic and appealing character." In 1925, D.W. Griffith made a movie of the play, renamed Sally of the Sawdust, in which Fields also starred.

He continued making movies throughout the 1920s and in 1931 he left New York and the stage for good, moved to Hollywood and became the character(s) of which we now associate with W.C. Fields. According to film historians, he only performed in one motion picture exactly according to script and as directed. Which was David Copperfield, 1935, (The Personal History, Adventures, Experience, and Observation of David Copperfield, the Younger) Fields admired the Dickens book, and wanted desperately to play Mr. Micawber in the movie, so he agreed to forego his usual ad libs, and put aside his distaste at working with child actors. Fields usually wrote or co-wrote his movies; using aliases, such as, "Mahatma Kane Jeeves", "Otis Criblecoblis", which came from the unusual names he encountered on the road, in his vaudeville days.

W.C. Fields was seriously considered to play the title role in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Some sources say that he refused to play "The Wizard" because MGM wouldn't pay the salary he wanted, but according to Doug McClelland, author of "Down The Yellow Brick Road", Fields was too busy writing and acting in his latest film for Universal Pictures - You Can't Cheat An Honest Man (1939) - to be loaned out to MGM to play the part.

Fields passed away on Christmas day, 1946 in Pasadena, California, after several boughs of pneumonia and other illnesses. The cause of death was attributed to a stomach hemorrhage.

"All things considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia." ~self-proposed epitaph of W.C. Fields



Fields appears on sleeve of The Beatles’ "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." (Top row above John’s head.)



There is also a 15¢ US commemorative postage stamp in the Performing Arts and Artists series, issued 29 January 1980 (100th anniversary year of his birth).


A brief look at WC Fields
John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, narrates and discusses Fields comedy style

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Extract from Review of
"Ballyhoo", featuring W. C. Fields
Heywood Broun
Nation, January 7th, 1931


I feel that one of the high spots in the present theatrical year has been underlined in red because W. C. Fields is juggling again. I am of the opinion that in this diversion the man falls little short of genius. You may protest that juggling does not belong among the major arts. Such an opinion will be held only by those who have witnessed merely the proficient practitioners. Fields is, as far as I know, the only one who is able to introduce the tragic note in the handling of a dozen cigar boxes. When they are pyramided, only to crash because of a sudden off-stage noise, my heart goes out to the protagonist as it seldom does to Lear or Macbeth.
If one thinks of art in terms of line and movement, then I suggest that there is present in this juggling act as much to please the eye as when Pavlowa dances. Like the best of modern painters, Fields can afford to depart from the orthodox, because he is heretical from choice and not from incapacity. I mean, it is amusing when he muffs a trick because you know that he could easily complete it if he cared to. Certainly, there is something admirable in the ability to emotionalize the task of tossing spheres into the air and catching them in rythm. Possibly there is even profundity in such a pastime.
Mr. Fields at play among the planets suggest to me an Einsteinian quality. I do not like to rush into symbolism, but if a mortal can personally see to it that these complicated orbits are preserved, each in its entity, then I go home more sure of the safety and sanctity of the universe than before.



W.C. Fields is accredited with doing 38 movies (YouTube clips are included when available) For juggling, see The Old Fashioned Way (1934) and a short clip of him talking with golfer Bobby Jones:

Tales of Manhattan (1942)
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Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)
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My Little Chickadee (1940)
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Even though Mae West and W.C. Fields are often associated, My Little Chickadee was the only movie they did together.

The Bank Dick (1940)
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You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939)
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The Big Broadcast (1938) On movie lot clip: You must be logged in to see this link.

Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935)
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Mississippi (1935)
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David Copperfield (1935)
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Six of a Kind (1934)

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Jugglers note: Fields, as Honest John, playing pool which is a combination of brilliant physical humor with excellent verbal thrown in

Also, from Six of a Kind, scene with George Burns
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It’s a Gift (1934)
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Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934)
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The Old Fashioned Way (1934)

This is probably the closest to his vaudeville juggling act.

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You’re Telling Me! (1934)
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Talking with golfer Bobby Jones (late 1930’s or early 1940’s)

Fields juggles three golf balls
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The Barber Shop (1933)
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The Pharmacist (1933)
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The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)
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The Dentist (1932)
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If I Had a Million (1932)
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The Golf Specialist (1930)
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1930’s newsreel where Fields shows off for the girls at the gym rings
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References:

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Juggling Hall of Fame

YouTube

W.C. Fields Gets Help from His Friends by H.M. Lorette, the Original Dancing Juggler

From Boy Juggler to Star Comedian, One Fun-Maker's Income, Beginning with Five Dollars a Week, Now Exceeds Five Thousand for the Same Period by W. C. Fields Theatre Magazine, October 1928

Extract from Review of
"Ballyhoo", featuring W. C. Fields
Heywood Broun
Nation, January 7th, 1931


















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