W.C. Fields - History

W.C. Fields - History


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W.C. Fields

1879- 1946

Actor

WC Fields was born in Darby Pennsylvania on January 29, 1880. He left home to perform. In 1905 Fields made his Broadway debut in a musical comedy, The Ham Tree. From vaudeville to films, William Claude Fields (originally Dukenfield) held a special place in the annals of American entertainment. Known for his stage persona of the cynical, hard-drinking misanthrope, Fields' image still evokes smiles of recognition.

Some of his best-remembered films include You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939) and My Little Chickadee (1940, with Mae West)


(Travalanche)

It was a lovely day in NYC for yesterday’s W.C. Fields History Walk, led by Kevin Fitzpatrick, which focused on the places where W.C. Fields lived, worked and recreated in the Broadway district. It’s all part of Fields Fest, our two-month celebration of Fields’ life and career. Here are some of the places we stopped.

Trav S.D. and Kevin Fitzpatrick, prior to starting the tour in Shubert Alley.

Fitzpatrick educates the throngs about the Great Man.

This building was formerly the Hotel Markwell, the last place where Fields lived with his wife Harriet and infant son Claude in 1905 before the pressures of show business finally drove a wedge through the marriage. Today it is an assisted living facility.

The Palace Theatre, the flagship of bigtime vaudeville, then and now. Fields appeared here on a bill with Sarah Bernhart in 1913 when he was still a juggler.

The New Amsterdam Theatre, home to the Ziegfeld Follies, then and now. Fields appeared in the 1915, 1916, 1917, 1918, 1920, 1921 and 1925 editions of the Follies, as well as the 1919 edition of Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic and the 1920 edition of Ziegfeld’s Nine O’Clock Revue. Learn more about these and Fields’ other Broadway shows here.

The uptown facade of the Lyric Theatre, currently comprising the former Lyric and Apollo Theatres. The Apollo was the site of Fields’s smash hit show Poppy. (Naturally, this was a different Apollo from the one in Harlem.)

Formerly the Astor Hotel, where showfolk like Fields bent an elbow after the show.

The Globe Theatre (now called the Lunt–Fontanne), where Fields appeared in George White’s Scandals of 1922.

Hammerstein’s Theatre, site of Fields’ last Broadway show Ballyhoo (1930). Today it is the Ed Sullivan Theatre, where The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is produced. If Fields had lived just two years longer, Sullivan could have presented him on his television show.

This was just a cool stop along the way. I must have walked by here a thousand times without ever noticing it. Israel Miller was shoemaker to the stars at the turn of the last century. In 1929 a contest was held in which participants voted on the four most beloved American actresses. Statues of the winners (Ethel Barrymore, Marilyn Miller, Mary Pickford and Rosa Ponselle) were created by Alexander Stirling Calder (father of the better known modernist sculptor) and installed in the building’s facade.

The tour stopped at Flute Midtown, site of Texas Guinan’s Speakeasy and former home of Wit’s End, where your correspondent rewarded himself with the house’s signature champagne cocktail, which is infused with ginger and known as the “Intime” in honor of Guinan’s club. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it! And anyway, we said a toast to W.C. Fields! For information about upcoming Fields Fest events go here.

Look for more on this tour in coming weeks on the Classic Movies and More web show, hosted by Rob Medaska.


W.C. Fields Broadway & Vaudeville History Tour

Take a stroll through the New York life of actor-comedian W. C. Fields in the era from 1905 into the Roaring Twenties. Walk in the footsteps of the great performer and see the locations associated with his life before he went to Hollywood. If you are a fan of old theater stories and silent movies, this is the tour for you.

Private tours are available when no public tours are scheduled. Contact Kevin Fitzpatrick to arrange a charter tour for two to thirty people.

W.C. Fields & Madge Kennedy in Poppy.

The tour provides an overview of the history of Broadway, Vaudeville, New York performers, and Times Square. The history of Prohibition, the Actors Strike of 1919, the rise and demise of Vaudeville, and the colorful stories of the Ziegfeld Follies are also reviewed.

The walk usually concludes at a former speakeasy once owned by Texas Guinan, for some very Fields-like cocktails.


Our History: Comedian W.C. Fields once called Bayside home

In January the American Museum of the Moving Image presented a retrospective celebrating the career of a master comedian, W.C. Fields. A genius at screen comedy, Fields began his career as a variety hall entertainer and became known for his acerbic humor as well as his bulbous nose and drawling voice. Accounts of the Museum event did not mention, however, that Fields was once a resident of the village of Bayside and that some of his early silent films were made here. One was filmed on Bell Avenue (the former name for today’s Bell Boulevard) in front of my husband’s boyhood home near 48th Avenue, which was used as a backdrop and he was present, sitting on the picket fence in front of which the cameras were poised.

W.C. Fields was born Claude William Dunkenfield in April 1879 in Philadelphia. At a young age he ran away from home, had some encounters with the law for petty thievery, and somehow drifted into vaudeville. Often billed as “The Greatest Comedian in the World,” he preferred to be known as the “greatest juggler on earth” and it was as a comedic juggler that he made his early reputation. He joined the Ziegfield Follies in 1915 and later appeared in the Scandals of 1922 before he made “Sally of the Sawdust,” directed by the famed D.W. Griffith.

