All great comedians are one-of-a-kind, but W.C. Fields was so idiosyncratic that he was positively Dickensian (he even appeared in the movie version of Dickens' "David Copperfield"). Producer Bob Weide was reciting a famous Fields line--"I was in love with a beautiful blond. She drove me to drink. It's the one thing I'm indebted to her for"--and said at the end, "You know, you can't even quote Fields without using his twang."
Weide was discussing the making of his Fields documentary, "W.C. Fields Straight Up," which airs tonight at 8:35 on Channel 28, and is the latest project of a young (26) and increasingly well-regarded film producer whose subject is the legendary American comedians (he helped create "The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell").
"When we finished the Marx Brothers picture, my director, Joe Adamson, suggested we do something on Fields. He's a Fields aficionado. I wasn't, but I became one right away," Weide said. (Adamson is editor and director of "W.C. Fields Straight Up," and is co-writer with Fields' grandson, Ronald J. Fields).
"I dote on originality," Weide said. "You can see the Marx Brothers legacy in any number of modern comedies, including the work of Mel Brooks. But you'll never hear people saying 'This is a W.C. Fields kind of routine.'
"The film is 94 minutes long. We had access to all of his feature films, and clips from 1915 on. We have newsreel footage, outtakes, and material never seen before. We also have interviews with people who knew and/or worked with Fields, or have special knowledge of him, including Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Will Fowler, Madge Kennedy, who played in the 1923 stage production of 'Poppy' and co-starred in the movie; Leonard Maltin, Ronald J. Fields, propman Harry Caplan and an audio interview with the grown-up Baby Leroy.
"The film is a tribute, but not a whitewash. It shows his estrangement from his wife and son, and his alcoholism--he was putting down a quart a day. He was fanatically devoted to his career (that's what broke up his marriage), and enormously disciplined in his craft. it was his fights with producers for what he knew would work that gave him his reputation as an off-screen curmudgeon.
"In fact, he was a deeply sensitive man. He never played drunk, he never said, 'Anyone who hates children and dogs can't be all that bad,' and his story about running away from home as a kid was a fictionalization for the press. We explode the myth, but we don't erase the magic.
"Fields was part of a great era of the movies that's gone--the studios now are suits and ties, lawyers, agents. It's all packaging. The people we've interviewed have their points of view on Fields, but they all agree on one thing. As Joe Mankiewicz said, 'Bill Fields was Bill Fields. They don't make 'em like that anymore.' "