Silent Film Director Recalls W.C. Fields

Silent Film Director Recalls W.C. Fields

Mack Sennett, creator of the Keystone Kops, shares his memories of what it was like to know and work with the incomparable comedian W.C. Fields.

Silents were golden on Long Island

Hollywood classics -- especially those before the advent of sound -- are getting attention these days, thanks to "The Artist," a new silent feature now at Long Island theaters -- and generating major Oscar buzz.

What many may not know, however, is that a fair share of those early classics weren't made in Hollywood at all, but on Long Island.

That's right. Before Hollywood reigned supreme, L.I. churned out silent films and early talkies. Icons like Rudolph Valentino, W.C. Fields and Gloria Swanson all shot on location across Nassau and Suffolk and in studios in Brooklyn and Queens.

We're talking back in the day, when the film industry was as new as YouTube, or iPods.

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"Filmmakers went to New Jersey, upstate, all over," says Dylan Skolnick, co-director of the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, which hosts a monthly silent-film series. "But Long Island was versatile. There were mansions, farms, woods, beaches. . . . Like now, but with less traffic."

Hundreds of films were shot here, dating as far back as the 1890s. The American Mutoscope Co.'s film shorts include an 1897 sequence with divers at Bath Beach in Brooklyn, and coverage of the hounds and horses of Hempstead's Meadowbrook Hunt Club in 1899.

"Long Island locations were great favorites, and crews were frequently seen in places like Sag Harbor, Huntington, Manhasset, Farmingdale and Great Neck," Rutgers University film historian Richard Koszarski notes in his comprehensive book "Hollywood on the Hudson."

The Vitagraph studio set up shop in Flatbush in 1905, opening a satellite facility in Bay Shore about 10 years later, followed by the Famous Players-Lasky Studio, built in Astoria in 1920. (A few years later, it would become a home for Paramount Pictures, producing more than 120 films in the '20s and '30s.)

The stars lived nearby, in Bayside (Gloria Swanson, W.C. Fields), Great Neck (Groucho Marx) and Manhasset (Vernon and Irene Castle).

The Castles starred and danced in "The Whirl of Life," a 1915 comedy shot in part in Long Beach. D.W. Griffith ventured to Lynbrook in 1911 for "The Stuff Heroes Are Made Of." And "In Pursuit of Polly," a 1918 spy flick shot in Oyster Bay, starred a pre-Glinda the Good Witch Billie Burke.

"I'd always been interested in film but never thought about the local angle," says Joshua Ruff, curator of the carriage and history collections at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook. Ruff organized a 2005 exhibit covering more than a century's worth of local film production -- but the earliest days were the most surprising, he says.

Picking out local landmarks

Rent a silent movie, and you never know what you'll spot.

The "Dutch windmill" from the 1916 Mary Pickford drama "Hulda from Holland" is from Bridgehampton. The Argentine pampas in Valentino's 1924 scorcher "A Sainted Devil" are stretches of Farmingdale. And the "New England" setting for D.W. Griffith's 1925 comedy, "Sally of the Sawdust," starring W.C. Fields? Bayside and Great Neck, notes Ruff. "In one scene you're clearly looking at Northern Boulevard."

A year later, Fields shot "So's Your Old Man," ramming a Model A Ford into a tree (in Huntington) and performing his famed golf routine (at the original Deepdale Country Club in Lake Success, before it decamped to Manhasset to make way for the LIE).

Perhaps the most mysterious of L.I.'s films is 1926's "The Great Gatsby," the first of three film versions, yet the only one actually shot on the North Shore. Alas, only the trailer remains, showing wild party revelers jumping into a pool and narrator Nick Carraway finding George the mechanic (a young William Powell) dead amid a rolling expanse of pine trees.

The Marx Brothers' "The Cocoanuts" (1929) and "Animal Crackers" (1930) were two of the most successful films shot at the Astoria studio, but by then it was too late.