During filming Fields improvised much of his material. However, he did write the screenplays for many of his films using various pseudonyms. He appeared with Baby Leroy in “It’s a Gift,” one of his child-hating vehicles, and played such varied roles as Zazu Pitts’ mail-order husband in “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch.” As the “Great McGonigle” he played a self-styled turn-of-the-century actor-manager of a melodrama theater.

Field’s misanthropic view of the world which was reflected in his films is said by some to stem from his youthful experiences on the seedier streets of Philadelphia.

At 21 Fields was an international juggling star. After he had starred in Ziegfield’s Follies in 1914, he made his first film, “Pool Shark,” which was based on one of his most famous acts.

Fields had an erratic career in silent films but was able to rise to stardom with the arrival of sound. His comic personality and observations on life blended well with his bulbous nose and bleary eyes as some bizarre calamity loomed ahead.

His best films, “Million Dollar Legs” (1936), “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man” (1939), “My Little Chickadee” (1940), “The Bank Dick” (1940) and “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break” (1941), made him one of the most popular stars of his time.

One of the most inspired casting choices was MGM’s decision to borrow Fields from Paramount to play Micawber in “David Copperfield,” though director George Cukor had great difficulty persuading Fields that juggling could not be worked into the script. Even so, this great actor left the unique imprint of his personality on the film.

In the early 20th century Bayside, with its prize position close to the nerve center of New York City and situated in a fashionable location on Little Neck Bay, beckoned a group of wealthy stars and executives from the expanding motion picture industry. Long before Malibu, this village literally became a movie colony. Among the nouveau riche was Fields who lived around the corner from Joseph Schenk, the movie producer, and his movie actress wife, Norma Talmadge. Fields’ house still stands but it no longer goes down to the beach as it once did, for the property was separated from the shoreline when the Cross Island Parkway was built.


Born Jan. 29: W.C. Fields

W.C. Fields (born William Claude Dunkenfield in Darby, Pa., on Jan. 29, 1880) was a famous comedian, film actor and radio star during the first half of the 20th century.

Fields learned to juggle at an early age and ran away from home, eventually landing work entertaining crowds and making a name for himself in vaudeville. Though he started with a mostly silent juggling act, he began adding muttered asides, a shtick that would become one of his many comic trademarks.

He was a fixture of the Ziegfeld Follies at age 25 and broke into silent films with roles he often wrote for himself.

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When the “talkies” arrived, Fields honed his film reputation as a drawling and cantankerous character who was much more fond of his drink than he was of his fellow man.

On radio, Fields became a regular foil trading acrimonious retorts with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s dummy partner, Charlie McCarthy.

He made his most popular films for Universal Studios in the 1940s, including My Little Chickadee with Mae West, The Bank Dick, and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. His health declined from that point, and Fields died at age 66 on Dec. 25, 1946.


W. C. FIELDS - AUTOGRAPH LETTER SIGNED - HFSID 283831

W. C. FIELDS
Three-page autograph letter to his mistress Carlotta Monti, signed by Fields as "Continental Claude", calling Hitler "full of mierda" and confiding, "like the three monkeys I see nothing, know nothing, and won't drink anything 'cept Beer."
Autograph Letter signed: "Continental Claude", 3 pages, 8½x11. Bel Air, Labor Day. To "Katrinka & Claudia". ["Katrinka" was Fields' pet name for Carlotta Monti.] In full: "I suppose you are wondering why you have not received your packard as yet. And telling your friends I am not a man of my word. Give me time and I can explain anything. Practically all nations will be in the war by the time this missive arrives. But you, unfortunately for yourself contended the whole world would be at war. It was then I accepted your wager 'I'll bet you the whole world will be at war by 1940. If not you give me a packard.' It was a bet made in all fairness. I forget what I was to receive had you lost. However all is fair in something or other and war. I will pay off if it becomes real serious. I firmly believe it will be of short duration, in which case you will receive a small packard. Hitler is full of 'mierda' [Spanish for "shit"] and the unfortunate part of it for him is it is mostly in his neck and he can taste it. I hope you have a radio for these are historic and memorable things that you or anyone else should not miss or be interested in and kept up to the minute on the news. That is why you found a check for 30 [1 word illegible] to buy a portable 'Mission-Bell'. I am remaining home today to avoid the carnival - the peripatetic crowds. I have my gates fastened & locked and everyone must ring the bell and announce themselves. Mr. Roberto Howard has just rung the bell - good god he is here. Katrink there is nothing new I make U talk to Charlie or put their answer to my letters in writing. Ifyou do not sign the affidavit it is ok. I do not blame you for not wanting to get mixed up with this noxious affair. I will understand. Tilly and John said they could have won the case for me last time. I asked them if they would testify this time but they refused and I do not blame anyone for not wanting to have their name associated with Citron. [Fields switches pens here.] Everything is very quiet right now. But I expect some fireworks today. In which case I shall write you full details. Keep well and happy. Little Jay was up here yesterday to do her monologue on a record she wishes to go on the radio as I explained in a forward letter. She has had a 'bust up' with her husband whom she loves very much and is broken hearted. She is very intelligent and would like some advice. But I am cured - like the three monkeys I see nothing, know nothing, and won't drink anything 'cept Beer. It is now some later and Mike has just arrived also your letter. You did not ask to be my interpreter is my answer to you. You said Andrew could speak Spanish! Nothing more of interest. Keep knocking on them. Mickey joins me in very best to you as did Jay yesterday. As ever". Red-nosed, gravel-voiced, bottle-hitting American comedian W.C. Fields (1880-1946), born William Claude Dukenfield, began his film career in silents. He later excelled in such films as David Copperfield (as Micawber), My Little Chickadee (with Mae West) and The Bank Dick. The vaudeville veteran, who appeared in every version of the Ziegfeld Follies from 1915 to 1921, made his last film, Sensations of 1945, in 1944. Fields, married to Harriet "Hattie" Hughes in 1900, separated from her in 1904, but she would never grant him a divorce. Fields' mistress from 1932 until his death was starlet Carlotta Monti, the "Katrinka" of this letter. She wrote a tell-all memoir in 1971, which was the basis for the 1976 film W. C. Fields and Me. Further research would be required to identify all the persons named in this letter, but Fields had just finished a court proceeding. After he refused to pay a $12,000 hospital bill from 1936 (large for the time), he was sued by the doctors. A first trial upheld the doctors' full claim, but a second, concluded in 1939, reduced Fields' liability to $2,000. Fields' claim that Monti's prediction of every nation at war by 1940 had gone unfulfilled, argues for a 1940 date for this letter. However, Fields' reference to an unfinished lawsuit - resolved in late 1939 - argues that the letter was written on Labor Day in that year. Horizontal and vertical mailing folds, one through the "o" in "Continental". Some light creases and toning, ¼" notched at top margin in center fold on first two pages, page 3, ¾" tear at upper left margin, ½" tear at top margin in vertical fold, ¼" tear at left and right margin in horizontal fold, wear holes in vertical fold. First half of text is lighter than other half.

