Before he ever made a movie or spoke a word onstage, W. C. Fields was one of the greatest pantomimists and comedians in the world. His career spanned the whole of the twentieth century--in burlesque, vaudeville, the legitimate stage, silent pictures, talkies, radio, books, and recordings. Only death prevented him from working in television. He shared the vaudeville stage with Sarah Bernhardt and Houdi∋ he made a command performance before Edward VII; he was compared to Chaplin and Keaton and became one of the great comedians in radio. He wrote, directed, and performed (Mae West and Fields were among the first writer/actor/directors) in some of the most enduring and brilliant comedies of all time, including It's a Gift, My Little Chickadee, and The Bank Dick. He appeared in fifty pictures and wrote fifteen of them. His understanding of the need to lie and swindle, and his ability to make the most innocent phrase sound lewd, made him a star. Now James Curtis tells the story of Fields' life and work. Drawing on Fields' papers and manuscripts, he shows us the passion and intellect that fueled Fields' talent and the background that gave such bite and edge to his comedy. Curtis shows us, in illuminating detail, just how Fields' extraordinary art evolved on the stage in the early part of the twentieth century and how he not only incorporated it into his films, but how it came to define his persona decades later. He writes of Fields' hardscrabble Philadelphia childhood; of his father, a drunken breaker of horses who beat his son; of Fields' clever hands that were quick to master stealing and juggling (he took up the latter--it allowed him to sleep late); of his years in burlesque and minstrelsy; of his seventeen years in vaudeville, hopping trains early on, living a life half in the theater, half on the lam, making his way into the big time, never satisfied with his "act," always working on something newer and more striking. Curtis writes of Fields' starring years with the Ziegfeld Follies, finding his voice and his character amid one of the greatest assemblages of comic talent on a single stage (Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, among others); appearing in every Ziegfeld show from 1915 through 1921; of his marriage to a fellow performer, the birth of their son, and their travels together on the Circuit, until Mrs. Fields decided she'd had enough and left--the theater and her marriage. Fields never again loved so deeply. We see Fields' extraordinary work in the movies, both silent pictures in New York (first directed by D. W. Griffith in the starring role in Sally of the Sawdust, which Fields created on Broadway in Poppy) and in the talkies from 1927 to 1945. Curtis' biography narrates the life and the art of the actor James Agee called "the toughest and most warmly human of all screen comedians."
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2003
Branch Call Number:
791.43028092 Field -C
xix, 593 p. : ill