Friday, January 29, 2016

Born Today January 29: W. C. Fields


Born William Claude Dukenfield (hence the "W. C.") in Darby, Pennsylvania; for most of his early life, he was known simply as "Claude."  By at least age 14 or 15, he discovered that he had an unusual talent for juggling after seeing an accomplished juggler in a traveling show at his local theater.  By the age of 17 he was performing juggling acts at his church and theater shows.  The juggler that he was most inspired by was chap who went by the name of James Edward Harrigan, who was billed as "the original Tramp Juggler."  Fields liked his looks and adopted his scruffy beard and shabby tuxedo, and entered traveling vaudeville acts as a gentlemanly "tramp juggler" in 1898.  Oddly, for the time, his family supported his decision to take to the stage, despite that he had a stutter.  To compensate for this, he did not speak while on stage--something juggler's could easily get away with.  In 1900, in order to distinguish himself from other jugglers on the circuit, he changed his look to his original design, and began billing himself as "The Eccentric Juggler."  He began adding stunts to his act that he came up with himself; many of which were simple "magic tricks," such as: manipulating cigar boxes, hats and other objects, much to the delight of the audiences.  He became so successful that, by 1900, he was widely called the "world's greatest juggler."  By this time, his act had gone international, and he toured England, the country that his father had immigrated from.  In fact, he was so successful in this line of work that he was able, in 1904, to purchase a summer home for his father in his native England; this saw Fields encouraging his family members to learn to read and write, so that they could correspond with the father via letters.  In 1905, he made his Broadway debut in a musical comedy entitled The Ham Tree.  At this point he wanted to make the full transition to comedian and found himself stuck in the role that had gained him so much fame and relative wealth--that of the comedy juggler.  However, by 1913, had conquered his speech difficulties and made the transition to speaking comedic roles so successfully that he found himself on stage with Sarah Bernhardt (though the juggling act remained part of the show); first in New York, and then in England, where they performed before the King and Queen.  In 1915, he returned to Broadway in Ziegfeld Follies (bringing one small step away from film acting); and he would remain in these shows through the year 1923 (long after his film debut).  At this point he adopted his characteristic look of the top hat, cut-away coat and collar and the cane.  Much speculation has gone on in regards to the inspiration for this look.  The best guess, is that he lifted it from the cartoon character Ally Sloper.   His first appearance in film came in 1915, with Pool Sharks, a comedic short.  The film was shot in Flushing Meadows, New York, and featured Fields as "The Pool Shark," a role he was almost born to play, as he had been a real-life pool hustler as a child.  Although uncredited, he is said to have come up with the scenario himself.  He would appear in one other film in 1915, His Lordship's Dilemma, now, sadly, a lost film (don't let the "MacIntyre" review of it on IMDb fool you!)--also shot in Flushing Meadows.  He didn't appear in another film until 1924, when his stage commitments had been fulfilled the following year.  Janice Meredith, shot in several locations in the northeast, was his first feature length film (starring Hollywood first Harrison Ford!).  Top billing came for Fields the following year, in D. W. Griffith's Sally of the Sawdust; it was filmed on Long Island (which as of this writing, it currently on Amazon Prime).  He would go on to make 8 more silent films, one of which, Tillie's Punctured Romance (1928), would go on to be one of the most talked about lost silents in history, despite it being a remake (same advice applies here, in regards to "MacIntyre" "review").  In fact, all three silent films that Fields would make with Chester Conklin are now lost (as someone on IMDb is used to saying "please check your attic!").  From then on, Fields would become one of the Hollywood greats of the early taking era--a genuine superstar, a movie star, and king of comedy.  However, he started to have serious health related problems in the mid 1930's due to very, very heavy drinking.  By 1938, he was unable to work in film at all, due in part to delirium tremens.  He managed, instead, to get into some radio work.  By 1939, he was able to return to film work, garnering him a brand new shiny contract with Universal Studios.  This is when he made what is probably his most famous film, The Bank Dick, in 1940.  After this, his health began to decline again; he was mostly relegated to guest appearances in film.  He made his last film appearance a musical Sensations of 1945.  He died on the 25th of December (Christmas Day, a holiday the he reportedly despised) in 1946 of a gastric hemorrhage brought on by heavy drinking in Pasadena, CA. He was 66 years of age. His funeral took place on 2 January 1947, after which it was directed in his will, that his remains be cremated.  However, two of his relatives objected on religious grounds, and took the matter to court.  After lengthy litigation, his remains were finally cremated on the 2nd of June 1949, and his ashes interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.  Many people have a fanciful idea about what is on his grave marker.  For some reason, it popularly supposed to read "I'd rather be in Philadelphia."  In truth, it is simply inscribed with his stage name, and the year of his birth and the year of his death.  

No comments:

Post a Comment