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Close encounters with W.C. Fields.


In the darkened auditorium of the Loew's Met theater in Brooklyn, I first watched and fell in love with the mechanics of laughter as practiced by a bulbous-nosed comedian named W.C. Fields.

It was Tuesday afternoon and I was playing hooky from school, an activity I indulged in as often as I could get away with a scrawled (sometimes painfully forged) note from my father. The picture, called It's a Gift, contained, in my still-considered opinion, the funniest single sequence ever filmed.

Fifteen years old at the time, how could I possibly imagine that this rasping-voiced, manic genius would be the Pied Piper luring me along the tortuous, tempestuous road to the Oz of Gagland? How could I foretell that one of the first films I was to write, almost a decade later, would be his last?

It's a Gift's great sequence began with Fields and his battle-ax of a wife preparing for sleep in their twin beds. Fields sat on the edge of his, removing his socks. As he pulled them off, he blew into each (for whatever crazy reason) and gently set them down beside his shoes. Heaving his bulk tiredly into bed, he mumbled, "Good night, m'dear,' and rolled over wearily. Just then the bedside phone rang. With an "I'll get it, m'dear,' Fields lifted the phone and said, "Hello. . . . Who? . . . No, you have the wrong number; this is not the Maternity Hospital.'

Once again he pulled the blanket over him, but this time his wife was sitting up. She wanted to know why he was calling the Maternity Hospital at this hour. Mumbling sleepily, Fields said he hadn't called the Maternity Hospital--somebody had called him. But his wife was not to be denied. She had just heard him speaking to the Maternity Hospital. Why should he lie about it? What was he trying to hide from her? And so on, and so on.

Recognizing the futility of trying to sleep in the face of her tirade, Fields rose groggily, took his blanket and pillow, and went out onto the back veranda of their four-story tenement. He tossed the bedclothes onto the swinging couch-hammock and then slapped the pillow into place, whereupon that end of the hammock sagged and flopped to the floor.

Despite the slant, Fields had managed to get himself reasonably comfortable when there came a strange rolling and bumping noise from upstairs. A small boy was revealed on the veranda above, playing with, of all things, a coconut. He would drop it and roll it, drop it and roll it, and each time he did, Fields would curl deeper into the blanket, trying to cover his ears.

Then came a moment's silence, during which the coconut rolled away from the boy to a wooden rear staircase. It teetered on the top step, then dropped and began a nerve-wracking journey downward, pausing briefly on each step before rolling to the edge and over with a loud thump. Every thump was a knife in the exhausted man's back--till the coconut appeared to stop on the landing at the top of the next flight of stairs. It rolled lazily, hesitated, then, once again . . . Thump! . . . Thump! . . . Thump!

The coconut finally stopped at the bottom, and Fields burrowed gratefully into his pillow--but it was not his night.

On the ground below, a man paused and looked up, catching sight of the hammock with its sleeping occupant. Cupping his hands, he shouted, "Hey! Hey, there! You in the hammock!'

Rubbing his bleary eyes, Fields staggered to the railing, trying to focus. He finally saw the man below, who shouted up, "Excuse me, does anybody live here named LaFong? Capital l, small a, capital f, small o, small n, small g?'

"Wha--what----' mumbled Fields, still rubbing his eyes.

"I said,' the man below repeated, "does anybody live here by the name of LaFong? Capital l, small a, capital f, small o, small n, small g?'

"No,' muttered Fields from his daze. "Nobody lives here named LaFong. Capital l, small a, capital f, small o, small n, small g. And even if he did, I wouldn't tell you.'

The man left, permitting Fields to return to his broken, slanted hammock. Once again he crawled in, but this time a young girl on the ground below and her mother at a window above began discussing what the young girl was to bring home from the grocery store. The order finally became clear after several repetitions, but now the young girl wanted to know if she should go to Hansen's or Grigsby's for the groceries.

It made no difference to the mother, who said so while idly filing her fingernails.

Well, it certainly made no difference to her, the girl called back.

"What possible difference does it make to me if you go to Hansen's or Grigsby's?' replied the parent.

"But mother,' stamped the girl. "Surely you must have a preference. Surely you can tell me which one you want. . . .'

All through this exchange, Fields lay writhing on his bed of torture while I lay in the aisle, holding my aching gut. I'd go on with the rest of it, but you get the idea. Twenty minutes of film dealing with frustrated sleep, and nobody but Fields could have milked it for such howls.

Yes, there's a point to all this, which takes me a long way from Lowe's Met in Brooklyn and some years ahead . . .

. . . to the time when MGM's lion roared unchallenged over the movie realm. As a proud cub in its "pride' during one bleak unassigned period, I was fed, in all innocence, to the Minotaur.