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'W. C. Fields'

Comedy, Bill Fields would say, is truth-a bit of artful reality, expressed in action or words, carefully exaggerated and brought to a surprise finish. Fields didn't think the mechanics of a gag counted for half as much as the soul behind it. You might coax a laugh from a willing audience over most anything, but a gag wouldn't be memorable without the delight of human recognition.

The comedy Fields propounded reached its apogee with a modest sixty-seven-minute film called It's a Gift. In it, he plays an everyman-hardworking, beset by life's frustrations, caring and respectful of a family that no longer appreciates him. He dreams his dreams in private. He is not brilliant, lovable, or even admirable, but his dignity never leaves him, and, in the end, he triumphs as much through luck as perseverance. When it was released, in November 1934, It's a Gift was a minor event, bound for a quick playoff in what Variety referred to as "the nabes." But the critics took notice, and a groundswell of enthusiasm for the fifty-four-year-old Fields and his work, which had been building for eighteen months, suddenly erupted. Andre Sennwald, writing in the New York Times, referred to Fields' growing legion of fans as "idolaters," and, although not necessarily one himself, he concluded his notice by sweeping away all doubt that one of the great comedies of the so! und era had arrived. "The fact is that Mr. Fields has come back to us again, and It's a Gift automatically becomes the best screen comedy on Broadway."

As Fields pointed out, the appeal of his character was rooted in the characteristics audiences saw in themselves. "You've heard the old legend that it's the little put-upon guy who gets the laughs, but I'm the most belligerent guy on the screen. I'm going to kill everybody. But, at the same time, I'm afraid of everybody-just a great big frightened bully. There's a lot of that in human nature. When people laugh at me, they're laughing at themselves. Or, at least, the next fellow."

Like Mark Twain, Fields believed humor sprang naturally from tragedy, and that it was normal and therefore acceptable to behave badly when things went wrong. One of the key sequences in It's a Gift shows an elderly blind man laying waste to Fields' general store with his cane. Afterward, Fields sends him out into a busy street, where he is almost run down in traffic. "I never saw anything funny that wasn't terrible," Fields said. "If it causes pain, it's funny if it doesn't, it isn't."

"I was the first comic in world history, so they told me, to pick fights with children. I booted Baby LeRoy. The No-men-they're even worse than the Yes-men-shook their heads and said it would never go people wouldn't stand for it . then, in another picture, I kicked a little dog. The No-men said I couldn't do that either. But I got sympathy both times. People didn't know what the unmanageable baby might do to get even, and they thought the dog might bite me."

The conniving and bibulous character Fields developed caught the public imagination at a time when the nation was deep in the throes of the Great Depression and the sale of liquor was still prohibited by law. He appeared on the scene as the embodiment of public misbehavior, a man not so much at odds with authority as completely oblivious to it. He drank because he enjoyed it and cheated at cards because he was good at it. Fields wasn't a bad sort, but rather a throwback to a time when such behaviors were perfectly innocuous and government wasn't quite so paternalistic. Harold Lloyd called him "the foremost American comedian," and Buster Keaton considered him, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harry Langdon, the greatest of all film comics. "His comedy is unique, original, and side-splitting."

Fields had the courage to cast himself in the decidedly unfavorable light of a bully and a con man. He not only summed up the frustrations of the common man-he did something about them. Unlike most comedians, he never asked to be loved he was short-tempered, a coward, an outright faker at times. Chaplin was better known, Keaton more technically ambitious, and Laurel and Hardy were certainly more beloved, but Fields resonated with audiences in ways other comics did not. He wasn't a clown he didn't dress like a tramp or live in the distant world of the London ghetto. Indeed, for most audiences he lived just down the street or around the corner. He was everyone's disagreeable uncle, or the tippling neighbor who warned off the local kids with a golf club. People responded to the honesty of Fields' character because, like Archie Bunker of a later generation, everyone knew somebody just like him. They admired him in a grudging sort of way, and saw the humanity beneath his thick crust of contempt for the world.

