The Self Made-Up Man

The legendary movie misanthrope and juggling vaudevillian, W.C. Fields, celebrates a birthday January 29.

Fields was born on that date in 1880 in Darby, PA – or so it is believed, for part of the comedian’s mystique is that it’s hard to say for sure what’s true and what’s not about William Claude Dukenfield’s life.

Richard Schickel tried separating fact from fiction in his review of James Curtis’ 2003 biography of Fields. Did the supposed dog-hater and child-hater despise his two-year-old co-star Baby LeRoy and spike his orange juice with gin to shut him up? (Apparently so). Did he really have hundreds of bank accounts around the country? (Nowhere near). Was Fields, who claimed to have fled an abusive childhood home at age 12 to eventually become a star, a shining example of the self-made man? Or was his life story pure invention, or something in between? Those questions are part of his lasting appeal.

Monty Python’s John Cleese cites Fields as one of his comedy inspirations.  In fact, Cleese gave a college lecture on the topic. Cleese said in the special TCM tribute below, “At a time when political correctness often stifles our honesty and our impulse to laugh and genuine wit is in such short supply, nothing I think could be healthier than the rediscovery of this most original, perceptive and unrepentant of comedians.”

Although Fields made his first film, Pool Sharks, in 1915, his cantankerous, befuddled persona gained traction in the early 1930s with four sound shorts for Mack Sennett, the producer known for the Keystone Cops and the early work of Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, among others.

Four of these shorts – The Dentist, The Golf Specialist, The Pharmacist and A Fatal Glass of Beer – are available for streaming with an Amazon Prime subscription. You can also stream them for free on YouTube. (As one reader noted, an earlier version of this article left out a fifth Fields short for Sennett, The Barber Shop, which is not available in its entirety for streaming, though can be viewed on DVD).

Unfortunately, a favorite of The Savvy Screener — It’s a Gift, Fields’ 1934 feature for Paramount with Baby LeRoy — is also currently unavailable for streaming in its complete form. You can purchase it as part of a DVD collection.

Here are two essential scenes from It’s a Gift for your perusal.

In this scene, a solicitous but hapless Fields tries to prevent “Mr. Muckle, dear” from laying waste to his general store:

Fields makes a futile attempt to find some peace and quiet:

Finally, early vintage Fields hustling in Pool Sharks (presented here in its entirety):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yi78XDvUXdk

(Note: Featured image is a screen grab from YouTube.)

About Larry Greenberg

A former local beat reporter and film critic, co-founder Lawrence Greenberg has more than 25 years’ experience as a writer and public relations executive.

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