James Curtis's W.C. Fields
is the finest biography of the bulb-nosed comedian ever published, allowing the real
Fields (1880-1946) to emerge after decades of obfuscation. Fields was always presumed to be the same boozy, child-hating curmudgeon that he played on stage and screen, but Curtis (author of acclaimed biographies of directors Preston Sturges and James Whale) shows us a multidimensional Fields who triumphed in every facet of show business from vaudeville and Broadway to radio and film. A world-class juggler, Fields (born William Claude Dukenfield, in Philadelphia) honed his act for each new venue, evolving out of necessity as silent movies gave way to the advent of sound. As Fields enjoys the luxuries of Hollywood stardom, the pleasure of Curtis's book grows glamorously infectious.
This is also the semi-tragic story of a sickly alcoholic, prevented by Catholic restriction from divorcing his second wife, resulting in decades of estrangement from his only legitimate son. This lends poignancy to Fields that his comedy rarely revealed, but for every episode of bitter resentment, Curtis offers touching evidence of Fields's personal and professional generosity. Domestic passages are most revealing, both melancholy (for Fields, idleness was misery) and hilarious (as when he wages war on aggressive swans near his lakefront estate). Curtis also sets the record straight on Fields's numerous bank accounts, love affairs, and other Fields-related legends. As a biographer's act of compassion, Curtis chooses a perfect (and perfectly devastating) posthumous detail to end this remarkable book, essentially reuniting Fields with the family he never really had. If all comedy is born of pain, Curtis proves that Fields was the consummate comedian. --Jeff Shannon
From Publishers Weekly
Hattie Hughes, ex-wife and lifelong adversary of W.C. Fields (1880-1946), claimed "my husband was a coward. He liked to bully people." In Curtis's admirable biography, the comedian corroborates this assessment by calling himself "the most belligerent guy on the screen." Curtis, a biographer of James Whale and Preston Sturges, takes on another creative, deeply flawed protagonist, enabling readers to identify with Fields's drive, his unstable relationships and the anger that fueled so much of his humor. The "eccentric juggler," Fields slowly built a niche in vaudeville through such technical accomplishments as mastering six balls in one position. Showbiz struggle is never romanticized, and readers can sense and taste the unpleasantness of sleeping on trains, baggage delays and bad food, along with facing Florenz Ziegfeld, who hired comics and hated them all. Curtis dramatizes Fields's love life in dark detail, from his money-hungry wife, Hattie, to a succession of mistresses, prompting a friend to comment, "Bill changed women every seven years, as some people get rid of the itch." Though acclaimed as the definitive Wilkins Micawber in George Cukor's 1935 David Copperfield, much of the Micawber footage was cut, eliciting rage from Fields. Also fascinating is Fields's rejection of the wizard role in The Wizard of Oz. His screen partnership with Mae West, deftly documented, tells how two hefty egos coexisted until West accused Fields of demanding an undeserved credit on her script for My Little Chickadee. Curtis's sharp intelligence and a pungent modern edge in his writing make Fields relevant to contemporary readers unfamiliar with his classic work.
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