Movie execs had already realized the obvious -- Hollywood's weather rocks. They could shoot year-round. And by the end of the 1920s they'd consolidated the industry out West.

The studios sputtered out a few last films. "The Emperor Jones," set in the South and the Caribbean, had to be shot here in 1933 due to a clause in Paul Robeson's contract stipulating he wouldn't work below the Mason-Dixon Line. When he washes up on that Caribbean isle? It's Jones Beach.

As late as 1939, a Yiddish-language talkie, "Tevye," was shot on a potato farm east of Jericho. Today, that split-rail fence and dirt road trailing off into the distance is roughly exit 43 on the LIE.

"There's a fair amount of misinformation out there," Ruff admits. "The fact is, we'll probably never know the full extent of the film industry's presence on the Island."

Still, one wonders, with the success of "The Artist," could silent films make a comeback? "I think people are ready," says its director, Michel Hazanavicius. "They're watching movies on computers, on phones, in theaters, on planes -- so why not this? Uh . . . uh, how you say?" he stumbles, searching for the words in English. "What's old . . . it becomes new."

Fields' career in show business began in vaudeville, where he attained international success as a silent juggler. He began to incorporate comedy into his act and was a featured comedian in the Ziegfeld Follies for several years. He became a star in the Broadway musical comedy Poppy (1923), in which he played a colorful small-time con man. His subsequent stage and film roles were often similar scoundrels or henpecked everyman characters.

Among his trademarks were his raspy drawl and grandiloquent vocabulary. His film and radio persona was generally identified with Fields himself. It was maintained by the publicity departments at Fields' studios (Paramount and Universal) and was further established by Robert Lewis Taylor's biography, W. C. Fields, His Follies and Fortunes (1949). Beginning in 1973, with the publication of Fields' letters, photos, and personal notes in grandson Ronald Fields' book W. C. Fields by Himself, it was shown that Fields was first married (and subsequently estranged from his wife), financially supported their son and loved his grandchildren.

Fields was born William Claude Dukenfield in Darby, Pennsylvania, the oldest child of a working-class family. His father, James Lydon Dukenfield (1841–1913), was from an English family that emigrated from Sheffield, Yorkshire, England, in 1854. [3] [4] James Dukenfield served in Company M of the 72nd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment in the American Civil War and was wounded in 1863. [5] Fields' mother, Kate Spangler Felton (1854–1925), was a Protestant of British ancestry. [6] [7] The 1876 Philadelphia City Directory lists James Dukenfield as a clerk. After marrying, he worked as an independent produce merchant and a part-time hotel-keeper. [7] [8]

Claude Dukenfield (as he was known) had a volatile relationship with his short-tempered father. He ran away from home repeatedly, beginning at the age of nine, often to stay with his grandmother or an uncle. [9] His education was sporadic, and did not progress beyond grade school. [10] At age twelve, he worked with his father selling produce from a wagon, until the two had a fight that resulted in Fields running away once again. [11] In 1893, he worked briefly at the Strawbridge and Clothier department store, [12] and in an oyster house. [13]

Fields later embellished stories of his childhood, depicting himself as a runaway who lived by his wits on the streets of Philadelphia from an early age, but his home life is believed to have been reasonably happy. [14] He had already discovered in himself a facility for juggling, and a performance he witnessed at a local theater inspired him to dedicate substantial time to perfecting his juggling. [13] At age 17, he was living with his family and performing a juggling act at church and theater shows. [15]

In 1904 Fields' father visited him for two months in England while he was performing there in music halls. [16] Fields enabled his father to retire, purchased him a summer home, and encouraged his parents and siblings to learn to read and write, so they could communicate with him by letter. [17]

Inspired by the success of the "Original Tramp Juggler", James Edward Harrigan, [18] Fields adopted a similar costume of scruffy beard and shabby tuxedo and entered vaudeville as a genteel "tramp juggler" in 1898, using the name W. C. Fields. [19] His family supported his ambitions for the stage and saw him off on the train for his first stage tour. To conceal a stutter, Fields did not speak onstage. [20] In 1900, seeking to distinguish himself from the many "tramp" acts in vaudeville, he changed his costume and makeup, and began touring as "The Eccentric Juggler". [21] He manipulated cigar boxes, hats, and other objects in his act, parts of which are reproduced in some of his films, notably in the 1934 comedy The Old Fashioned Way.