"The first thing I remember figuring out for myself was that I wanted to be a definite personality," he said. "I had heard a man say he liked a certain fellow because he was always the same dirty damn so and so. You know, like Larsen in Jack London's Sea Wolf. He was detestable, yet you admired him because he remained true to type. Well, I thought that was a swell idea, so I developed a philosophy of my own: Be your type! I determined that whatever I was, Iɽ be that, I wouldn't teeter on the fence."

The childhood Fields exaggerated for interviewers was vividly Dickensian, and his run-ins with his father had the brutal energy of Sennett slapstick. Yet the humanity he always strived for in his film treatments failed him when dredging up details of his own early life. He invariably described his father as an abusive scoundrel, his mother as ineffectual and sottish, and his younger self as a Philadelphian version of Huck Finn. He sprang from immigrant stock-his father was British-and however American Fields seemed, there was always an element of the outsider in the characters he played. He embraced the nomadic spirit of his grandfather, whom he never met, and although he was married to the same woman for the entirety of his adult life, he was always at odds with both her and the world, embattled and solitary.

Fields moved through a career that lasted nearly half a century, acquiring slowly the elements of the character by which he is known today. Onstage, he perfected what can best be described as the comedy of frustration, building one of his most popular routines on the petty distractions a golfer encounters while attempting to tee off. His seminal pool act was similarly constructed, leading him to conclude that "the funniest thing a comedian can do is not to do it." In films, he found his voice after an abortive career in silents and became, in the words of James Agee, "the toughest and most warmly human of all screen comedians."

His time as one of Hollywood's top draws was brief-barely six years-and by 1941 his audience had largely abandoned him. Radio, where he could still find work, drained him of any subtlety, due, in large part, to his boozy exchanges with Edgar Bergen's sarcastic dummy, Charlie McCarthy. In spite of his own best efforts, he was constantly at pains to justify a character that had become so fixed in the public mind that he was widely presumed to be the same man he portrayed onscreen. The day he died, Bob Hope made a joke about him on NBC. Hope implied he had seen Fields drunk: "I saw W. C. Fields on the street and waved, and he weaved back." The audience laughed Fields was by then the most famous drunk in the world. It no longer mattered that he had never played a drunk in his life.

In 1880, travelers approaching Philadelphia from Delaware County and points south would generally pass through the tiny borough of Darby on their way to the Quaker City. Less than a mile square, Darby was a mill town and a transportation hub, home to 1,779 permanent residents and a cluster of paper and textile factories that fairly dominated the landscape. Every day, fifteen thousand workers flooded the town, making the central business district, which ran four blocks along Main Street between Tenth and Mill, second only to Chester in terms of size and importance. There were taprooms and cafs, a funeral parlor, a dozen churches, an Odd Fellows lodge, and one of the oldest free libraries in the nation. Both the B&O and Pennsylvania Railroads passed through Darby, and trolleys connected the Philadelphia line with Wilmington and Chester. Just beyond town were cattle and horse ranches and a vast blanket of farmland that stretched toward Media. Wealthy buyers in search of prime racing stock would put up at the Buttonwood Hotel, at the terminus of the Chester Traction Co. line, or sometimes at the Bluebell Tavern, up near Grays Ferry, where George Washington was said to have stopped on his way to Philadelphia for the second inaugural. Of Darby's several inns, however, only one actually catered to the horse trade-a simple stone building at the southeast corner of Main and Mill Streets known as the Arlington House.

Older than the Buttonwood and less historic than the Bluebell, the Arlington stood directly in front of Griswold's Worsted, the largest and most modern of Darby's numerous textile mills, and a block and a half west of the town dock, the central receiving point for freight and supplies brought up the Delaware River and inland via Cobbs Creek. At the noisiest and dustiest intersection in town, the Arlington was a stopping point for dockhands, mill workers, clerks, tradesmen, and tourists on their way to or from Philadelphia. Atop its three modest stories was a fire lookout, a box- like room with windows on all sides that afforded a panoramic view of the mills along the two tidewater streams, Cobbs Creek on the east and Darby Creek on the west, and the main arteries leading off into Lansdowne, to the north, and Sharon Hill, to the south.

Locals and guests pausing at the bar on the ground floor were likely to be served by James Lydon Dukenfield, a robust Brit in his late thirties who ran the hotel with his wife, Kate, and a cousin from New York named Jim Lester. A short, stocky man with intense blue eyes, a thick moustache, and light hair he carefully parted down the middle, Jim Dukenfield broke Arabian horses for a living and obviously saw an opportunity when the little hotel, built on the site of an old flour mill, came up for lease. He was known for his flash temper, his extemporaneous bursts into song (the more sentimental the better), and the two fingers missing from his left hand. He had a ready smile that made him a congenial host, and an explosive contempt for authority that made him a difficult employee.

Jim had been a volunteer fireman in the days when such companies were like roaming bands of hooligans that would cut the hoses of rival companies for the privilege of knocking down a fire. He enlisted with the Philadelphia Fire Zouaves when the call came for three-year volunteers in August 1861. He deserted for five months-not responding any better to military authority than he had to any other kind-and was mustered out after "accidently" getting his fingers blown off while on picket duty near Fair Oaks. Four of his nine brothers also answered the call, and all survived with the exception of George, two years younger than Jim, who fell at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. Jim liked to say he had been wounded at the Battle of Lookout Mountain his eldest son said he had more likely been caught picking pockets.

