The pessimist whose glass was always half full

Donald Fanger is the author of "The Creation of Nikolai Gogol" and "Dostoevsky and Romantic Realism." He is the Harry Levin research professor of literature at Harvard University.

James Agee called him "one of the funniest men on earth." For Buster Keaton he was "the foremost American comedian," for John Cleese, "America's most profound comedian." He is prized by millions for saying, "Any man who hates children and dogs can't be all bad," though he didn't say it. He deserves to be prized by millions more for his advice, "Start every day with a smile and get it over with," though I'm not absolutely sure he said that. The point in both cases is that he might have, might well have, might as well have. They are part of the myth, flesh of its flesh, so to speak, and the myth was a composite of all the traits (never mind that they could be contradictory) that went into his supreme creation, a character called W.C. Fields, who was recognizable, whatever name he went by, on stage and radio and (most particularly) in the movies he made in the '30s and early '40s.

His roles might vary -- within limits: He was always fleshy and middle-aged, never lovable or lyrical, and he never solicited your pity. The character drank (during and after Prohibition) with a cheerful lack of moderation. He needed no companions. He was never drunk. His instinctive cunning rarely brought him success. Authentic in its fraudulence, the character was, in Fields' own words, "a great big frightened bully." He noted with evident pride that someone had called him the first comic in world history to pick fights with children. He mocked seemliness and respectability in all their guises; he mocked virtue; he mocked gravity. And all this he did with the glee of the weary and the unlikely energy of the terminally pessimistic, producing thereby his own version of the essential work of comedy, which is (in Susanne K. Langer's words) a matter of deploying "a brainy opportunism in the face of an essentially dreadful universe."

Style, of course, was all. Slapstick was in it because, Fields insisted, life is slapstick. Pain was in it because he said he'd never seen anything funny that wasn't terrible. ("If it causes pain, it's funny; if it doesn't, it isn't.") But there was marvelous, balancing subtlety as well. You saw it in the tiniest flickerings of facial expression and heard it in the voice, in the intonations (those incomparable intonations with their wispy trailings-off), and in the weirdly periphrastic vocabulary they stretched and molded like Play-Doh. "Fields doesn't so much speak," Penelope Gilliatt observed, "as amuse himself with self-addressed soliloquies. His retorts are conceived for himself alone, like his endearments and his curses." It's true: Those on screen with him don't react much, certainly not adequately. The audience is their real addressee, the only adequate reaction our delight as he forces us into reluctant complicity and makes us laugh at a world whose fundamental dreadfulness he has made no effort to play down.

James Curtis' weighty new book, the 26th on Fields by its author's count, comes bearing a blurb by John Cleese, who hails it as "definitive," but given the author's declared aim it could not be that. Suspicious of what he calls the Fields legend, Curtis says that he "stripped the legend away from him completely and approached him as a writer and director as well as a performer. I wanted to know how he really worked." Fair enough. But, pace John Cleese, that approach excludes on principle any examination of Fields' profundity (or even complexity) as an artist, and it does the same with the crucial matter of his art's essential Americanness.

Instead, Curtis gives us a thick history of American popular entertainment from Fields' debut as a pantomime juggler in 1898 through his burlesque and vaudeville successes to stardom in silent film, talkies and radio. He describes routines and is at particular pains to trace their recycling from one show and one medium to another across the decades, with the frequently unfortunate effect of suggesting that nothing much changed. Thus he notes of that Fieldsian masterpiece "The Fatal Glass of Beer" (made with Mack Sennett in 1933) that it was a recycling of an act called "The Stolen Bonds" that Fields had done in Earl Carroll's Vanities four years before and finds in it no more than "a deadpan parody of antique stagecraft." That it was a sendup not just of the temperance movement but also of the Gold Rush frontier and of the sentimental notion that home is the place where, when you knock at the door, they have to take you in -- none of this seems to have occurred to Curtis. As for the lunatic hyperbole of the sets and the matching music of Fields' delivery, Curtis has not an appreciative word for either.

Criticism, to put it mildly, is not a strong point of this book. What the book does excellently is to reconstruct the family background and youth about which Fields himself liked to give dramatically skewed accounts. But the strictly personal side of this biography turns skimpy soon after the career is launched at 19. From that point on, Curtis concentrates on chronicling Fields' career in exhaustive detail, describing the stage routines that made him famous, first as a pantomime juggler (to hide his youthful stammer), eventually as a straight comic and speaking actor. Elements of the legend are corrected along the way. Fields' drinking was prodigious, but he was not a drunk. His famous nose, which Kenneth Tynan likened to "a doughnut pickled in vinegar," was not the result of childhood beatings but of surgery to relieve a sinus condition that removed much of the cartilage. He was not so much stingy as wary of being played for a sucker. But the emphasis keeps reverting to Fields' working life; his marriage at 20 (defunct by the time he was 25, but never dissolved) is characterized; his successive mistresses are named, along with famous literary friends such as Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis and H.L. Mencken. Not much attention, however, gets paid to the people in question or to the nature of the relationships (perhaps because that might involve speculation about imponderables, something Curtis clearly disapproves of). That may explain, too, why the author quotes so little from letters to or by Fields, or from observers, co-workers and critics. He is not interested in things that are problematic; it is hard to catch him framing, let alone exploring, questions that cannot be answered with empirical facts -- names, dates, places, events. So, though he calls his book a biography, it scants the man in favor of the career, the art in favor of the craft.