By the early 1900s, while touring, he was regularly called the world's greatest juggler. [22] He became a headliner in North America and Europe, and toured Australia and South Africa in 1903. [23] When Fields played for English-speaking audiences, he found he could get more laughs by adding muttered patter and sarcastic asides to his routines. According to W. Buchanan-Taylor, a performer who saw Fields' performance in an English music hall, Fields would "reprimand a particular ball which had not come to his hand accurately", and "mutter weird and unintelligible expletives to his cigar when it missed his mouth". [24]

In 1905 Fields made his Broadway debut in a musical comedy, The Ham Tree. His role in the show required him to deliver lines of dialogue, which he had never before done onstage. [25] He later said, "I wanted to become a real comedian, and there I was, ticketed and pigeonholed as merely a comedy juggler." [26] In 1913 he performed on a bill with Sarah Bernhardt (who regarded Fields as "an artiste [who] could not fail to please the best class of audience") first at the New York Palace, and then in England in a royal performance for George V and Queen Mary. [27] He continued touring in vaudeville until 1915. [28]

Beginning in 1915, he appeared on Broadway in Florenz Ziegfeld's Ziegfeld Follies revue, [29] delighting audiences with a wild billiards skit, complete with bizarrely shaped cues and a custom-built table used for a number of hilarious gags and surprising trick shots. His pool game is reproduced, in part, in some of his films, notably in Six of a Kind in 1934. The act was a success, and Fields starred in the Follies from 1916 to 1922, not as a juggler but as a comedian in ensemble sketches. In addition to many editions of the Follies, Fields starred in the 1923 Broadway musical comedy Poppy, wherein he perfected his persona as a colorful small-time con man. In 1928, he appeared in The Earl Carroll Vanities.

His stage costume from 1915 onward featured a top hat, cut-away coat and collar, and a cane. The costume had a remarkable similarity to that of the comic strip character Ally Sloper, who may have been the inspiration for Fields' costume, according to Roger Sabin. The Sloper character may in turn have been inspired by Dickens' Mr Micawber, whom Fields later played on film. [30]

Silent era and first talkies Edit

In 1915, Fields starred in two short comedies, Pool Sharks and His Lordship's Dilemma, filmed at the French Gaumont Company's American studio in Flushing, New York. [31] His stage commitments prevented him from doing more movie work until 1924, when he played a supporting role in Janice Meredith, a Revolutionary War romance starring Marion Davies. [32] He reprised his Poppy role in a silent-film adaptation, retitled Sally of the Sawdust (1925) and directed by D. W. Griffith for Paramount Pictures. On the basis of his work in that film and Griffith's subsequent production That Royle Girl, Paramount offered Fields a contract to star in his own series of feature-length comedies. His next starring role was in It's the Old Army Game (1926), which featured his friend Louise Brooks, later a screen legend for her role in G. W. Pabst's Pandora's Box (1929) in Germany. [33] Fields' 1926 film, which included a silent version of the porch sequence that would later be expanded in the sound film It's a Gift (1934), had only middling success at the box office. [34] The following three films Fields made at Astoria, however, namelySo's Your Old Man (1926, remade as You're Telling Me! in 1934), The Potters (1927), and Running Wild (1927) were successes on an increasing scale and gained Fields a growing following as a silent comedian. Running Wild was the most successful of these, with a final cost of $179,000 and bringing in domestic rentals of $328,000 and another $92,000 from overseas. [35] Rivalry between Paramount studio executives B. P. Schulberg on the West Coast and William Le Baron on the East Coast led to the closure of the New York studio and the centralization of Paramount production in Hollywood. Running Wild was the last silent film Paramount made at Astoria. When the filming completed on April 28, the remaining handful of personnel left on the lot were let go with two weeks' severance pay and the studio went idle. [36] Fields went immediately to Hollywood, where Schulberg teamed him with Chester Conklin for two features and loaned him and Conklin out for an Al Christie-produced remake of Tillie's Punctured Romance for Paramount release. All of these were commercial failures and are now lost. [37]