Jim Dukenfield was one of thirteen children, most of whom followed their father, John Dukinfield, to the United States in the mid-1850s. John was the second son of George Dukinfield, who in turn was the third son of Lord Dukinfield of Cheshire. John Dukinfield and his elder brother George were born patricians, but the estate passed in line to a grandson who was a clergyman and vicar of the county. When he subsequently died without issue, the estate reverted to the chancery and became property of the kingdom. John moved to Sheffield-not to work in the mines but to distinguish himself as a comb maker, carving premium designs from animal horns. He married an Irish Catholic girl named Ann Lyden and began her career in wholesale motherhood with the birth of their first son, Walter, in 1835. The business grew steadily, and by 1837 John had taken George on as a partner. They established a little factory in Rockingham Street, where they made buttons, spectacle frames, and pocket knives, and installed their families in adjacent housing nearby.

John was a restless spirit, impulsive and autocratic. He had a big nose that would later inspire his niece Emily to remark that his grandson, the film comedian he never met, resembled him "especially above the mouth." In 1854, John was seized with the notion of moving to the United States, where there would be fresh supplies and a ready market for his imitation pearl buttons and tortoiseshell glasses. He packed a trunkful of supplies, enlisted his twelve-year-old son Jim for the trip, and left Ann, pregnant as usual, in George's care. The voyage was arduous, plagued by bad weather, and they were shipwrecked off the coast of Glen Cove, Long Island. John and his son made their way to Dudley, New Jersey, north of Camden, then crossed the Delaware River into Philadelphia, where they opened a dry goods store in the Kensington district, known because of its concentration of British textile workers as "Little England." Ann followed with most of the other kids Godfrey, the youngest, made the crossing from England in his mother's arms.

The family had largely reassembled by November, when John filed a declaration of intent to become an American citizen. He also began spelling his name "Dukenfield" (with an "en" in place of the "in"), apparently considering this to be an appropriate Americanization of the name. The Dukenfield boys were all fiercely independent-not unlike the old man-and no two spelled the family name alike. According to one source, it derived from "Dug-in-field," meaning "bird-in-field," and there was (and still is) a township in Stockport Parish, near Manchester, called Dukinfield. Jim spelled it with an "en," and other variations included Duckinfield (favored by George as a child), Duckenfield, and even Dutenfield.

The older boys took jobs in and around Philadelphia. Jim, who was good with horses, became a driver. His brother John became a bricklayer, and another brother, George, became a potter. Walter, the eldest, worked as a bartender at the Union Hotel. The family business moved to Girard Avenue, west of Second, and eventually north to 625 Cumberland, where it remained into the 1890s. John Dukenfield opened a tavern on East Norris Street, and it was there that he increasingly spent his time. He managed to drink the business into a downturn, and, in 1859, with six children under the age of ten still living at home, he abandoned his wife and family. Ann struggled mightily with the business, eventually passing it to her brother-in-law George.

Excerpted from W. C. Fields by James Curtis Copyright © 2003 by James Curtis

Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


This Day in Indie History: W.C. Fields

Known for his on-screen turns as a cuddly con man, actor W.C. Fields, born on this day in 1880, was so in tune with the characters he played, it often became difficult to determine where the role ended and Fields himself began. By the age of 19 he had embarked on a successful juggling career, though his first true hit came in 1923 when he landed a role in the Broadway play “Poppy.” From there Fields became known for his many turns as a comic hustler, playing the role even in the films he wrote for himself. Before appearing in and writing the sound films The Bank Dick, Man on the Flying Trapeze and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, Fields was a vaudevillian actor seen in the silent films Pool Sharks and Sally of the Sawdust. In a rare dramatic appearance, the actor dedicated himself to the role of Mr. Micawber in George Cukor’s 1935 adaptation of David Copperfield. He passed away on December 25, 1946 of complications from pneumonia.


The 30 Harshest Actor-on-Actor Insults in History

In the current ultra-managed, publicist-controlled, sound-byte-driven media atmosphere, you don’t get to hear stars really speaking their minds anymore — at least, not about anything fun, like how they really feel about their fellow stars. But occasionally a little something sneaks through the PR wall, both now and back in Hollywood’s golden age, sometimes as whispers, sometimes as gossip, sometimes long after the fact. And thus, we present another, long-overdue installment of our ongoing series (following authors, filmmakers, and musicians) of really famous people really cutting each other down.

1. Bette Davis on Joan Crawford: “Joan Crawford — I wouldn’t sit on her toilet!” “I wouldn’t piss on Joan Crawford if she were on fire.” “Joan Crawford — Hollywood’s first case of syphilis.” “She has slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie.” “Why am I so good at playing bitches? I think it’s because I’m not a bitch. Maybe that’s why Miss Crawford always plays ladies.” “You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good… Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”

2. Joan Crawford on Bette Davis: “Bette will play anything, so long as she thinks someone is watching. I’m a little more selective than that.” “She may have more Oscars… she’s also made herself into something of a joke.” “Miss Davis was always partial to covering up her face in motion pictures. She called it ‘art.’ Others might call it camouflage — a cover-up for the absence of any real beauty.” “I don’t hate Bette Davis, even though the press wants me to. I resent her — I don’t see how she built a career out of mannerisms instead of real acting ability. She’s a phony, but I guess the public likes that.”

