THE oldest item in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ new exhibition, “The Peregrinations & Pettifoggery of W.C. Fields,” is a small theatrical datebook from 1898 filled with browning newspaper clippings about the then 18-year-old comic’s juggling routines and play dates that year.
“It has been a bit ravaged,” said Howard Prouty, the acquisitions archivist for the Margaret Herrick Library’s special collections department, who is curating the exhibition with Joe Adamson, archival processor at the library.
“I am not sure if this is in his hand,” said Prouty, as he delicately turned to the back pages to reveal several entries written in ink.
“Not only does it have the layoff weeks,” said Prouty, “he notes the hotel he stayed at ....”
The full name of the exhibition, which opens Friday at the academy’s Fourth Floor Gallery and runs through April 15, is “The Amazing Peregrinations & Pettifoggery of One William Claude Dukenfield, late of Philadelphia, Pa., familiarly known to Crowned Heads and Hoi Polloi alike as W.C. Fields.”
It’s a treasure trove of pictures, posters, playbills, letters, writings, memorabilia and film and radio clips of the famed bulbous-nosed comic actor whose catch phrases such as “my little chickadee” and “never give a sucker an even break” are part of the popular vernacular.
The vast majority of the collection comes from the Fields family. Several movie posters were culled from the academy’s collection. And the famous John Decker painting of Fields as Queen Victoria, which hung for years on the wall at the Hollywood eatery Chasen’s, is being loaned by the family of Dave Chasen.
Fields’ youngest grandson, Ron Fields, who wrote the books “W.C. Fields By Himself” and “W.C. Fields: A Life on Film,” said that two years ago the members of the family realized that much of their grandfather’s personal material needed to be preserved.
“It was in my parents’ old house, which one of my brothers now owns,” Fields said. “It was just sitting there since 1963. Before that, it was in the basement of my grandmother’s house.”
After looking at various institutions, the five Fields grandchildren selected the academy. “They can display it while preserving it,” Fields explained. “It was hard to give up because it is our personal legacy. This stuff was personal to us. My father is W.C. Fields Jr. and my oldest brother is W.C. Fields III.”
Fields Jr. died in 1971, the same year Ron Fields graduated from college.
“I was helping my mother go through my father’s estate and found he was writing a book on his father,” Fields recalled. “So I decided, as a tribute, I would finish the book. I used the material as research material.
“I was amazed by it and the depth of it -- how much my grandfather and grandmother kept in terms of newspaper clippings, photographs and letters. I don’t understand why and who kept the clippings. In some cases, it had to be W.C., because they were from around the world. The scrapbooks literally follow his life from 1898 almost weekly.”
W.C. Fields and his wife, Hattie, separated in 1906; neither remarried. It wasn’t until the mid- ‘30s that Fields and his son began a rather awkward reconciliation. Ron Fields believes insecurity prompted his grandfather to document every aspect of his life.
“W.C.'s sister said to me that they didn’t think W.C. was the funny guy in the family,” Fields said. “They thought it was his brother Walter. That to me indicates there was an insecurity on the part of W.C. He felt that he may not last long in the entertainment business and he wanted to prove to anyone who wanted to know that he was somebody. He never lost that characteristic until the day he died.”
BORN to a poor family on the west side of Philadelphia, Fields began his career as a comic juggler in 1897 and within three years was headlining vaudeville tours around the world. He joined the popular Ziegfeld Follies show on Broadway in 1915 and began his film career at the same time.
It was success in the early 1920s in the Broadway play “Poppy” -- which he would reprise for screen as the silent “Sally of the Sawdust” and later as a talkie -- that secured his popularity as a silent film comedy star. But it was the advent of sound that made Fields a superstar. And it was in the talkies that he refined his comic persona as a boozy misanthrope who hated kids and dogs in such classic comedies as “The Old Fashioned Way,” “It’s a Gift,” “International House,” “The Bank Dick,” “My Little Chickadee” and “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.” (Many of these films are available on DVD, and another batch is due in March.)
An admirer of Charles Dickens, Fields also got a chance to stretch his acting skills as the colorful character Micawber in the 1935 classic “David Copperfield.”
Known to his friends as Bill, Fields was beset by illnesses beginning in the mid-1930s; they were worsened by his heavy drinking. He died of a stomach hemorrhage in 1946 at age 66.
The performer’s popularity has been cyclical since then. Fields and Prouty acknowledge that he isn’t quite as popular now as he was when Ron Fields published his first book three decades ago.
“The next moment hasn’t come around,” Prouty said. “I am hoping this exhibit will help make the next moment happen.”
The Peregrinations & Pettifoggery of W.C. Fields
Where: The Fourth Floor Gallery at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 8949 Wilshire Blvd, Beverly Hills
When: Opens Friday. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; noon to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through April 15. The academy will be closed on Feb. 25.
Info: (310) 247-3000 or go to www.oscars.org