Fields wore a scruffy clip-on mustache in all of his silent films. According to the film historian William K. Everson, he perversely insisted on wearing the conspicuously fake-looking mustache because he knew it was disliked by audiences. [38] Fields wore it in his first sound film, The Golf Specialist (1930)—a two-reeler that faithfully reproduces a sketch he had introduced in 1918 in the Follies [39] —but gave up wearing a mustache after his first sound feature film, Her Majesty, Love (1931), his only Warner Bros. production and the only time he wore a more realistic mustache for a role. [40]

At Paramount Edit

In the sound era, Fields appeared in thirteen feature films for Paramount Pictures, beginning with Million Dollar Legs in 1932. In that year he also was featured in a sequence in the anthology film If I Had a Million. In 1932 and 1933, Fields made four short subjects for comedy pioneer Mack Sennett, distributed through Paramount Pictures. These shorts, adapted with few alterations from Fields' stage routines and written entirely by himself, were described by Simon Louvish as "the 'essence' of Fields". [41] The first of them, The Dentist, is unusual in that Fields portrays an entirely unsympathetic character: he cheats at golf, assaults his caddy, and treats his patients with unbridled callousness. William K. Everson says that the cruelty of this comedy made it "hardly less funny", but that "Fields must have known that The Dentist presented a serious flaw for a comedy image that was intended to endure", and showed a somewhat warmer persona in his subsequent Sennett shorts. [42] Nevertheless, the popular success of his next release, International House in 1933, established him as a major star. [43] A shaky outtake from the production, allegedly the only film record of that year's Long Beach earthquake, was later revealed to have been faked as a publicity stunt for the movie. [44]

Fields' 1934 classic It's a Gift includes another one of his earlier stage sketches, one in which he endeavors to escape his nagging family by sleeping on the back porch, where he is bedeviled by noisy neighbors and salesmen. That film, like You're Telling Me! and Man on the Flying Trapeze, ended happily with a windfall profit that restored his standing in his screen families. With those screen successes, Fields in 1935 was able to achieve a career ambition by playing the character Mr. Micawber in MGM's David Copperfield. [45]

The strain of all this activity exacted a terrible physical toll on Fields's health. He fell ill with influenza and back trouble requiring round-the-clock nursing in late June 1935, and then was emotionally shattered by the sudden deaths of two of his closest friends, Will Rogers on August 15 and Sam Hardy on October 16. The combination of these events provoked a complete breakdown for Fields which laid him up for nine months. [46] He was gingerly approached the next year to re-create his signature stage role in Poppy for Paramount Pictures he accepted, but was very weak throughout the production and a double was often used in long shots. [47] After filming was complete, his precarious health relapsed when he learned another close friend and screen partner, Tammany Young, had died in his sleep on April 26 at age 49. Losing three friends in less than a year sent Fields into a deep depression, plus he stopped eating, his back pain flared up, and his chronic lung congestion trouble returned with a vengeance, eventually turning into pneumonia. He would be in hospitals and sanitariums for various treatments until the summer of 1937.

