My little chickadee, you don't know W.C. Fields

Times Staff Writer

"Start every day off with a smile

and get it over with."

W.C. Fields

*

The image of W.C. Fields in most people's minds is a caricature: the top-hatted, hard-drinking, bulbous-nosed crook and swindler who loved to say "my little chickadee," "never give a sucker an even break" and "Godfrey Daniel," his euphemism for swearing.

But there was much more to Fields than that: Like the other great early film clowns -- Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy -- he was a true artist. Perhaps he was never as beloved as these others because, as the author of an exhaustive new biography of Fields notes, "both as an artist and a human being he never particularly was asking to be loved."

But, adds James Curtis, author of "W.C. Fields: A Biography," "he wanted to be understood. I don't really think people understood him."

So let's set the record straight. W.C. Fields may have had a running on-screen feud with Baby LeRoy, but the fact of the matter is he liked children. He was a soft touch with a buck when it came to friends in need. Although his screen characters liked to drink some, he never played a drunk. And despite cultivating the persona of a cynical curmudgeon, there was a definite sentimental streak running through most of his films.

Fields, Curtis says, often had trouble with screenwriters who he felt limited him. "All they would see in his character was his red nose and the drinking and cheating cards. So they kept repeating those same riffs. He saw a lot more to the character."

The majority of his films are not available on video or DVD and are rarely screened, and because of that, his popularity has ebbed in recent years. But Fields, who died of cirrhosis of the liver on Christmas Day 1946, is making a comeback this spring with the recent publication of Curtis' biography and now the UCLA Film & Television Archive's retrospective, "Godfrey Daniel!: The Films of W.C. Fields."

Fields, says UCLA programmer David Pendleton, was a multifaceted performer, "somebody who was successful in all major forms of mass entertainment in the early 20th century. He is someone who was also a writer as well as a performer. I also think of the major prewar screen comedians, he was one of the most gifted actors of the bunch."

Pendleton believes Fields "spoke to a certain level of disillusionment during the Depression. A lot of his films showed a certain amount of suspicions toward institutions like banks and police forces and even Hollywood. I think part of his success in Hollywood was that plugging into a general sense of disillusionment and uncertainty."

The retrospective begins tonight with what some consider Fields' best film, "It's a Gift" (1934). In the comedy written by Charles Bogle (one of Fields' many pseudonyms; Mahatma Kane Jeeves was another), he plays a New Jersey grocer who spends all of an inheritance from his uncle on a California orange grove. One of the movie's classic scenes is an encounter in his store with the nasty blind customer Mr. Muckle. Also screening tonight are "International House" (1933) and "Emily, Rollo and the Road Hogs," Fields' installment in the 1932 anthology comedy "If I Had a Million," in which the comic uttered the line "my little chickadee" for the first time. Jean Rouverol Butler, who played one of Fields' children in "It's a Gift," will appear at the screening with Curtis.

If the biography and retrospective spur renewed interest in Fields, this would be the second time it has happened since the comedian's death; the first occurred during the Vietnam War era. "You had Fields and Humphrey Bogart," Curtis says. "They were symbols of cynicism and distrusting authority."

Born William Claude Dukenfield on Jan. 29, 1880, in Philadelphia, the first child of a huckster-horse trainer and his wife -- Fields took his stage name at age 17 when he performed as a juggler. Touring in burlesque and vaudeville and eventually headlining in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1915, he developed a number of comic routines including a golf and pool huckster and a beleaguered family man.

The latter was based on his own life. Fields had married Hattie Veronica Hughes at age 20 and they had a son, Claude, a few years later. The couple separated soon after his birth, but Hattie was a Roman Catholic and refused to divorce him and, until Fields' death, harangued him for money. Claude took Hattie's side on all matters concerning his father. (It's no accident that the oafish son-in-law in 1935's "Man on the Flying Trapeze" is named Claude).

Segueing from the Follies, Fields scored a big hit on Broadway in "Poppy," which D.W. Griffith brought to the screen with Fields in 1925 as "Sally of the Sawdust." Fields then signed with Paramount and made several silent comedies before returning to Broadway for one last time in the late 1920s. He returned to Paramount in 1932 and hit his stride in several classic features as well as short films. Fields made some of his greatest films for Paramount in 1934 and 1935, including "It's a Gift" and "The Old Fashioned Way." Fields also proved he was a fine dramatic actor when he played the role of the colorful Micawber in the 1935 MGM production of "David Copperfield."

But Fields' health gave out because of his workload and his drinking. He turned to radio while he was recuperating, scoring some of his greatest successes with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. His tenure at Paramount ended with "The Big Broadcast of 1938." Fields then signed with Universal, where he made four films from 1939 to 1941: "You Can't Cheat an Honest Man," with Bergen and McCarthy, "My Little Chickadee," with Mae West, "The Bank Dick" and "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break," which was based on a story he wrote as Otis Criblecoblis.

Fields' films don't have strong narrative lines, tending to be more of a series of sketches featuring the same characters. Pendleton thinks the loose narrative structure may be one of the reasons his films go in and out of favor.

"A lot of cinephiles sort of value works that cohere as a whole, that have sort of a unifying vision," Pendleton says. "Fields' films tend to be much more fragmented. I think that accelerates toward his later films."

That's especially true in 1941's "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break," his last starring role. The film within a film features gypsy villages, a mountaintop estate guarded by a Great Dane with huge fangs and an elaborate chase sequence through Los Angeles. And in between Fields' antics, 14-year-old singing sensation Gloria Jean sings several numbers.

"It doesn't make any sense at all," Pendleton says. But it is the surreal quality of many of Fields' films, he adds, "that makes him very modern."

Jean, who is now 76, will appear at the "Never Give a Sucker" screening April 13. She recalls Universal warning her and her mother of Fields' drinking problems and his reputation for not liking children.

"So naturally I was frightened," she says. "But he was wonderful to me, even though I was a little girl. I remember I said to him, 'Mr. Fields, you should eat.' And he said, 'Honey, there are better things to do.' "

The actress recalls that she never saw Fields drinking.

"He had a white screen put up that he would go behind so that I wouldn't see him drink," she explains. "But by 3 in the afternoon he was just out of it."

Despite his drinking, she says, he was always quick-witted. She relates a particularly pithy comeback he made after he listened to her perform songs in both Russian and Spanish in the film:

"He said, 'Well, I think I'd like her voice if she sang in English.' Isn't that funny? But he had a point, didn't he?"

*

'Godfrey Daniel!'

What: "Godfrey Daniel!: The Films of W.C. Fields"

Where: James Bridges Theater, UCLA, northeast corner of Westwood campus. For information, call (310) 206-8013 or go to

www.cinema.ucla.edu.

When: "It's a Gift," "International House" and "Emily, Rollo and the Road Hogs," with James Curtis and Jean Rouverol Butler appearing, tonight at 7:30 p.m.; "David Copperfield," Sunday at 2 p.m.; "So's Your Old Man," "Pool Sharks," "A Trip Through the Paramount Studio," "Tillie and Gus" and "The Dentist," Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.; "Man on the Flying Trapeze," "The Fatal Glass of Beer" and "You're Telling Me," Thursday at 7:30; "The Old Fashioned Way," "You Can't Cheat an Honest Man" and "The Pharmacist," with John Cleese appearing, April 12 at 7:30 p.m.; "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break," "The Bank Dick" and "The Barber Shop," with Gloria Jean appearing, April 13.

Price: $7, general admission; $5, students, seniors and UCLA Alumni Assn. members with ID.

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