A Charles Dickens character come to life, American comedian W. C. Fields (born William Claude Dukenfield) ran away from home at age 11. Continuous exposure to cold weather gave his voice its distinctive hoarse timbre, while constant fights with bigger kids gave Fields his trademarked red, battered nose. Perfecting his skills as a juggler until his fingers bled, Fields became a vaudeville headliner before the age of 21, traveling the world with his pantomimed comedy juggling act. After making his Broadway debut in the musical comedy The Ham Tree (1906), "W.C. Fields -- Tramp Juggler," as he then billed himself, achieved the pinnacle of stage stardom by signing on with impresario Flo Ziegfeld. Somewhere along the line the comedian decided to speak on stage, to the everlasting gratitude of Fields fans everywhere. Though his flowery, pompous comic dialogue would seem to have been indispensable, Fields did rather well in silent films (the first was the 1915 one-reeler Pool Sharks) thanks to his keen juggler's dexterity. In 1923, Fields took Broadway by storm with a part specially written for him in the musical Poppy. As larcenous snake-oil peddler Eustace McGargle, the comedian cemented his familiar stage and screen persona as Confidence Man Supreme. Poppy was filmed as Sally of the Sawdust by director D.W. Griffith in 1925; incredible as it may seem, Fields was not the first choice for the film, but once ensconced in celluloid (to use a Fields-like turn of phrase), he became a favorite of small-town and rural movie fans -- even though it was those very fans who were often the targets of Field's brand of social satire.
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From 1930 through 1934, Fields appeared in talking feature films and short subjects, truly hitting his stride in It's a Gift (1934), which contained his famous "sleeping on the back porch" stage sketch. By this time, audiences responded to his characterization of the bemused, beleaguered everyman, attacked from all sides by nagging wives, bratty children, noisy neighbors and pesky strangers. His film characters also embraced his offstage adoration of alcoholic beverages (Fields was one of the more conspicuous and prolific drinkers of his time). In private life, Fields was perhaps Hollywood's most enigmatic personality. He was simultaneously an inveterate ad-libber and improviser who meticulously prepared his ad-libs and improvisations on paper ahead of time; a frequently nasty, obstinate man who was surrounded by a strong core of loyal and lasting friends. Beloved by most of his fellow actors, W.C. Fields was a man who often showed up late and hung over on the film set, but who never missed a performance and finished all his films on schedule and under budget.
Though most fans prefer Fields' freewheeling starring comedies, which he wrote under such colorful pseudonyms as "Otis J. Criblecoblis" and "Mahatma Kane Jeeves," he also shone in at least one prestige picture, MGM's David Copperfield (directed by George Cukor, wherein Fields portrayed Mr. Micawber. A serious illness curtailed Fields' film work in 1936, but he made a comeback trading insults with ventriloquist's dummy Charlie McCarthy on radio in 1938. Fields' final films for Universal are a mixed bag; teaming with Mae West in My Little Chickadee (1940), was more surreal than funny, and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) makes very little sense, but The Bank Dick (1940), starring Fields as Egbert Souse is an unadulterated classic. Too ill to contribute anything but guest appearances in his final films, W. C. Fields died at age 67 on the one holiday he claimed he despised: Christmas Day. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi