MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE: The Life and Times of W.C. Fields. By Simon Louvish . W.W. Norton: 564 pp., $29.95

Richard Schickel reviews movies for Time magazine. His latest book, a biography of Clint Eastwood, will be reprinted in paperback this fall

The America that nurtured W.C. Fields' talents and rooted his comic character in a reality painfully recognizable to his audience is no more. The corner saloon has given way to the corner Starbucks, the shadowy silence of the pool hall to the visual and auditory hubbub of the video arcade, the sweaty communality of vaudeville and tent shows to the anonymous onanisms of the Internet.

These, of course, are just a few of the more visible (and more recent) signs of our flank-speed mutability. Our dysfunctions, like our entertainments, take forms quite unimaginable in the not-too-distant past. How, in this radically revised context, do we make the case for a figure like Fields? How do we communicate the once vast--and, to some of us, undiminished--appeal of this pitiless misanthrope in a time when comedians are desperate to be loved (and audiences are pathetically eager to oblige them)? How, in this hour of the wuss, do we suggest the continuing relevance of a performer who embodied and cruelly parodied the furies and frustrations of a certain type of American man? A man who exists today--if at all--as a ghostly inner voice whispering atavistic subversion all but lost in the droning chorus of correctness that assails us from every direction.

Simon Louvish, who is too young and too English to understand the narrow and unforgiving America that shaped (and outraged) Fields and is too dull-witted to imagine it, answers these questions by reducing the profoundly authentic misanthropy of a figure he inexplicably adores into mere curmudgeonliness, which he appears to think will play better in our squishier age. A writer of astonishing ineptitude--are there no editors left who check usage and syntax?--he's also the kind of biographer who thinks that if he notes who was in the White House at a turning point in his subject's life, he has discharged his obligations to social history. He's the kind of researcher who believes the doggedly reconstructed itinerary of a long-ago provincial vaudeville tour will interest us as much as it does him. The kind of primitive psychologist for whom the discovery that there was a discontinuity between the bold figure his subject cut in public and the somewhat sweeter one he occasionally revealed in private constitutes a startling insight. On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia.

Or, for that matter, rereading the only previous full-scale biography, Robert Lewis Taylor's much jauntier "W.C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes." Published almost 50 years ago, the book is, as Louvish is all too pleased to point out, rife with error, its author having relied too heavily on dubious press releases and the woozy memories of the Great Man's last group of drinking buddies, notably those of writer Gene Fowler. It is unquestionably true that these sources repeated as gospel Fields' self-mythologizing recollections of his past.

But it's equally true that studio scribes and faithful pals, having known Fields and his times intimately, helped Taylor, who had a gift for sharply pointed anecdotes, brisk characterization and the gracefully ironic phrase, create a generously forgiving, waywardly living portrait of a man who converted sociopathy into art.

These are all gifts of which Louvish stands in dire need, and that's too bad, for agreeable as Taylor's book was, no one would argue that it was definitive. It is also ironic, for it is probably Louvish's earnest desire to correct Taylor, whose work has conditioned most subsequent critical writing about Fields, that is primarily responsible for his own more resounding failure. Determined not to repeat hearsay, to base all his significant assertions on the documentary evidence he has painfully assembled--yet perversely convinced that his subject's misanthropy was just an act, not a true measure of the man--Louvish robs both Fields' great comic creation and his personal history of this uniqueness.

Take, for example, Fields' portrayal of his childhood as bleakly Dickensian, a narrative that puts him on the streets at the age of 9 and living a loveless hand-to-mouth existence until he achieved stardom and prosperity, which did not much improve his outlook. Taylor accepted this saga unquestioningly, and so has everyone else since. It is such a convenient explanation for the suspicious hostility with which Fields' character confronted the world in his films. Wrong, Louvish cries. The lad was probably 18 before he completely abandoned a home where his father, though stern and uncomprehending, was far from the sadistic martinet Fields claimed him to be. Why, his mom and dad even toured Europe with him later on.

True enough, we have no doubt. But not quite the whole truth either. What Louvish fails to notice is that the Fields household was animated by that spirit of "self-help and cupidity" that, as Thorstein Veblen observed at the time, characterized turn-of-the-century life among the lumpen bourgeoisie. This outlook, accompanied by the desire to hide one's true motives under a cloak of piety and politesse, would become one of Fields' great comic preoccupations. You don't have to have been an abused child to make comic capital of that atmosphere, just an observant--and restless--one. You can find the soul of henpecked (and offspring-gnawed) Harold Bissonette, obsequious and wheedling proprietor of that dank and faltering grocery store in Fields' masterpiece, "It's a Gift," in this formative familial experience.

Or consider Fields' early years as a juggler. They were not as raffish or melodramatic as he represented them to be, and Louvish is quite stern about setting this record straight. But those tallish tales also contain a certain metaphorical truth. For Fields did live on a jagged edge for the first decades of his career. What is a juggler, after all, but a man who must several times a day repeal the laws of gravity in front of audiences eager to see him fail? The job requires nerve and guile--and very possibly several jolts of alcohol between shows to ease the tension. Moreover, Fields did a single and so was obliged to rely solely on his own cunning to survive the vagaries and vicissitudes of an itinerant entertainer's life--the competition for the best spots on the bill; the scrimping, if not downright larcenous, theater managers; the distrust the middle-class public in those days visited on touring performers; the glamorous threats to the tenuous stability of their cautious little lives. You can't blame Fields for imparting a certain dramatic color to his memories of these years, the better to convey their hard realities to his latter-day audiences.

And you can see how they shaped the other side of this comic persona. For Fields was not always the victim of lower-middle-class morality. He was also the victimizer of its prissy gentility. In this mode, he was a traveling man, often the proprietor of some near-moribund theatrical enterprise trouping the American margins, at once sly and blustering as he peddled his shabby entertainments and/or useless nostrums to the narrow-eyed, yet always self-deluded, rubes. No one contemplating his great work in this vein, "The Old Fashioned Way," can doubt that bitter memories of his former rootlessness animated his drawling ruthlessness.

No one but Louvish, that is. Rummaging through the archives, he has found antique, highly conventional vaudeville and revue sketches in which he perceives the (very humble) beginnings of Fields' mature comic persona. Some were by Fields, many were the work of other hands, but all fall flat on the page--as do many of the more polished versions of this material that we remember from his films. All require his voice, his timing, the vast range of alarm and duplicity that he conveyed wordlessly, through facial expressions and body language, to bring them to life.

Thus does Louvish's scholarship undermine his implicit argument that nice Bill Fields was actually not so very different from other comics, then or now, blithely spinning conventionalized patter that the performer can put out of his mind between appearances. No, the man was haunted; he could not for a minute escape his glum certainty that the game was rigged against him, against us all. Thus, too, does Louvish undermine his vapid conclusion, which holds that Fields' alcoholism, which first incapacitated him, then killed him in 1946 at age 67, was fueled by the failure of his "metaphysical search for the perfect joke."

Godfrey Daniel! That's not why he put away a couple of quarts of whiskey a day for the last 20 years of his life. Fields was not a jokester, and when he tried to be, he was generally unfunny. He was, in fact, a bleak and despairing man--"straight man to a malevolent universe," as Kenneth Tynan memorably put it--ever the juggler who knows that inevitably one of his balls must get away and humiliatingly bonk him on the conk. His glory, of course, was in his acceptance of his role, his refusal to indulge in self-pity or sue the audience for sympathy. Taylor wrote that his appeal lay in the fact that "most people harbor a secret affection for anyone with a low opinion of humanity." That's true, but it was Fields' stoicism in the face of cosmic adversity, his refusal of the sentimental consolations with which most of us buttress ourselves against the always encircling darkness, that granted him the right to this criticism. Too bad that it did not grant him, as well, the right to a biography that would have brought him alive for an era in desperate need of his bracing, abrasive presence.

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