American Vaudeville Museum

All material © 1998-2012 American Museum of Vaudeville, Inc.  Page 51

W.C. Fields

Ah, yes, W.C. Fields was the forlorn tyke who persevered despite a loveless childhood and a hard-scrabble world fraught with peril.  Bedeviled by nosey parkers, mountebanks, knaves and the petty minions of law, the young lad rose above it all through a long and penurious apprenticeship.  Portmanteau in hand, he traversed the farther reaches of the world and emerged a juggler extraordinaire, the Great Man of comedy.

During his years in vaudeville, W.C. Fields fashioned an act for the person that was parallel to the act he wrote for the performer.  Fields regaled reporters and friends with fabrications that were another form of performance—storytelling.  So well spun and true to his image were they, that even today the fable of W.C. Fields has greater currency and appeal than an honest biography.  By the time he came to Hollywood to star in talking films, Fields’ transformation was complete.  Person, icon and commodity were all of a piece; the offstage man seemed an extension of the curmudgeonly coward he usually portrayed on the screen.  Perhaps his antic spirit needed to reorder facts to find a plausible context for the person he had become, and, in doing so, history is edited into scenery and biography turned into scenario.