>> Tuesday, January 16, 2007
“I was in love with a beautiful blonde once, dear. She drove me to drink. It’s the one thing I’m indebted to her for.”
-- W.C. Fields, Never Give A Sucker An Even Break (1941)
In the hundred-plus year history of motion pictures, no performer has been more associated with strong drink than W.C. Fields. His preeminent position as Hollywood’s supreme souse is well earned. During the 1930’s and 40’s, the celebrated comedian produced a string of hilarious feature films and short subjects overflowing with booze-spiked humor. Onscreen, his characters would go to any length to enjoy liquor’s warm embrace, whether it required sneaking sips behind the back of a nagging wife, chasing an off-duty bartender down a city street, producing homemade hooch, or jumping out of an airplane to retrieve a falling bottle. Off screen, Fields was just as fond of stimulating beverages; and indulgent directors allowed W.C. to arrive late to the set, drink on the job, and leave early when his glow became too rosy, because they knew that their star was always at his most creative with a healthy snoot-full. He was known as “The Great Man” for good reason.
Of course, William Claude Dukenfield (as reads the Great Man’s birth certificate) was much more than a walking billboard for the liquor industry. He was a phenomenally talented comic actor, juggler, writer, and improviser--in short, the funniest man, drunk or sober, to ever step in front of a movie camera. His comedy was unique amongst the classic film comedians in that it drew laughs from wonderfully ill-tempered, misanthropic behavior. Not only were Fields’ characters drunkards, they were also dishonest, profane, child-hating, prone to boasting, lecherous, and even upon occasion, physically violent. To sum it up, W.C. Fields was politically incorrect long before the term existed.
Still, despite the mean-spirited edge to the Great Man’s humor, audiences loved and rooted for the rotund comedian, because he was a more identifiable reflection of the common man than the enduring heroes at the center of most Hollywood productions. Whether portraying an unscrupulous con artist or a henpecked family man, Fields was always the underdog, and his wrath was only unleashed after patiently enduring abuse or public embarrassment from shrill relatives, bill-collectors, dullards, policemen, small children, and dogs. Consequently, his anger was understandable, as was his heavy drinking. Within both lay an element of wish-fulfillment for the movie-going public.
Unfortunately, the Great Man and his work are largely unknown to today’s audiences. This is primarily due to the inaccessibility of his films. Fields’ movies are rarely broadcast on television, and many of his best titles have never been released on video. Worse yet, those of the under-forty set that have heard of W.C. Fields usually have an inaccurate view of the comedian. The Great Man’s 100-proof reputation has been watered down over the years due to second-rate impersonations by lesser comics, which rarely capture the distinctive nasal twang of Fields’ voice and never capture the essence of his comedy. Furthermore, the Great Man is the most misquoted figure of the Twentieth Century. Over the years, the hysterically funny things W.C. actually said in life and on film have been largely drowned out by thousands of humorless quotations created by others and credited to the Great Man.
It is ironic that Fields’ work has faded from public consciousness faster than that of his contemporaries--such as the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, or Abbott and Costello--because his humor has held up better and has had a greater impact on modern comedy than that of any of his peers. Such misanthropic characters as John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty (Fawlty Towers), Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder (Black Adder), Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie Soke (Bad Santa), and Larry David’s Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm) would be unthinkable had Fields not previously fought the censors and pushed the boundaries of politically incorrect humor.
W.C. Fields’ work is as fresh and funny today as it was upon its original release, and it is ripe for rediscovery. If you’ve never witnessed the Great Man in action, you are doing yourself a disservice. However, this condition, like sobriety, can easily be corrected. I highly recommend that you pour yourself a tall glass of your favorite intoxicant and treat yourself to a Fieldsian film festival.