W.C. Fields -- as Dickensian as Micawber

March 02, 2003|By Dan Rodricks | Dan Rodricks,Sun Staff

W.C. Fields, by James Curtis. Knopf. 448 pages. $35.

W. C. Fields, by reputation and repetition one of America's most famous boozers, was also one of its most prolific comic performers. On stage, screen and radio, he was a master of physical and verbal comedy, and throughout his years in Hollywood, Fields was fully engaged in his career, intimately -- even obsessively -- involved in the writing, production and editing of the dozens of movies and shorts in which he appeared from 1915 to the 1940s.

Indeed, he went to work with hangovers and dictated script changes -- "I got it, boys. We'll give the pineapple and banana routine to Mrs. Hemagloben" -- with a tall rum-and-orange juice in hand. But Hollywood's most notorious drinker managed to complete each of his films -- It's A Gift, My Little Chickadee, The Bank Dick among them--- on time and on budget, sometimes with grand success.

He was one of the nation's most popular cinematic comics in silent pictures, then talkies. Fields, whose performing life stretched from late-19th century vaudeville to Hollywood, worked at a formidable pace, writing and starring in multiple movies in some years.

What James Curtis presents, in this enjoyable biography rich with letters and notes the comic wrote or dictated during Fields' busiest Hollywood days, is the professional and meticulous W.C., at his desk firing off comments about scenes in films, complaining about edits, explaining to those who didn't get the joke why a particular few seconds of dialogue need be restored.

Here is Fields pleading to get the part of Mr. Micawber in David O. Selznick's David Copperfield (1935), understanding, perhaps better than anyone, why he was perfect for the part and Claude Rains was not. Fields knew that playing Micawber would require almost no leap -- that, with his bulbous nose and unique manner of speech, he already was as Dickensian as Micawber -- and that he could stamp the role with the same small bits of physical comedy that make his films so memorable.

"It is a queer experience to see a story one has written produced on the screen with Fields as star," observed the writer of a 1932 film, You're Telling Me! "The story becomes unrecognizable but it is always funny."

This book would make fine companion reading to the viewing of Fields' films available on videotape; Curtis provides the story behind each.

One of Fields' last was also one of his funniest, and almost entirely his creation -- The Bank Dick (1940). Fields plays Egbert Souse ("Soo-say, accent grave over the e"), chronically underemployed, disparaged by family, finding his only peace at the saloon in downtown Lompoc. In the course of the story, Souse goes from bum to hero, hero to dupe, dupe to con man, con man back to hero. He ends up wealthy, beloved and respected by family. But, in the final scene, Fields' nattily attired Souse seeks peace outside his new mansion. He hears his favorite bartender whistling on his stroll to work, spots him and follows him, as a liberated soul might an angel, to the saloon.

Dan Rodricks is a longtime columnist for The Sun and winner of the 2002 National Headliners Award for local-interest commentary. He was host of his own TV show in Baltimore for four years, and a radio show for seven. He has performed lead roles with the Young Victorian Theater Company.

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