Historical Markers
W. C. Fields Historical Marker
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W. C. Fields

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
8th and Market Sts., Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
October 13, 1997

Behind the Marker

He had a face like a geometry problem and a voice that grated like a flock of wounded geese. He drank too much, carped too much, exuded dyspepsia, seethed with sarcasm, bubbled with bombast, and seemed to detest everyone with democratic aplomb. If you eyed him across a poker table you'd immediately insist on inspecting his sleeves. He dipped his wit in vitriol.

W.C. Fields Juggling Top Hats.
W.C. Fields Juggling Top Hats, 1900.
And while W.C. Fields may have truly believed, as he liked to say, that it was essential to "start every day with a smile and get it over with," he also knew how to tap into his own darkness and make audiences writhe with laughter. In a 1930s Hollywood that manufactured bright stars to fit its mold, Fields was one of the few for whom there was no mold at all. There was nobody else like him. He was surreal.

Just listen to the applause of two magical movie clowns, Fields's contemporaries on the silent screen. Harold Lloyd deemed Fields "the foremost American comedian" - period - and Buster Keaton installed him in a pantheon whose only other niche was reserved for Charlie Chaplin: Fields' "comedy," said Keaton, "is unique, original and side-splitting." The great critic James Agee deemed him "the toughest and most warmly human of all screen comedians."

It was in that gap between love and hate that Fields' genius found its spark, for it came from a place deep inside him, but still reachable enough for him to tap and eloquently explain. It made even his nastiest screen moments - and he had many of them - not only understandable, but amazingly sympathetic.

Fields is pictured here learning some of the tricks of the billiard table.
W. C. Fields posing at a billiard table, with champion billiard player Bob Cannefax,...
"You've heard the old legend that it's the little put-upon guy that gets the laughs, but I'm the most belligerent guy on the screen," he once told an interviewer. "I'm going to kill everybody. But, at the same time, I'm afraid of everybody - just a great big frightened bully. There's a lot of that in human nature. When people laugh at me, they're laughing at themselves."

That revelation took root in the City of Brotherly Love, a place Fields regularly derided, but when asked what he'd like his epitaph to read, quickly snapped, "I'd rather be in Philadelphia." As a boy, he couldn't wait to get out.

He was born William Claude Dukenfield (though the earliest public records have the first and middle name reversed), in 1880, the oldest in a family of five children. His parents ran a small hotel in Darby, until Claude, as he was called growing up, was born. His father then began working as a bartender before peddling vegetables from a horse wagon.

Claude left school in the 4th grade and joined his father. He hated the work, and he hated his father's temper - which he admittedly inherited - and left home within the year after the two exchanged blows. "My father patted me on the spine with a spade for a reason I cannot recall," Fields later recalled, "and I, in turn, called him a name that reflected on his ancestors and made a bad noise with my mouth at him." Then he hit his father on the head with a bushel basket, and "took it on the lam pronto. That night, I reposed al fresco." They reconciled decades later.

Claude learned to make do the hard way. He'd bed down in fields, in privies, in stables, and in freight cars, defending himself when he had to and feeding himself on the milk, bread, and butter delivered to back porches before dawn. For awhile, he lived with his grandmother. He took jobs here and there - in a pool hall, as a newsboy, as a cashier at Strawbridge and Clothier - to support himself. Until he found his calling. Watching jugglers at a carnival. He was mesmerized.

Juggling obsessed Claude. He'd practice constantly, and got good at it. Very good. Reinventing himself in his mid-teens as W.C. Fields, he began touring with circuses and carnivals as a tramp juggler. By the age of twenty, he had risen to headliner on the vaudeville circuit, about to embark on decades of international acclaim playing the Palace in London, the Folies-Bergere in Paris, and demonstrating his remarkable bag of comic patter, juggling skills, and trick shots at the pool table for King Edward VII at Buckingham Palace.

In 1915, Florenz Ziegfeld signed Fields to star in his Follies on Broadway, and Fields made his first movie that year, too, a silent adaptation of his stage routine called "Pool Sharks." He remained with the Follies until 1921, jumped for more money to the competition, George White's "Scandals," in 1922, then, in 1923, stepped into a new pair of Broadway spats - as an actor - in the hit musical "Poppy." Fields's role - a con man named Eustace McGargle - gave him carte blanche to express virtually every piece of what would become his comic persona. He starred in the film version - D.W. Griffith's Sally of the Sawdust - in 1925.

From there, Fields was off and running in the movies, working regularly in silents around New York before stunningly accomplishing what the other major silent film comics - Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd - could not: he transitioned to the talkies and flourished.

W. C. Fields kissing the hand of Mae West.
Mae West and W.C. Fields in My Little Chickadee, 1940.
Did he ever! Audiences that howled at his physical antics adored his honking inflections even more. At fifty, he seemed reborn, his voice bringing life to a rogues' gallery of Falstaffian charlatans, mountebanks, and harassed husbands. Despite his lack of formal education, Fields had a prodigious gift for wordplay and came up with stories full of social satire balancing on farce that tapped directly into his comic genius.

Under such colorful noms de plume as Charles Bogle, Mahatma Kane Jeeves, Otis J. Criblecoblis and Primrose Magoo, he crafted the majority of his own scenarios, creating tales in which the characters he played tried to break as many rules as possible to best inflict havoc on everyone else. His best work is filled with spiritual anarchy and moral chaos. And what he didn't like on the page, he'd improve on the set through improvisation, regularly maddening the directors and co-stars who couldn't keep up, though Mae West, in My Little Chickadee, kept up quite brilliantly; she was the rare comic performer he couldn't steal a scene from.
American comedian Ed Wynn bends down to tell his mother a comical story.
Comedian Ed Wynn telling his mother a comic story, circa 1933.

Like "Pool Sharks," Fields' first talkie, 1930's The Golf Specialist, was essentially a cinematic presentation of his stage act. Following hilarious turns in uneven comedies like Million Dollar Legs and If I Had a Million, Fields combined wits in 1932 and 1933 with the great silent comedy director, Mack Sennett, on a quartet of comic masterpieces - The Dentist, The Fatal Glass of Beer, The Pharmacist, and The Barber Shop. They cemented his unique stardom in Hollywood, and led to a $300,000-a-year contract with Paramount.

Fields box-office draw continued through the 1930s in comedy classics like International House, It's a Gift, and You Can't Cheat an Honest Man. In 1936, he surprised audiences and critics alike as he more than held his own - to be frank, he ran off with the show - as Mr. Micawber in director George Cukor's star-studded David Copperfield; the cast included Basil Rathbone, Maureen O'Sullivan, and Lionel Barrymore.

As with close friend markerJohn Barrymore, Fields legendary drinking - two quarts of gin daily, plus wine and whisky - led to declining health, and he began to slow down by 1940. Still, he had three of his best movies left in him: My Little Chickadee, The Bank Dick, and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. And though, he was essentially finished with film by the end of 1941, his unmistakable voice kept accosting the atmosphere via radio until his death on Christmas Day in 1946. Two decades later, a new generation of college students bestowed him with cult status.

It was Fields' great gift to mine misanthropy so endearingly for so long. "I am free of all prejudices," he once observed. "I hate everybody equally." But did he really? For all the bombast, Fields never dismissed his urchin past; he willed the bulk of his sizable estate to founding a school for orphans.
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