"By most accounts, Claude Dukenfield began running away from home at the age of nine." The son of a volatile Civil War vet and his easygoing compliant wife, the man who was to be W.C. Fields began life as an abused and angry kid who stole for fun. Bill Fields was to describe an early turning point in his relationship with his violent old man: "My father patted me on the spine with a spade for a reason I cannot recall. I, in turn, called him a name that reflected on his ancestors and made a bad noise with my mouth at him. I took it on the lam pronto. That night I reposed al fresco." The deft turn of phrase is pure Fields, and the incident goes a long way towards explaining, perhaps, why the noted and beloved comic nearly always found a place in his films for an annoying child. And why Fields never managed particularly good relations with his own son Claude, though by all accounts he was gruff but kind to other children despite the public image.
Fields taught himself to juggle, often working until his limbs ached to practice a trick. He was known on stage for a game of pool, using a mirror suspended above the table to reveal his comic antics of incompetence and buffonery followed by his prowess in clearing the table. He grew comfortable with an audience, varied his act just a wee bit every show, and used ad-libs to his advantage:
"In one scene I was alone in a dark library hunting on tiptoe for cards I intended to mark....One night as I was stealing around the stage, being careful not to wake up anybody in the house, somebody offstage accidentally knocked over a pile of boxes with a crash that shook the theatre. My scene was ruined for the moment. I had an inspiration. I stole down to the footlights and whispered to the audience, 'Mice!'"
Inspiration pushed him on, and drink held him back, ultimately contributing to his many complicated illnesses and demise at the relatively young age of 66. He had but one faithful partner, Hattie, to whom he always paid support, and an endless string of women friends. His chosen career, leading on from juggling and vaudeville into screen and then, when alcohol was taking its toll, into radio, precluded a settled home life. Exhausting though it was, the peripatetic touring and continual change suited the wild child who had been Claude Dukenfield. He rose to the heights of playing Mr. Micawber, an honor he accepted with humility and pride. "People who had stories of Fields' drinking and his irascible nature were surprised at the conscientious way he approached the role. 'I have always admired the works of Dickens...and decided not to take any liberties with his character. I studiously learned the dialogue and rehearsed it diligently.'" Fields, a largely self educated man who had found school boring, carried dictionaries with him and wrote down words he wanted to memorize, some presumably for their amusing sounds.
Reports of Fields as a working mate varied from "He was the most obstinate, ornery son of a bitch I ever tried to work with" (Mitchell Liesen) to "He wasn't an easy guy to get along with...but he liked me because I was from vaudeville" (Bob Hope). Stories were rife of Fields' temper and his annoying habit of ad-libbing so often that the actors who had memorized the script which he had insisted upon were constantly wrong-footed. Yet there are as many stories, revealed by James Curtis in this exhaustive and thoroughly entertaining biography, of Fields' generosity and kindness to his co-workers. One young man asked for an autograph for his mother, who was celebrating her birthday and was a fan. Fields gave the autograph, phoned the lady, complimented her son, and invited her to the set for photographs.
Fields' films are legendary - You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, My Little Chickadee, The Bank Dick, The Fatal Glass of Beer. His onscreen relationships with such brilliant foils (or was he the foil?) as Mae West are cinematic history. His at times acerbic ad-libs with the imperturbable Charley McCarthy ("Stop scratching, you're getting sawdust all over the floor!") "drove listeners to the radio on Sunday nights, where they were constantly reminded by Bergen and his alter ego that Fields was a heavy drinker and had a big red nose to prove it."
Privately, Fields grumbled, "...in all my years of trouping, I've never missed a performance and never let the public down while on the stage. You can't be a drunkard and have that record." But his drinking was a constant, beyond a joke. In the last few weeks of his life, "Fields shook his head sadly. 'Booze tastes like medicine to me now.' If Fields no longer enjoyed the taste of liquor, he fed his addiction....stepping up his consumption to the point where it doubtless hastened his death."
An abused child who had cold distant relationships with his children and their mother, an alcoholic who shut off his feelings and expressed himself in a kind of everyman's sarcasm that the average Joe could identify with, an avowed atheist who once barked "Where was God when my father was beating me?" - Claude Dukenfield was all this. He was also a generous genius of a performer, always looking for new ways to reach out to an audience, ways to provoke a giggle and a guffaw, at his own comedic expense. Edgar Bergen eulogized him thus: "Let his faults be buried with him, and let us keep the memories of the happy moments he brought us...Few men can boast of such talent as his, and few can boast of having given so much happiness to the world."