TFTMM Presents “Star Of The Month (November 2022)” Featuring W. C. Fields

We’ve finally made it to November, which means that it’s time for my last (for now) “Star Of The Month” feature! This time, I’m focusing on one of the great screen comedians, W. C. Fields!

Table Of Contents

Quick Film Career Bio

Birth: January 29, 1880

Death: December 25, 1946

On January 29, 1880, William Claude Dukenfield was born to James Lydon Dukenfield and Kate Spangler Felton in Darby, Pennsylvania. As a kid, he reportedly didn’t get along very well with his abusive father, sometimes running away from home. He had very little education, getting taken out of school by his father to help sell produce from his vegetable cart. At the age of nine, he saw a juggling act and became determined to become a juggler himself. However, since he tried to use vegetables as juggling props, he got in trouble with his father, and ran away for good at the age of eleven. Now on his own, he also became proficient at billiards, hustling others to make money. He continued to work on his juggling, working at an amusement park in Norristown, PA and later on the pier in Atlantic City, NJ. Developing bits of comedy to go with his juggling, he took to the vaudeville stage. He soon became a headliner, and eventually made his debut on Broadway in the show The Ham Tree in 1905. After more success over the next decade, he became a part of the Ziegfeld Follies in 1915, using his skills with billiards in a comedy sketch that went over well with audiences. He stayed with the Follies through 1922, then followed that up in 1923 with a starring role in the musical comedy Poppy on stage.

W. C. Fields had already made his film debut before starring in the Ziegfeld Follies, doing the short comedies Pool Sharks and His Lordship’s Dilemma in 1915. Due to his work onstage, those were his only appearances on film for nearly a decade. He came back to the movies in 1924 for a part in the film Janice Meredith. He made two films for director D. W. Griffith (one of which, Sally Of The Sawdust, was an adaptation of Poppy) before signing with Paramount Pictures. He made a series of silent comedies for Paramount at their Astoria studio until they closed their New York branch in 1927 (at which point he went to Hollywood). There, he made three more silent features before sound technology really took over. Throughout most of his silent films, he had worn a fake black mustache, and he briefly carried it over into his first sound short The Golf Specialist (1930). He tried a more realistic mustache for his first full sound film, Her Majesty, Love (1931), but then completely ditched it for the remainder of his career.

The Golf Specialist (1930) was one of several shorts that he did for producer Mack Sennett as he made the switch to the talkies, and these shorts helped him to maintain his popularity. He signed again with Paramount Pictures, and became established as a major movie star with the film International House (1933). He kept himself busy with a number of films over the next two years, including It’s A Gift (1934) and You’re Telling Me! (1934), and an appearance in the Dickensian David Copperfield (1935). However, the activity proved to be too much for him, as he fell ill from influenza and suffered from back trouble. The situation grew even worse when his friends Will Rogers and Sam Hardy passed away in short succession, resulting in Fields suffering a complete breakdown. After nearly nine months, he was offered the chance to recreate his famous stage role for Poppy (1936). His health was still on edge, and the death of yet another friend (Tammany Young) pushed him too far again, resulting in him staying in hospitals and sanitariums for a time. In the latter part of 1937, he was again given the chance to return to the screen for The Big Broadcast Of 1938 (1938). He didn’t get along with the film’s director, Mitchell Leisen, and, upon finishing the film, he found himself out of work.

With his health also keeping him offscreen, W. C. Fields found work on the radio, appearing on various programs. In particular, he became a regular with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy on The Chase And Sanborn Hour, where audiences laughed at his “feud” with Charlie McCarthy. Fields was offered the role of the Wizard in The Wizard Of Oz (1939), but he turned it down and signed with Universal Pictures, where he made You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man (1939), which took advantage of his radio feud with Charlie McCarthy. He followed that up by starring in My Little Chickadee (1940) with Mae West (with whom he co-wrote the film), and then The Bank Dick (1940) (which would become one of his most popular films). He had been fighting to get his own way on script and co-stars, and managed to succeed for Never Give A Sucker An Even Break (1941). That turned out to be his final starring role, as his health deteriorated enough that he could only do guest shots in various films, including Follow The Boys (1944), Song Of The Open Road (1944) and Sensations Of 1945 (1944) (the latter of which was his last film). With his vision and memory going, he was reduced to making radio appearances, up through March 24, 1946. He spent most of the last two years of his life at the Las Encinas Sanatorium in Pasadena, California. He died from a gastric hemorrhage on Christmas day (a holiday he pretended to hate) in 1946.

My Own Feelings On W. C. Fields

Honestly, I’ve at least known of W. C. Fields for most of my life, although for most of my early years, I mainly knew him through the caricatures in many Disney and Looney Tunes cartoons. I never saw any of his live-action films until I saw The Big Broadcast Of 1938 (1938) almost twenty years ago. I admit, I didn’t really take to him that much from that film. Mississippi (1935), the second film of his that I had the opportunity to see, was the first time that I really started to appreciate his comedy. However, it took a number of years before I really sought out any more of his films. Mostly, it was the announcement for his silent films It’s The Old Army Game (1926) and Running Wild (1927) coming out on Blu-ray when I really developed an interest in him as a comedian. In the time since, I’ve enjoyed seeing more of his films as they’ve made their way to Blu-ray. So I certainly look forward to seeing a few more of his films for the first time in preparation for this month!

Filmography

This is a list of all the films that I personally have reviewed from his filmography so far. Obviously, I will be adding to it throughout the month of November, and it is my plan to add to it as I review more and more of his films even beyond this month’s celebration.

It’s The Old Army Game (1926)

Running Wild (1927)

Alice In Wonderland (1933)

The Old-Fashioned Way (1934)

Mississippi (1935)

My Little Chickadee (1940)

Never Give A Sucker An Even Break (1941)

Entries For This Month

Thoughts From The Music(al) Man –

W. C. Fields Roundup

The Old-Fashioned Way (1934)

My Little Chickadee (1940)

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