American comedian, actor, juggler and writer W. C. Fields (William Claude Dukenfield) sadly died December 25, 1946. He was born 29 January 1880 in Darby, Pennsylvania, the oldest child of a working-class family. His father, James Lydon Dukenfield (1840–1913), was from an English family that emigrated from Sheffield, England in 1854 James Dukenfield served in Company M of the 72nd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment in the American Civil War and was wounded in 1863. As a child Claude Dukenfield (as he was known) had a volatile relationship with his short-tempered father. He ran away from home repeatedly, beginning at the age of nine, often to stay with his grandmother or an uncle. His education was sporadic, and did not progress beyond grade school. At age twelve, he worked with his father selling produce from a wagon, until the two had a fight that resulted in Fields running away once again. In 1893, he worked briefly at the Strawbridge and Clothier department store, and in an oyster house. Fields later embellished stories of his childhood, depicting himself as a runaway who lived by his wits on the streets of Philadelphia from an early age, but his home life seems to have been reasonably happy.
He discovered a talent for juggling, and was inspired to perfect his performance. So by the age of 17, he was living with his family and performing a juggling act at church and theater shows. In 1904 Fields’ father visited him for two months in England while he was performing there in music hall. Fields enabled his father to retire, purchased him a summer home, and encouraged his parents and siblings to learn to read and write, so they could communicate with him by letter.
Inspired by the success of the “Original Tramp Juggler”, James Edward Harrigan, Fields adopted a similar costume of scruffy beard and shabby tuxedo and entered vaudeville as a genteel “tramp juggler” in 1898, using the name W. C. Fields by 1900, he decided to distinguish himself from the many “tramp” acts in vaudeville, he changed his costume and makeup, and began touring as “The Eccentric Juggler”He manipulated cigar boxes, hats, and other objects in what appears to have been a unique and fresh act, parts of which are reproduced in some of his films, notably in The Old Fashioned Way. By the early 1900s, he was regularly called the world’s greatest juggler. He became a headliner in North America and Europe, and toured Australia and South Africa in 1903. When Fields played for English-speaking audiences, he found he could get more laughs by adding muttered patter and sarcastic asides to his routines, when Fields would often “reprimand a particular ball which had not come to his hand accurately”, and “mutter weird and unintelligible expletives to his cigar when it missed his mouth”.
In 1905 Fields made his Broadway debut in a musical comedy, The Ham Tree. His role in the show required him to deliver lines of dialogue, which he had never before done onstage. In 1913 he performed on a bill with Sarah Benhardt first at the New York Palace, and then in England in a royal performance for George V and Queen Mary and continued touring in vaudeville until 1915. From 1915, he appeared on Broadway in Florenz Ziegfeld’s Ziegfeld Follies revue, delighting audiences with a wild billiards skit, complete with bizarrely shaped cues and a custom-built table used for a number of hilarious gags and surprising trick shots. His pool game is reproduced, in part, in some of his films, notably in Six of a Kind (1934). The act was a success, and Fields starred in the Follies from 1916 to 1922, not as a juggler but as a comedian in ensemble sketches. In addition to multiple editions of the Follies, Fields starred in the Broadway musical comedy Poppy (1923), wherein he perfected his persona as a colorful small-time con man. His stage costume from 1915 onwards featured a top hat, cut-away coat and collar, and a cane—an appearance remarkably similar to the comic strip character Ally Sloper, who may have been the inspiration for Fields’ costume, according to Roger Sabin. The Sloper character may in turn have been inspired by Dickens’ Mr Micawber, whom Fields later played on film.
In 1915, Fields starred in two short comedies, Pool Sharks and His Lordship’s Dilemma, filmed in New York. His stage commitments prevented him from doing more movie work until 1924, when he played a supporting role in Janice Meredith, a Revolutionary War romance. He reprised his Poppy role in a silent-film adaptation, retitled Sally of the Sawdust (1925) and directed by D. W. Griffith. His next starring role was in the Paramount Pictures film It’s the Old Army Game (1926), which featured his friend Louise Brooks, later a screen legend for her role in G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929) in Germany. Fields’ 1926 film, which included a silent version of the porch sequence that would later be expanded in the sound film It’s a Gift (1934), had only middling success at the box office. After Fields’ next two features for Paramount failed to produce hits, the studio teamed him with Chester Conklin for three features which were commercial failures and are now lost.
Fields wore a scruffy clip-on mustache in all of his silent films which he perversely insisted on wearing because he knew it was disliked by audiences. Fields wore it in his first sound film, The Golf Specialist (1930)—a two-reeler that faithfully reproduces a sketch he had introduced in 1918 in the Follies and finally discarded it after his first sound feature film, Her Majesty, Love (1931), his only Warner Bros. production.
From 1932 Fields appeared in thirteen feature films for Paramount Pictures, beginning with Million Dollar Legs and was featured in a sequence in the anthology film If I Had a Million. In 1932 and 1933, Fields made four short subjects for comedy pioneer Mack Sennett, distributed through Paramount Pictures. These shorts, adapted with few alterations from Fields’ stage routines and written entirely by himself, were described by Simon Louvish as “the ‘essence’ of Fields”. The first of them, The Dentist, is unusual in that Fields portrays an entirely unsympathetic character: he cheats at golf, assaults his caddy, and treats his patients with unbridled callousness. William K. Everson says that the cruelty of this comedy made it “hardly less funny”, but that “Fields must have known that The Dentist presented a serious flaw for a comedy image that was intended to endure”, and showed a somewhat warmer persona in his subsequent Sennett shorts
The popular success of his next feature film, International House (1933), established him as a major star A shaky outtake from the film, allegedly the only moving image record of the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, was later revealed to have been faked as a publicity stunt for the movie. His 1934 classic It’s a Gift included his stage sketch of trying to escape his nagging family by sleeping on the back porch and being bedeviled by noisy neighbors and salesmen.
He achieved a career ambition by playing the character Mr. Micawber, in MGM’s David Copperfield in 1935 and In 1936, Fields re-created his signature stage role in Poppy for Paramount Pictures. In 1938 Fields excelled once again, this time in Paramount’s sweeping musical variety anthology The Big Broadcast of 1938 while starring with Martha Raye, Dorothy Lamour and Bob Hope. In an unusual twist, Fields plays the roles of two nearly identical brothers (T. Frothingill Bellows and S. B. Bellow) and collaborated with several noted international musicians including: Kirsten Flagstad (Norwegian opera soprano), Wilfred Pelletier (Canadian conductor of New York’s Metropolitan Opera Orchestra), Tito Guizar (Mexican vocalist), Shep Fields (conducting his Rippling Rhythm Jazz Orchestra) and John Serry Sr. (Italian-American orchestral accordionist) The film received critical acclaim and earned an Oscar in 1939 for best music in an original song – Thanks for the Memory