Those were the days when smog (so named in Glasgow) hadn't yet made emphysema endemic to Los Angeles, when studios referred to their movies as "product,' and when writers under contract could be loaned out like cattle if they weren't earning their feed. I had just finished my first film, Married Before Breakfast, which introduced an actor named Robert Young, and I was trying desperately to stay out of sight while writing the Great American Novel.

One day I was called into the office of Edwin Knopf, MGM's story editor and a brother of the publisher Alfred Knopf. Eddie informed me I was to be loaned out to an independent producer named Lester Cowan. I groaned. Who was Lester Cowan to halt the flow of my novel's deathless narrative? Knopf lit a cigarette with one hand. (He only had one hand, having lost his left arm in whatever fashion suited his mood when asked, although he never let on that he missed it and played both tennis and golf fairly well. Once, on the third tee, having duck-hooked a drive, Eddie stared after it ruefully and said with a sigh, "Too much right hand.')

He smiled at my blank countenance and suggested that I might find the assignment of interest. It was a movie for W.C. Fields!

W.C. Fields! I sat erect, blinking in astonishment. Fields, my boyhood hero! So two days later, I reported enthusiastically to Lester Cowan and his director, George Marshall.

Cowan, despite my reservations, turned out to be a bright, sharp little man. Marshall was a talented pro, determined to come up with a hilarious picture.

Fields at that time was an incensed misanthrope who hated all Hollywood "pretenders' with a passion bordering on the supernatural. As for writers, the only one for whom he held the remotest respect was Charles Dickens, but Dickens was unfortunately unavailable. Under the pseudonym of Charles Bogle, Fields had scrawled on a greasy page or two the idea for the film currently shooting, sold it to Cowan and Universal for a sturdy sum, and called it You Can't Cheat an Honest Man.

The story was about an indigent and itinerant circus owner named Larson E. Whipsnade, never more than one jump ahead of the law. Hordes of screenwriters had come, written, and slunk away from rasping Fieldsian put-downs.

In the picture with Fields were Edgar Bergen and his little dummy, Charlie McCarthy. But Bergen had long since ceased to care. He was a quiet gentleman who preferred to avoid trouble--and trouble was all over the set. The movie was behind schedule, chiefly because Fields and Marshall were incessantly at odds. Marshall would come in with his version of a scene to be shot, only to have it heaved-ho by his star, who had his own version of the scene. Marshall, in desperation, might have yielded here and there, except that the comedian's nocturnal outpourings rarely had the faintest kinship with the story he had sold.

This was the situation into which I entered with all due reverence for the master. I didn't know that the "master' had given up his double and triple martinis and had gone on the wagon (per a solemn promise to the producer) or that the liveried chauffeur hovering behind him with the thermos bottle had orders to fill it with sherry only and dole the liquid out at the rate of not more than one cupful per hour.

At first I thought it was milk. I soon learned that it might have been better for all concerned if the thermos had contained hard alcohol, for it might then have had something of a mellowing effect. True, Fields was a cynical, unregenerative wasp of a human being, with a firm policy of never taking advice or direction from anybody --but he was beyond question an artist. He had studied the roots of laughter unremittingly (just as he had flogged himself in the study of juggling), and he knew every nuance of what was and wasn't funny.

If talent is what a man possesses, genius, it has been said, is what possesses a man. Fields was possessed-- but, alas, not in full control of his faculties when I entered his life. Suspicion and hostility ruled him to the point of paranoia, affecting his work and his treatment of associates, but not his conversational wit, which never, under any circumstances, seemed to desert him. Nor did he ever look or sound drunk. In fact, he hated drunks and hated to be around them.

Upon our introduction, and hoping perhaps for an ally, he took me into his dressing room, put a hand on my shoulder, and said in rasping confidence, "My boy, the sickening news of my vow of abstinence, as revealed to the public prints, is, I must sadly confess, at least partly true.' Then he sat down and added, "Simply because I don't at the moment imbibe hard alcohol does not mean I have my awareness of its limitless virtues. I do not, in fact, consider myself entirely on the water wagon. I prefer the juice of the kumquat straight.' Then, downing a tumbler of his chauffeur's liquid, he sent the man out and confided that he was limiting himself to sherry at the moment.

And he was. He even poured sherry over his cornflakes in the morning. I was at his house at Toluca Lake and watched the careful mixture of this concoction during a sunrise script debate. I had labored the night on a scene to be shot that day, and I was liddropping tired. Fields, on the other hand, a confirmed insomniac, was chipper. He, too, had written dialogue for a scene, so I was not surprised to see him glance at mine, tear it to shreds, and hand me his own.

I read it in astonishment. That it was scrawled on the back of a large Manila envelope didn't surprise me. What did was that it was a death scene, played at the bedside of his fast-failing wife.

Fields had no wife in the picture!

