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MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE: The Life and Times of W.C. Fields. By Simon Louvish . W.W. Norton: 564 pp., $29.95

September 28, 1997|RICHARD SCHICKEL | Richard Schickel reviews movies for Time magazine. His latest book, a biography of Clint Eastwood, will be reprinted in paperback this fall

The America that nurtured W.C. Fields' talents and rooted his comic character in a reality painfully recognizable to his audience is no more. The corner saloon has given way to the corner Starbucks, the shadowy silence of the pool hall to the visual and auditory hubbub of the video arcade, the sweaty communality of vaudeville and tent shows to the anonymous onanisms of the Internet.

These, of course, are just a few of the more visible (and more recent) signs of our flank-speed mutability. Our dysfunctions, like our entertainments, take forms quite unimaginable in the not-too-distant past. How, in this radically revised context, do we make the case for a figure like Fields? How do we communicate the once vast--and, to some of us, undiminished--appeal of this pitiless misanthrope in a time when comedians are desperate to be loved (and audiences are pathetically eager to oblige them)? How, in this hour of the wuss, do we suggest the continuing relevance of a performer who embodied and cruelly parodied the furies and frustrations of a certain type of American man? A man who exists today--if at all--as a ghostly inner voice whispering atavistic subversion all but lost in the droning chorus of correctness that assails us from every direction.

Simon Louvish, who is too young and too English to understand the narrow and unforgiving America that shaped (and outraged) Fields and is too dull-witted to imagine it, answers these questions by reducing the profoundly authentic misanthropy of a figure he inexplicably adores into mere curmudgeonliness, which he appears to think will play better in our squishier age. A writer of astonishing ineptitude--are there no editors left who check usage and syntax?--he's also the kind of biographer who thinks that if he notes who was in the White House at a turning point in his subject's life, he has discharged his obligations to social history. He's the kind of researcher who believes the doggedly reconstructed itinerary of a long-ago provincial vaudeville tour will interest us as much as it does him. The kind of primitive psychologist for whom the discovery that there was a discontinuity between the bold figure his subject cut in public and the somewhat sweeter one he occasionally revealed in private constitutes a startling insight. On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia.

Or, for that matter, rereading the only previous full-scale biography, Robert Lewis Taylor's much jauntier "W.C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes." Published almost 50 years ago, the book is, as Louvish is all too pleased to point out, rife with error, its author having relied too heavily on dubious press releases and the woozy memories of the Great Man's last group of drinking buddies, notably those of writer Gene Fowler. It is unquestionably true that these sources repeated as gospel Fields' self-mythologizing recollections of his past.

But it's equally true that studio scribes and faithful pals, having known Fields and his times intimately, helped Taylor, who had a gift for sharply pointed anecdotes, brisk characterization and the gracefully ironic phrase, create a generously forgiving, waywardly living portrait of a man who converted sociopathy into art.

These are all gifts of which Louvish stands in dire need, and that's too bad, for agreeable as Taylor's book was, no one would argue that it was definitive. It is also ironic, for it is probably Louvish's earnest desire to correct Taylor, whose work has conditioned most subsequent critical writing about Fields, that is primarily responsible for his own more resounding failure. Determined not to repeat hearsay, to base all his significant assertions on the documentary evidence he has painfully assembled--yet perversely convinced that his subject's misanthropy was just an act, not a true measure of the man--Louvish robs both Fields' great comic creation and his personal history of this uniqueness.

Take, for example, Fields' portrayal of his childhood as bleakly Dickensian, a narrative that puts him on the streets at the age of 9 and living a loveless hand-to-mouth existence until he achieved stardom and prosperity, which did not much improve his outlook. Taylor accepted this saga unquestioningly, and so has everyone else since. It is such a convenient explanation for the suspicious hostility with which Fields' character confronted the world in his films. Wrong, Louvish cries. The lad was probably 18 before he completely abandoned a home where his father, though stern and uncomprehending, was far from the sadistic martinet Fields claimed him to be. Why, his mom and dad even toured Europe with him later on.

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