Thursday, October 17, 2013

W.C. Fields By Himself, Edited by Ronald J. Fields

For those who thought we at The Jade Sphinx had procrastinated by waiting three weeks between posts, what would be the response when I confess that it took me 40 years to get around to reading this book?

I well remember when W.C. Fields By Himself was first released.  I was just 10 years old and already obsessed with the movie comedians of Hollywood’s Golden Age, perhaps W.C. Fields (1880-1946) most of all.  Media coverage was extensive.  Ronald J. Fields, grandson of the great man, had gathered his grandfather’s papers, saying, this book is really the autobiography that W.C. Fields would have written.  I merely compiled his own letters, writings, and thoughts; wrote the commentary and a short introduction.  I think this should become the definitive book on W.C. – not padded out with anecdotes and reminiscences that cry for credibility, but rather, a portrait of W.C. as he perceived himself, as he actually lived – the true story.

Was the 40-year wait worth it?  Well, yes… but for all the wrong reasons.

First off, this book is not a biography, nor the first draft of an autobiography.  What Ronald Fields did was, simply, take his grandfather’s papers and place them in some sort of coherent order – and even that is not strictly chronological.  There is no real effort to weave a biographical narrative around them, there is no insight or context, and much of the book seems padded (nay, bloated) with truly incidental correspondence.  (Do we really need nearly 15 pages of Fields’ letters to his wife, explaining why he’s sending a $15 check instead of a $20?  Wouldn’t it be better, for example, to explain their marital difficulties and simply reprint a letter or two?)  What Ronald Fields really did was gather what he had (both the deeply interesting and the merely tedious) and left it to the dedicated reader to make sense of it.

But, while this sounds like a deep criticism of the book – it’s not.  It is merely disappointment at a presumed biography/autobiography.  If you are interested in Fields, think he is funny, or want to know how the mind of one of the last century’s most creative funnymen worked, than this book is a goldmine.

Here is Fields in all of his contradictions – the sweet man who could be genuinely nasty, the generous family man who hated charities, the lover of freedom who liked J. Edgar Hoover.  You may not know the coherent story of his life once reading W.C. Fields By Himself, but you will know the man.

Here, for example, is Fields writing to studio head Jack Warner once Warner asked for a contribution to his favorite charity.  Warner thought if Hollywood’s elite did not contribute to his favorite charity, the country would descend into Communism:

Dear Mr. Warner:

Thanks for your letter of January 29, which, by the way, is my natal day.

I am sorry my notation on your letter was not more lucid and so cryptic.  I apologize.  I know that you are a busy man and it is fine of you to champion these worthy causes and I, like yourself, am adverse to Communism.  I never wish to see it rear its ugly head in America.  I appreciate and have enjoyed to the fullest our liberties and our freedom to do as we please, providing we do not break any of the laws of our country, not to be brow-beaten and threatened as I understand these unfortunate people are in Russia.

However, I thought your letter of January 19th had a Communistic lash and I think you were quoted in one of the trade papers as threatening to expose all those who did not contribute an amount according to your ideas.  That is still your prerogative – to expose me and ruin me with the public and drive me out of moving pictures.  I know what I’ll do, I’ll go to India and become a missionary.  I hear there’s good money in that too.

I still want to take care of charities in my own way and personally.  I think this is one of our inalienable rights.


W.C. Fields

It is the “I know what I’ll do, I’ll go to India” that really sells it. 

Then there is my favorite letter in the book – to the Christian Science Monitor after they panned his masterpiece, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.  Clearly, Fields did not suffer fools gladly:

Dear Editor:

On January 28th in the Year of our Lord 1942, the Christian Science Monitor printed:

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break: W.C. Fields acting out a story with results that are by turns ludicrous, tedious, and distasteful.  There is the usual atmosphere of befuddled alcoholism.

If the chosen people decide that the Christian Science Monitor is expressing the thoughts of the majority of the people in the United States, it is possible they would bar me from their studios and bar my pictures from their theaters, which would force me into the newspaper business.  And if I used your tactics I might say:

The Christian Science Monitor: Day in and day out the same old bromides.  They no longer look for love and beauty but see so many sordid things that Mary Baker Eddy did not see in this beautiful world she discovered after trying her hand at mesmerism, hypnotism, and spiritualism before landing on the lucrative Christian Science racket.

Why I play in a picture in which I take a few nips to get a laugh (I have never played a drunkard in my life) I hope that it might bring to mind the anecdote of Jesus turning water into wine.

And wouldn’t it be terrible if I quoted some reliable statistics which prove that more people are driven insane through religious hysteria than by drinking alcohol.

Your very truly,
A subscriber,
W.C. Fields

“The lucrative Christian Science racket” is a sentence for the ages. 

In retrospect, it’s perhaps for the best that I waited 40 years to wade through Fields’ papers – we never needed him more than we need him now.

W.C. Fields By Himself can be found on all major used-books sites, such and  For the Fields enthusiast, it is essential reading.

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