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W. C. Fields: A Biography Hardcover – March 4, 2003

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 595 pages
  • Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf; 1st edition (March 4, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375402179
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375402173
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.7 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #444,592 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Customer Reviews

Second, James Curtis is an excellent writer.
Lloyd Worley
W.C. Fields entered a world in which Victorian america was about to give way to the Industrial Revolution.
This is an informative and well written biography with tons of quotes and lines from his movies.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on April 21, 2003
Format: Hardcover
The most famous quote by W. C. Fields is, "Any man who hates dogs and children can't be all bad." The trouble is, it wasn't said by him. It was said about him by, of all things, an anthropologist who was studying the motion picture industry. And it was not close to true about Fields. Among the many pleasing revelations in _W. C. Fields: A Biography_ (Knopf) by James Curtis is that Fields was not inimical to children. Oh, he didn't like dogs very much, but he owned a few and didn't put up objections against the species. And he didn't like Baby Leroy, the child co-star most associated with him. The [child] was terrified by Fields's appearance and could burst into tears at any scene, and it does seem to be true that Fields spiked the nipper's orange juice with gin to make him more a trouper. But throughout Fields's life he was partial to children. Will Rogers's son remembered Fields as a guest for dinner, both because he took time to talk to the boy, and because he juggled the brand new imported glass plates for his entertainment; his mother was not as well pleased. Watching kids at an Indian reservation play ball, he saw them using a wad of tape for a ball and a stick for a bat; he had an Indian pal buy full equipment, but warned, "If you tell a soul I did this, ...I'll never supply you with any more booze." He ingratiated himself to young Freddie Bartholomew, who played David Copperfield as a boy, by asking, "Tell me, son, are you a midget or am I overgrown?"
The stories about Fields and children are scattered throughout this large and detailed volume. It might be that they were a reaction against his own childhood, but that childhood was not as bad as he liked to make it seem.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Mike Fontanelli on March 18, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Finally, THE definitive biography of one of the most revered figures ever to appear on the world stage or step before a motion picture camera. While there've been almost two dozen books about Fields published already (mostly filmographies, quote books, picture books or screenplays), this collection is essential for several important reasons. First of all, it's one of the best biographies of a film personality ever written. Head and shoulders above Simon Louvish's sluggish MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE, more ambitious than Ronald J. Fields' collection of letters and radio scripts (W.C. FIELDS BY HIMSELF), on a literary par with Robert Lewis Taylor's brilliant W.C. FIELDS: HIS FOLLIES AND FORTUNES (but without that author's fictional flights of fancy), James Curtis turns out to be the ideal biographer of the iconoclastic comedian.

Setting the record straight regarding volumes of Fieldsian apocrypha, the legend remains intact whilst the enigmatic man behind it emerges for perhaps the first time in print. Full of nostalgia, fascinating revelations about Fields' working methods and creative approach to filmmaking, scandalous professional behavior, revealing personal data, heretofore unsuspected alliances (it comes as no surprise that Fields was a fan and drinking pal of his temperamental soulmate, H.L. Mencken), and many, many wonderful anecdotes. The ideal book to curl up with on a winter's eve (when it ain't a fit night out for man nor beast), with the necessary pitcher-full of your favorite "snake bite remedy," as Fields would say. (He'd also recommend you always carry a small snake...) A worthy tribute to a giant of American comedy. ***** 5 stars, easy.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Steven K. Szmutko VINE VOICE on July 17, 2003
Format: Hardcover
James Curtis offers a well-researched and engagingly written biography of one of the most enigmatic figures ever to appear in the entertainment business. W.C. Fields was one of the most talented, yet underused (by contemporary definition) performers in show business, whether in vaudeville, burlesque, Broadway, Hollywood or radio. Originally a physical performer (juggling) before evolving into a diverse comedian and actor, Fields spent his entire life developing a unique public persona that became, in all appearances, to be the private man as well. Mr. Curtis paints a textured portrait of a man by turns, remarkably generous, yet often parsimonious, stubbornly difficult, yet frequently courtly and gracious.
The book focuses on Mr. Fields personal life to a level rarely reached in more traditional biographies. The chapters on Field's childhood and early days in show business provide tremendous insight on the man he would become and explain the contradictory nature of the man. There is a sense of tragedy of a great man who begins to fade, both in physical abilities and later, mental acuity, consumed by alcoholism, an unhappy marriage and a number of failed personal relationships. The book reads like a novel as Mr. Curtis blends description and dialogue seamlessly throughout the 600+ pages.
I was struck by the revelations of W.C. Fields personal graciousness and generosity as most previous biographies of the man portray him as a rather one-dimensional caricature. Yet, like most great talents, Fields was an incredibly complex man. This biography does him, nearly 60 years after his death, justice.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By J. D. Heise on March 9, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Pardon my redundancy, but this is a great book. Having shown his proficiency at film biography in the past (if you have not opened your purses to acquire his previous tomes on James Whale and Preston Sturges-get them NOW!! [you lugs]), Curtis supersedes all previous attempts with William Claude Dukinfield and gets to the palpitating heart of this truly sad and angry clown.
Cutting through all the myth and legend, which has overshadowed Fields prodigious talents ever since his death in 1946, Curtis talks about the Dickensian childhood, the ultimate triumph on the stage, the marriage that neither party seems to have really worked on, the drinking (which was quite widespread amongst so many in vaudeville, only Fields knew how to use the persona to his advantage), the wonderful films and just how the comic really felt about dogs and children. After digesting this extremely well-researched and pungently written book, one comes away with the feeling that the W. C. Fields that has become universally known mostly through the famous picture of him playing poker or via imitators who cannot even come close to his character is only an infinitesimal part of him. This book presents a human being that was full of flaws, most of which he created to protect himself from a world that he fought tooth and nail. The Fields that was on the screen (especially the masterpiece IT'S A GIFT, one of the greatest comedies ever made, if not one of the greatest films) is not just the cliche drunken ogre that people remember from the late show, but a person full of hurt who could also show a tender side-see the chapter on NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK for a deleted scene with Fields at the deathbed of a female character-without being false.
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More About the Author

James Curtis is the author of "W.C. Fields: A Biography", which was awarded the Special Jury Prize by the Theatre Library Association and named one of the Notable Books of the Year by the New York Times. He is also the author of "Spencer Tracy: A Biography," "James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters," and "Between Flops," an acclaimed biography of writer-director Preston Sturges. He is married and lives in Brea, California.

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