3. Viven Leigh on Bette Davis (after turning down Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte: “I could almost stand to look at Joan Crawford’s face at 6am, but not Bette Davis.”

4. Barbara Stanwyck on Marilyn Monroe: “Her body has gone to her head.”

5. Bette Davis on Cary Grant: “He needed willowy or boyish girls like Katharine Hepburn to make him look what they now call macho. If I’d co-starred with Grant or if Crawford had, we’d have eaten him for breakfast.”

6. Cary Grant on Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean: “I have no rapport with the new idols of the screen, and that includes Marlon Brando and his style of Method acting. It certainly includes Montgomery Clift and that God-awful James Dean. Some producer should cast all three of them in the same movie and let them duke it out. When they’ve finished each other off, James Stewart, Spencer Tracy and I will return and start making real movies again like we used to.”

7. Richard Burton on Marlon Brando: “Marlon has yet to learn to speak. He should have been born two generations before and acted in silent films.”

8. Marlon Brando on James Dean: “Mr. Dean appears to be wearing my last year’s wardrobe and using my last year’s talent.”

9. Richard Harris on Michael Caine: “An over-fat, flatulent, 62-year-old windbag. A master of inconsequence masquerading as a guru, passing off his vast limitations as pious virtues.”

10. Rex Harrison on Charlton Heston: “Charlton Heston is good at playing arrogance and ambition. But in the same way that a dwarf is good at being short.”

11. Harrison Ford on Shia LaBeouf: “I think he was a fucking idiot.”

12. Dean Martin on James Stewart: “There’s a statue of Jimmy Stewart in the Hollywood Wax Museum, and the statue talks better than he does.”

13. Sir John Gielgud on Ingrid Bergman: “Dear Ingrid — speaks five languages and can’t act in any of them.”

14. Frank Sinatra on Shelly Winters: “A bowlegged bitch of a Brooklyn blonde.”

15. Shelly Winters on Frank Sinatra: “A skinny, no-talent, stupid Hoboken bastard.”

16. Ava Gardner on Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra: “I always knew Frank would end up in bed with a boy.”

17. Traci Lords on Johnny Depp: “He’s the kind of guy that would be really sweet to a girl and bring her flowers, but still take a pee in the alley.”

18. Bill Murray to Chevy Chase: “Medium talent!”

19. Julia Roberts on Nick Nolte: “A disgusting human being.”

20. Nick Nolte on Julia Roberts: “It’s not nice to call someone ‘disgusting’. But she’s not a nice person. Everyone knows that.”

21. Sharon Stone on Gwyneth Paltrow: “[She’s] very young and lives in rarefied air that’s a little thin. It’s like she’s not getting quite enough oxygen.”

22. Katherine Hepburn on Sharon Stone: “It’s a new low for actresses when you have to wonder what’s between her ears instead of her legs.”

23. Susan Sarandon on Mel Gibson: “Mel Gibson is somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun. He’s beautiful, but only on the outside.”

24. Walter Matthau to Barbara Streisand: “I have more talent in my smallest fart than you have in your entire body.”

25. Elliot Gould on Jerry Lewis: “This arrogant, sour, ceremonial, piously chauvinistic egomaniac.”

26. Graham Chapman on John Travolta: “How difficult can it be to fly an airplane? I mean, John Travolta learned how.”

27. W.C. Fields on Mae West: “A plumber’s idea of Cleopatra.”

28. W.C. Fields on Charlie Chaplin: “He’s a goddamned ballet dancer.”

29. Robert Downey Jr. on Hugh Grant: “A self-important, boring, flash-in-the-pan Brit.”

30. John Wayne on Clark Gable: “Gable’s an idiot. You know why he’s an actor? It’s the only thing he’s smart enough to do.”


W.C. Fields - History

Edwin S. Porter's early silent western classic, with fourteen primitive scenes, comprised a narrative story with multiple plot lines.

It contained prototypical elements that have been repeatedly copied by almost every western - a train holdup with six-shooters, a daring robbery accompanied by violence and death, a hastily-assembled posse's chase on horseback after the fleeing bandits, and the apprehension of the desperadoes after a showdown in the woods.

D.W. Griffith's monumental technical masterpiece of epic film-making (although decidedly racist) included an exciting conclusion involving the KKK's race to restore order. The Klan on horseback were summoned, assembled and gathered for reinforcement. Ben Cameron (Henry Walthall), "the Little Colonel", led the Klan to the rescue of white womanhood, white honor, and white glory, in a 'head-on' tracking shot.

It was an intense, action-packed, stupendous, last-minute rescue finale, a thrilling climax - interweaving the siege on the cabin, the chaos in Piedmont, Elsie Stoneman's (Lillian Gish) fate at the hands of Silas Lynch (George Siegmann), and the onrushing rescue by the Klan. During the rescue, the most famous sequence in the film, excitement was heightened by shots of the Klan alternating with shots of the endangered Elsie - the film exhibited masterful parallel editing.

This film was memorable for the last minute, climactic scene in which David Bartlett (Richard Barthelmess) chased after cast-out love interest Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) who had fled into a blinding snowstorm. She fainted on one of the ice floes in the midst of an icy river, with her hand trailing into the freezing water.

As the ice thawed the next morning and broke apart ("the great ice-break"), her lifeless form was caught unconscious on moving ice-floes and was swept downstream toward a precipitous waterfall.

