Perhaps the secret of W.C. Fields’ indestructible fascination is that his comedy was so close to tragedy. He is the only comedian whose stock-in-trade is a convinced misanthropy born of hard experience that the rest of mankind is made up of knaves, fools, thieves, liars, doctors, dogs, babies, nagging wives, mothers-in-law, policemen, bankers and lesser menaces: and that the only defences available to an honest man are wariness, larceny and deception or, when they don’t work, the bottle.
In his youth Fields drove himself to become the best juggler of his day. A vaudeville star by 1900. he featured regularly in the Ziegfeld Follies, and first committed one of his stage sketches to film in 1915, Pool Sharks. A major contribution to the development of the ultimate Fields character was his role in the stage play Poppy, which was twice filmed (first as Sally of the Sawdust).
A dedicated Dickensian, Fields made a memorable Micawber in Cukor’s David Copperfield. Fields wrote most of his later films, under such discreet noms de plume as Otis Cribiecoblis and Mahatma Kane Jeeves. His ultimate jest was to die on Christmas Day, a festival which, above all others, he claimed to despise.
Born William Claude Dukinfield in Philadelphia in 1879, Fields died in 1946.