Friday, January 7, 2011

Star of Stage, Screen and Radio

If William Claude Dukenfield was still alive, he would be celebrating his 125th birthday this month. Unfortunately he died on Christmas Day 1946. Not just before I was born, but before my parents ever met. Still, I know his tale in more detail than my own. I can visualize the endless days he spent learning to juggle in the 1880s and 90s. I can't juggle, but I do have a juggler vein. I can empathize with his terror as his father would go into drunken rages and beat the boy. I can share his victory in the mid-1890s when he stood up to his father, winning the brawl, and leaving home for good.

He may have left his parents abode, but he stayed in touch with his mother. William sent her money regularly when he his talent was realized and he began getting paid extremely well. He started out working in vaudeville in 1896 as a juggler/stage hand. As time went by, he did less cleaning up and more performing. By the turn of the 20th century, Bill Dukenfield was one of the most famous jugglers in America. As his talent grew, so did his celebrity.

By 1910, he was a world famous juggler, husband and father. In that order. He married his assistant Harriet in 1900 and the two of them traveled the world with Bill Dukenfield headlining in every theater he performed. In 1904 Harriet, his wife, gave birth to their only heir, a son. Harriet stayed in the States raising the boy while Bill continued to tour the planet. The two remained married until his death, yet they never resided together again.

Around 1910, William Claude Dukenfield known on stage as W.C.Fields, added a trick pool table to his act. He had a mirror angled overhead for the audience to view. He was trying to keep his act fresh. He also added a car that would fall about on cue. (Charlie Chapman, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and many more all used the break-apart car. W.C. was the originator.) Audiences loved him, yet he felt he wasn't giving enough. Up until 1912, Bill never spoke on stage. His first line was an ad lib. During his performance one night, behind the curtains someone knocked over something and made a loud crash. Bill winced, pulled up his shoulders and said "Drat. Mice!" It was the biggest laugh he had had up to this point in his life. And he liked it. The accidental crash became part of his act.

Soon he discovered that when he goofed up juggling and made some under the breath remark, the audience roared. He kept adding more and more lines to his juggling act, and less juggling. By 1915, when Bill was 35, he started the second career of his life as a stand up comic. He headlined Ziegfeld's Follies for many years as a comedian juggler. Flo Ziegfeld and W.C.Fields were constantly at each other's throat. Ziegfeld insisted having one of his girls (Ziegfeld Follies was well known to have the most beautiful women) walk across the stage while Bill was doing his act. The chorus girl would be walking a greyhound, both of them strutting their stuff, right in front of Bill. Not one to be upstaged, Bill remarks to the lady, "Nice horse you have there." The audience laughed and Ziegfeld got angry. He did not like having his girls being the butt of a joke. Since W.C. had a contract, the only thing Ziegfeld could do in retaliation was to keep Fields off the stage. He could keep him out of the public eye but he still had to keep paying him. In 1921 W.C.Fields was the highest paid performer not performing anywhere.

After his time was through with Ziegfeld, W.C. left vaudeville to star on Broadway. He was in several plays, the most notable was "Poppy." In 1925, he reprised his Poppy role for the silent film "Sally of the Sawdust." Beginning a film career at 45, Bill became a hit of the silent screen. All of his dialog from vaudeville went into a trunk waiting for the pictures to speak.

In 1930, as talkies became the vogue, W.C. took on a new film persona; the child hating, animal loathing drunk. Usually if an actor kicks a child in the rear, the audience will boo and his. When W.C. would do so, the audience cheered him on.

Up until his 40's, W.C. was a teetotaler. When his character was known for being drunk, W.C. was merely a social drinker. But by 1935, the fiction became a reality. Bill Fields was a full fledged alcoholic. His drinking interfered with his movie career. He started missing a lot of time on the lots. In these periods, W.C. took to recording monologues at his home. These were sold to radio. Because of being too intoxicated to appear on film, W.C. became a radio star.

One of the most popular radio actors of the time was Edgar Bergen. This I don't understand. Edgar Bergen was a ventriloquist... on the radio. One of his dummies was named Charlie McCarthy. W.C. and Charlie would verbally duel regularly on the radio. W.C. did get some good laughs at Charlie's expense, although the dummy would usually triumph over Fields.

The majority of Fields performances for the last five years of his life was on the radio. He wrote all his own material. In fact, the only piece I know that W.C. did not rewrite in his own style was the role of Micawber in the movie "David Copperfield." W.C. had a heartfelt respect for Charles Dickens and would not veer from the authors words. Fields, throughout his entire life, was an avid reader. He traipsed steamer trunks full of books all over the world during his vaudeville days. He had a love for language and studied the dictionary religiously. He lacked a formal education, never entering high school, yet he was self-taught to such a degree that he could hold his own with college professors.

It was a misconception that Fields hated children. In his last years in Hollywood, he anonymously donated countless gifts every Christmas to Children's Hospitals. Yet, there is one child he was not so fond of; Baby Leroy, a child actor in several of his movies. There was scene where he was suppose to hold the baby for about a half minute. The child would not cooperate; he kept squirming and crying ruining take after take. Finally W.C. started dipping the baby's pacifier in gin. After sucking on the pacifier for a few minutes, the baby staggered through the scene like a Barrymore. At the end of the shoot, Baby Leroy fell deep asleep and W.C. remarked, "Kid just can't hold his liquor."

There are many movie roles that W.C. turned down over the years. The one role that may have been a mistake for him to turn down was "The Wizard of Oz." The script was written with him in mind to play the Wizard. It was filled by Frank Morgan. There reason Bill turned it down is disputed. Some claim he refused the role because there was not enough screen time. Others say it was because the studio would not meet his salary demands. The Wizard of Oz is a movie classic. Imagine how more it would be if W.C. had heralded over Oz.

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