David nimbly jumped from ice block to ice block to try to reach her before the ice jam gave way - rushing to the falls. As Anna regained consciousness from exhaustion, but started to sink into the frigid water at the edge of the falls, David scooped her up and saved her, running perilously upstream on unstable blocks of ice to reach the shore.

This chase comedy was written and directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, and filmed with a huge budget for its time ($400,000). It was memorable for its strong story-line of a single, brave, but foolish Southern Confederate train engineer Johnnie (Buster Keaton) doggedly in pursuit of his passionately-loved locomotive ("The General") and the blue-coated spies who had stolen it, AND the woman he loved.

Each half of the film was predominantly composed of two train chases over the same territory. Each scene in the chase of the first half had a counterpart in the film's second half.

In the first chase, Johnnie pursued his stolen locomotive taken to the North by the Union forces. In the second half, the Union spies chased Johnnie in his re-possessed General back to the South.

The film concluded with a climactic battle at a river gorge, with the dramatic crash of the pursuit train into the Rock River in the film's most spectacular scene.

The John Ford western had a spectacular, climactic hair-raising, dangerous stunt (a horse-leap and coach-slide) during the stagecoach chase across the alkali flat by Apache Indians. One of the Apaches (Enos Yakima Canutt, a famed stuntman) leapt from his mount alongside the moving stage onto the galloping lead horses of the stagecoach's team (a stagecoach was pulled by three pairs of horses: the lead, the swing, and the wheel teams).

As he tried to grab the reins of the lead horse to control the stagecoach, Ringo (John Wayne) shot at him with his rifle from over Buck's shoulder. The Apache was struck and fell down among many sets of thundering hooves. He hung onto the rig's shaft or tongue (the projection on the bottom front of the wagon that connected the vehicle to the horses) while dragging along the ground.

Then, after being shot a second time, the Apache warrior let go and slid between the wheels of the moving coach - the six horses and the stage's carriage rolled right over his prone body. The camera panned back to show that it wasn't a stunt dummy - the wounded Indian rolled aside and climbed slowly to his knees.

This W.C. Fields film concluded with a memorable, zany slapstick, getaway car chase scene, reminiscent of the silent Mack Sennett Keystone Kops films. Egbert Sousè (Fields) was taken as hostage by a bank robber, used as a shield, and forced to drive a getaway car.

Following in three other chase cars through the city and country were the local police, the bank president, and a representative from the movie company. It was a superbly-timed chase - the cars zoomed and circled around, barely avoiding crashing into each other or other obstacles in the path.

The getaway car careened through streets, over ditches (over the heads of ditchdiggers), around curves and up a mountainside, missing collisions at every turn with the pursuit vehicles. An unruffled Sousè gave non-chalant comments about the traffic and scenery. As his car started to fall apart, he joked: "The resale value of this car is going to be nil after you get over this trip." When asked by the thug in the back seat to give him the wheel, Egbert matter-of-factly pulled it off the steering column and gave it to him. When the rear tires started falling off, he calmly stated: "That's what I thought - going to be very dangerous."

The robber was struck by the bough of a tree as he stood up and the car came to rest at the edge of a steep precipice. Sousè mumbled: "Have to take the boat from here on anyway." The unconscious thief was apprehended, and Sousè was a hero once again for thwarting another heist.

The Fast and the Furious (1955)

Future "King of the B's" Roger Corman (28 years old) served as the producer and writer (and bit actor as a stunt driver) in this inferior John Ireland-co-directed film noirish action film - the first film for American International Pictures (then known as American Releasing Corporation or ARC). It was shot for $50,000 in nine days.

Some of the car chase footage was stock footage, since special effects were not very well developed in the 1950s. It advertised "WIDE-SCREEN THRILLS!" and tauted that it was "filmed at the Pebble Beach International Sports Car Races" - in Monterey, California, where some of the footage was borrowed from.

HIGH SPEED EXCITEMENT! When a Wanted Man -- Meets a Wanting Woman.

[Note: It was remade as The Chase (1994) starring Charlie Sheen as fugitive Jackson "Jack" Davis Hammond and Kristy Swanson as his kidnapped hostage and California heiress Natalie Voss. The title rights to this film were used for the 'remake' sequel - The Fast and the Furious (2001).]

It starred John Ireland as an innocently-convicted, escaped murderer Frank Webster (originally a truck driver) who met and kidnapped attractive, independent-minded blonde society girl Connie Adair (Dorothy Malone) at a roadside diner. He also drove off with her in her late-model white Jaguar XK120 sports car for his flight to Mexico. As part of his escape plan, Frank participated in an international, across-the-border sports car rally from California to Mexico.

In the final moments of the film, Frank led a police car on a wild chase. Police officer Faber's (Bruce Carlisle) car crashed, but Frank stopped and saved the man's life - and then Connie arrived (after breaking out of a shed where she had been locked up by Frank). She admitted that she had turned him into authorities, to help him get justice, as they heard police sirens coming closer:

Frank: "How'd the cops find out?"
Connie: "I turned you in."
Frank: "How'd you get out?"
Connie: "I set the building on fire."
Frank: "You're a pretty dangerous character yourself."
Connie: "You could've run away instead of helping him. Why didn't you?"
Frank: "'Cause you're right, Connie, and I'm goin' back. Besides, I'm gettin' used to you."
Connie: "Oh, Frank, what you really are is worth fighting for. And it isn't too late."
Frank: "For us, it's just the beginning." (They hugged)

Thunder Road (1958)

Director Arthur Ripley's b/w noirish, low-budget B-film from a story written by the film's star/producer Robert Mitchum, advertised itself with the apt tagline:

As part of his vanity project, Mitchum also wrote the film's theme song Ballad of Thunder Road ("Thunder was his engine and white lightnin' was his load. "), and his real-life look-alike son James played a role as his younger mechanic-brother Robin.

