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The pessimist whose glass was always half full

W.C. Fields: A Biography, James Curtis, Alfred A. Knopf: 596 pp., $35

March 30, 2003|Donald Fanger | 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.

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