This point didn't seem to disturb him. It was the scene he intended to play. Imagine, then, the battle on the set when George Marshall came in with his own version of the day's work. A bitter quarrel ensued, culminating in Fields' stalking off to his dressing room and mouthing dire threats of bringing in his .45 to "blow that charlatan to bits.' (As a matter of fact, he did come in once with brass knuckles and a gun, at which he allowed me to peek, saying he was capable of "shooting the eye out of a hummingbird at 50 paces.' But he never got to use the weapon because other things intervened.)

Marshall, normally a calm man, was in a blind fury. No director likes to be diminished in front of his crew. He said to me, "All right, I'll shoot around the son-of-a-b---- with Bergen and McCarthy. I'll shoot around him if I have to shoot him out of the picture.'

And he meant it. But Lester Cowan and Universal, having paid $125,000 (a fortune then) for Fields, would not have it. They went into a huddle and came up with their own solution, not immediately disclosed to me. We were to continue filming as best we could, and I was to complete the script as best I could.

It was the essence of futility, however, to get Fields to cooperate in any dialogue not written (or ad-libbed) by him. Magda Michael, his able secretary, tipped us off to a form of psychology she had used effectively in his "Chase & Sanborn' radio stints with Bergen and McCarthy. The essence of it was making the desires of others seem to come from him. For example, if the tempo of a sketch was slow, Magda would deliberately compliment his superb performance, then add casually, "Of course, they would like to slow it down, but I'm in agreement with you that speed is more your true personality.' To which Fields would nod, muttering, "Right. Nuts to them --I'll speed it up.'

Marshall and I talked this over and tried it a few times with fair results. But something was definitely bothering the old curmudgeon.

One night I received a telegram that read:


At first bewildered, I finally recalled the dialogue Fields had written for the bedside of a dying woman, as well as a characteristic of his brought to my attention by Carlotta Monti, his nurse and "friend' for many years. Carlotta maintained that she rarely received a letter or communication from the man signed with his own name. Often the salutations were baffling, such as "Dear Chinese People,' and the letters signed "Continental Claude.' Telegrams were almost always signed "Ampico J. Steinway,' she told me.

Fields' passion for odd names was possibly attributable to his love of Dickens. Some of the names used in reference to himself or as characters in stories were: Otis Criblecoblis, Felton J. Satchelstern, Oglethorpe P. Bushmaster, Cuthbert J. Twillie, Larson E. Whipsnade, Mahatma Kane Jeeves, Claude Millsap, and Abigail Twirlbaffing. This even carried over into words that intrigued him. One of these was "kumquat,' which he used indiscriminately. Another was the town of Lompoc. For our picture he ad-libbed a line in a scene of dramatic stress: "Run for the Grampion Hills, men. All of Lompoc is underwater.'

It was this form of comic dementia that made Fields inimitable. Reprehensible as he could be (and freely admitted) --mean and cutting, too-- there never was, with the exception of Chaplin, a comedian like him, and probably never will be. He detested jokes or anecdotes of any kind, particularly the two-liners nowadays so dear to the producers of TV sitcoms. Profanity or dirty stories were anathema to him. "Godfrey Daniel' was the closest I ever heard him come to cussing.

The Fieldsian cardinal rule for success --Disregard Advice--plus his inability to concede that anybody was funnier than he, on paper or in direction, continued to produce fireworks bordering on verbal mayhem. I finally quit trying to write dialogue. I simply put what was left of my failing energies into an attempt to hold some semblance of a story together.

The Cowan-Universal gambit was put into play, something I've never seen before or since. Eddie Cline was brought in as director, with George Marshall's consent, to direct Fields; George agreed to limit himself to directing only Bergen and McCarthy. Cline fared no better than Marshall, and after a bitter quarrel, Fields walked out and never came back.

The entire final section of the film was shot with a double. Fortunately, it entailed only a chariot race and some incidental action. When completed and previewed, it was, in my opinion, an embarrassing hodgepodge, making no sense whatsoever.

Imagine my surprise when the film received almost unanimous praise from the critics, who applauded its courageous departure from formula and its avoidance of run-of-the-mill Hollywood cliches. Which gives you some idea of movie critics.

In deference to the critics, however, consider: with the exception of The Bank Dick, Fields never in his life made anything faintly resembling a good picture. His stories were botched-up assemblages of nonsense, patched-together plots, and insultingly senseless motivations. What made them priceless and still popular in art houses was one asset, and one only: W.C. Fields!

Photo: Having studied the roots of laughter unremittingly, Fields knew every nuance of what was and wasn't funny.

Photo: A love-hate relationship with children appeared to be mostly the latter. "I love children,' he stated, "depending on how they're cooked.'

Photo: The only writer he respected was Dickens, who unfortunately was not available.

Photo: If a dummy got too funny, Fields would threaten, "Little Chum, how'd you like to ride piggyback on a buzz saw?'

Photo: Lines such as "a thing worth having is a thing worth cheating for' helped Fields foster his felonious facade.
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Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Freeman, Everett
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Dec 1, 1987
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