It is not clear whether Fields' education took him into (let alone through) high school; what is clear is that he was smart, observant and a reader. From his early days in vaudeville, he habitually traveled with a trunk containing Webster's dictionary and works by Homer, Ovid, Virgil, Dickens, Thackeray, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Milton, Thomas Paine, Washington Irving, Mark Twain (his favorite) and others. He tutored the young Eddie Cantor on the road, giving him "Oliver Twist" to read, followed by Hugo, Dumas, George Eliot and Twain. Later, Curtis tells us, Fields was to amass one of the largest libraries in Hollywood.

It was consulting Audubon's "Birds of America" that led him to change Joe Mankiewicz's line, "Coming my little bird!" to "Coming, my little chickadee!" and to add lines like "Did you chirp for me, my little wren?" to his part in the 1932 movie "If I Had a Million." This, as Curtis points out, marks the emergence of the Fields character in its ultimate fullness. Here the orotundity of speech comes into its own, along with the mannerisms that support it. Jean Rouverol, who worked with him on "It's a Gift" in 1934, describes him on the set, script open in front of him, leafing through the thesaurus looking for outlandish words.

His transparent curses ("Godfrey Daniel!", "Drat!", "Mother of pearl!") were invented to get around the Hays Office, but Curtis notes that he took pride in the fact that he had come across most of the quasi-Dickensian names he used in his work in the course of his travels. (Why the pride? Perhaps because like so many great exaggerators, Dickens and Twain among them, he wanted to claim that he was only transcribing the real.) In any case, he identified "Prettiwillie" as the name on a lumber yard outside Detroit, "Peppitone" as a dentist in Washington, "Chester Snavely" as a Pennsylvania undertaker, "Posthlewhistle" as a name he had found in England. "Junk" and "Limberger" were lawyers he had used in Germany. "Fuchswanz" and "Muckle" were neighbors of his Pennsylvania family.

Show-biz buffs, as I have tried to suggest, will find this book a treasure house of information, some of it colorful. Even the general reader, whose eyes may glaze over at the constant specification of what the Fields vehicles cost and what they grossed, how much their star asked for and how much he got over nearly a half century of performing, will be impressed to see where his talents had gotten him to in advanced age. Curtis reports that at 60 he was the only star in Hollywood to get above-the-title billing and to carry contractual responsibility for writing and directing as well as performing. (This is apropos of "The Bank Dick," which was almost entirely Fields' work.) What's more, he was at 60 "the highest-paid movie star in the country, reporting more than $250,000 in earnings for the year 1940."

For all the exclusions on principle, this book is studded with little episodes that cast light on the man, many of which sound as if they were taken from a Fields movie, such as the way he cut off bickering with Edgar Bergen on the set of "You Can't Cheat an Honest Man" by banishing Charlie McCarthy from script conferences, along with his chair. Bergen, it turned out, could only express hostility through his ventriloquist's dummy; without it, his shyness took over.

Reporting Fields' death, Curtis writes: "There were no last words." This contradicts Carlotta Monti's claim that he told her just before he died, "Grab everything and run. The vultures are coming," followed minutes later by a coarse and pithy dismissal of the entire world and "everyone in it but you, Carlotta." Curtis may have his reasons for disbelieving, but it would help to know them.

I mention this because it is a small example of a larger problem. So much testimony about Fields needs the kind of assessment that might winnow fact from legend and distill truth from both. Take Louise Brooks, who knew Fields and wrote sympathetically of him in 1971 as "an isolated person" who apparently had no intimate friends, a man who gradually "reduced reality to exclude all but his work, filling the gaps with alcohol" and seemed to have left "no diaries, no letters, no serious autobiographical material."

We know now that at least Brooks' final statement is wrong. There are letters and notes in "W.C. Fields by Himself," the book assembled by his grandson Ronald J. Fields in 1973, and there may well be more in the collections Curtis cites. He doesn't say. Nor does he equip us to weigh Penelope Gilliatt's judgment that Fields "was the author of his own life, and he behaved as though he had no kin."

Can it be that biography, at least of artists, is a perverse genre, doomed by some kind of original sin, some set of common-sensical misassumptions, to swamp the reader with details that offer only a fraction of the illumination they promise? May it be that to understand the achievement of any artist we need contexts much broader than what a life can offer? In the case of W.C. Fields, at any rate, we need to understand the now-vanished America that gave him his material and his audiences and saw something of itself in his performances. We need to see the traditions of American humor (and not just stagecraft) on which he drew and in which he took his place. But we need also to chart the peculiar world of his creation, to examine the persona he created and decode the messages it conveyed to its audience -- by its physicality no less than by the high facetiousness of its language.

Was it the Fields persona or the man himself who signed the holiday ad in Variety in 1928 that read "Happy New Year to almost everybody"? Can anyone say?

And which of them said, "The time has come to take the bull by the tail and face the situation"? You tell me.

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