Sometime last year I ran into the 1976 biopic W.C. Fields and Me starring Rod Steiger as Fields, and I enjoyed it despite some reservations. I must confess quite a bit of ignorance about the life of Fields at the time I first saw the picture, so the following day I did what I’m wont to do once my curiosity has been piqued; do my best to hunt down what appeared to be the best available biography of The Great Man.
I went with W. C. Fields: A Biography by James Curtis which gave a very complete and detailed account of both Fields’ life and career. Not only did I find the book crammed with everything I could possibly want to know about Fields, but I also enjoyed Curtis’ writing style which helped me breeze through it’s nearly 500 pages* (see note at bottom) and left me wishing I hadn’t read so fast when I reached the end.
What I found the most fascinating part of Fields’ life were the early days when William Claude Dukenfield mastered the art of juggling and turned it into a vaudeville act which would soon bring him worldwide acclaim. Fields worked his way to Broadway, into the Ziegfeld Follies and eventually to film, in a remarkable story of fame achieved over the first third or so of the 20th century. If the details of such a lifestyle intrigue you then I recommend Curtis’ biography, it covers every step of the way.
After I saw W.C. Fields’ name on my birthday calendar I went looking for something to watch and came up with International House (1933) (on YouTube), which I’m going to look at in detail in this space some time, likely tomorrow. While poking around YouTube I bumped into several shorter clips of Fields including the one below, a 5-minute clip of him as The Great McGonigle in The Old Fashioned Way (1934).
Of that moment Curtis writes that Fields was looking around for help in padding The Old Fashioned Way and turned to John Coogan, an old vaudevillian himself (and Jackie Coogan’s father). According to Curtis, Coogan said:
“Bill, I want you to juggle. Just for 40 feet of film. I want people to see you actually doing it.” So Bill did four or five of his old tricks, stuff that other jugglers hadn’t done before.” And so the troubled making of The Old Fashioned Way resulted in Fields doing his original juggling act for one final performance, cigar boxes and all (289).
According to most sources W.C. Fields was born January 29, 1880 … he died Christmas day, 1946.
Check for availability: W.C. Fields in my eBay Store
W.C. Fields page on the Juggling Hall of Fame site
A Tramp Juggler article with photos from the Black and White Budget, London, March 16, 1901.
* Note: I appreciate the research that goes into such a volume and value the appendixes, notes, and even index at the end, but in the case of Fields that end matter takes up exactly 100 pages. I often find myself reading such biographies, realizing my subject is soon to die, yet hope against hope that more text remains as I’m not yet ready to go. It’s such an abrupt surprise when I reach the notes that I almost wish it were all moved to the front of the book to ease my transition away from an author and subject that I’ve made friends with over the previous week.