[Note: The film had glaring continuity errors - i.e., in the opening car chase, Mitchum rolled his black car on its side, but then in the next shot, the vehicle appeared undamaged, and as he returned home, the car changed from black to white! And when Doolin visited Kogan in Memphis, he pulled up in front of an Asheville, NC pharmacy. However, the influential film was the impetus and inspiration for many car-crash "good-ol' boy" films in the 60s and 70s.]

This definitive film (a cult drive-in favorite) was about transporting or running moonshine from the Appalachian Mountains area of backwoods rural North Carolina (Rillow Valley) and Harlan County (KY) while pursued by US Treasury (T-men) agents, including Troy Barrett (Gene Barry). Interference was also provided by ruthless crime syndicate city boss Carl Kogan (Jacques Aubuchon) from Memphis, Tennessee, who was threatening to consolidate all of the "action" of the local moonshine-bootleggers.

Sleepy-eyed, cigarette-smoking, disillusioned tough-guy Mitchum played the romanticized but anti-hero role of a returning Korean War veteran named Lucas "Luke" Doolin, who resumed helping in his father Vernon's (Trevor Bardette) family business of bootlegging. He was a transporter ("those wild and reckless men") illegally carrying moonshine alcohol on the road to Memphis, in his souped-up 1950 gray stock-car Ford coupe with a modified 250 gallon tank in the trunk (carrying moonshine worth $1400), and an oil-slick device in the rear to waylay pursuers. He refused to bow to either the federal agents or to Kogan and quit his ways ("Why don't I quit breathin'. I want to stop the clock, turn it back to another time in this valley that I knew before").

Bachelor Lucas was involved with two females (teenaged hillbilly Roxanna "Roxie" Ledbetter (Sandra Knight) and Memphis nightclub singer Francie Wymore (Keely Smith)) in the romantic subplots, but it was the few fast-driving road chases, usually at night, that were the highlight of this film. [Note: The bootleggers' cars were actually sourced from the local community.]

Evading stakeouts and roadblocks, government treasury agents (revenuers) driving Chevys, other moonshine competitors and organized crime gangsters/racketeers, were only some of the challenges, as Lucas dared Barrett: "you've got to catch me - if you can." In one attempt after his 1950 Ford was car-bombed by Kogan's men, he blasted his new 1957 Ford (with Tennessee plates) at 90 mph through a Treasury inspection roadblock consisting of two vehicles.

The film's inevitably-deadly and tragic conclusion found Luke in one final run into Memphis after an intense crack-down, in which the daring and head-strong transporter was pursued by one of Kogan's henchmen. Driving alongside, Luke flicked his cigarette at the driver through his open window, causing the thug to careen off the side of the road. But then his own car was sabotaged by a T-agent nail-strip, and his car overturned and crashed into a utility station - killing him. Barrett provided Doolin's epitaph as electrical sparking occurred: "Mountain people. Wild-blooded, death-foolish. Yeah, that was Doolin, alright. He was a real stampeder."

In the film's closing scene without dialogue, Robin returned to Roxie and took her hand, as a long stream of car headlights signaled Luke's body being brought back to the valley (the "Whippoorwill" song was reprised on the soundtrack).

The film has been most heralded for its classic, memorable and spectacular 11-minute chariot race scene around a central divider strip composed of three statues thirty feet high, and grandstands on all sides, rising five stories high. The battle between the competitors was highlighted by a series of close-ups of the action. One by one, Messala (Stephen Boyd) eliminated the other drivers in the ferocious race, shattering their chariots.

The climactic ending to the race occurred when the chariots of arch-rivals Messala and Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), in hateful rivalry toward each other, ran neck-and-neck and slashed at each other. At one point, Ben-Hur's horses jumped over a crashed chariot, throwing the hero (stuntman Joe Canutt, son of famed stuntman Yakima Canutt) high into the air, yet he landed on his feet. Messala tried to destroy Ben-Hur's chariot by moving close with the blades, but as the wheels locked and he lost one of his wheels, Messala's chariot was splintered. He was dragged by his own team, then trampled, and run over by other teams of horses. Defeated, he was left bloody in the dirt, his body broken and horribly injured.

The Great Escape (1963)

One of the most iconic chase sequences involved the exciting (but unsuccessful) escape attempt by Allied POW loner "Cooler King" Hilts (Steve McQueen, but performed by stuntman Bud Elkins) - he sped away from the Nazi prison camp by vaulting a stolen German motorcycle over a six-foot barbed-wire prison fence at the Swiss border.

The Naked Prey (1966, S.Afr./US)

The amazing race-for-his-life chase scene by the Man (a naked and unarmed safari tour leader/guide) (Cornel Wilde) as six tribe warriors give him a head start of 100 yards into the bush, in this adventure/chase film set in 19th century Africa co-directed by Cornel Wilde and Sven Persson.


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