In September 1937 Fields returned to Hollywood to "star" in Paramount's complicated musical variety anthology The Big Broadcast of 1938 while starring with Martha Raye, Dorothy Lamour and Bob Hope. In an unusual twist, Fields plays the roles of two nearly identical brothers (T. Frothingill Bellows and S. B. Bellow) and collaborated with several noted international musicians of the time including: Kirsten Flagstad (Norwegian opera soprano), Wilfred Pelletier (Canadian conductor of New York's Metropolitan Opera Orchestra), Tito Guizar (Mexican vocalist), Shep Fields (conducting his Rippling Rhythm Jazz Orchestra) and John Serry Sr. (Italian-American orchestral accordionist) [48] The film received critical acclaim and earned an Oscar in 1939 for best music in an original song – Thanks for the Memory [49] Fields, however, loathed working on the film and particularly detested the director, Mitchell Leisen, who felt the same way about Fields and thought him unfunny and difficult. ("He was the most obstinate, ornery son of a bitch I ever tried to work with," was Leisen's opinion.) The arguments between Fields and Leisen were so constant and intense during the five-month shoot that when the production concluded on November 15, 1937, Leisen went home and had a heart attack. [50]

Fields versus "Nibblers" Edit

Fields in the early years of his film career became highly protective of his intellectual properties that formed his acts and defined his on-screen persona. In burlesque, vaudeville, and in the rapidly expanding motion picture industry, many of his fellow performers and comedy writers often copied or "borrowed" sketches or portions of routines developed and presented by others. [51] [52] Not surprisingly, as Fields' popularity with audiences continued to rise after 1915, following his initial work in films, other entertainers started to adopt and integrate parts of his successful acts into their own performances. [53] Fields in 1918 began to combat the thievery by registering his sketches and other comedy material with the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. [54] [55] Nevertheless, the pilfering continued and became so frequent by 1919 that he felt "compelled" to place a prominent warning that year in the June 13 issue of Variety, the most widely read trade paper at the time. [53] Addressed to "Nibblers", more specifically to "indiscreet burlesque and picture players", Fields' notice occupies nearly half a page in Variety. [53] In it, he cautions fellow performers that all of his "acts (and businesses therein) are protected by United States and International copyright", and stresses that he and his attorneys in New York and Chicago will "vigorously prosecute all offenders in the future". [53] The concluding "W. C. Fields" was printed in such large letters that it dominated the two-page spread in the paper.

Fields continued personally and with legal counsel to protect his comedy material during the final decades of his career, especially with regard to that material's reuse in his films. For example, he copyrighted his original stage sketch "An Episode at the Dentist's" three times: in January 1919 and twice again in 1928, in July and August. [56] Later, 13 years after its first copyright registration, that same sketch continued to serve Fields as a framework for developing his already noted short The Dentist. [56] He also copyrighted his 1928 sketch "Stolen Bonds", which in 1933 was translated into scenes for his two-reel "black comedy" The Fatal Glass of Beer. [56] Other examples of Fields' stage-to-film use of his copyrighted material is the previously discussed 1918 Follies sketch "An Episode on the Links" and its recycling in both his 1930 short The Golf Specialist and in his feature You're Telling Me! in 1934. "The Sleeping Porch" sketch that reappears as an extended segment in It's a Gift was copyrighted as well by Fields in 1928. [56] A few more of his copyrighted creations include "An Episode of Lawn Tennis" (1918), "The Mountain Sweep Steaks" (1919), "The Pullman Sleeper" (1921), "Ten Thousand People Killed" (1925), and "The Midget Car" (1930). [57] The total number of sketches created by Fields over the years, both copyrighted and uncopyrighted, remains undetermined. The number, however, may exceed 100. [58] Of that body of work, Fields between 1918 and 1930 applied for and received 20 copyrights covering 16 of his most important sketches, the ones that Fields biographer Simon Louvish has described as the "bedrock" upon which the legendary comedian built his stage career and then prolonged that success through his films. [57]

Fields married a fellow vaudevillian, chorus girl Harriet "Hattie" Hughes (1879–1963), on April 8, 1900. [59] She became part of Fields' stage act, appearing as his assistant, whom he would blame entertainingly when he missed a trick. [60] Hattie was educated and tutored Fields in reading and writing during their travels. [61] Under her influence, he became an enthusiastic reader and traveled with a trunk of books including grammar texts, translations of Homer and Ovid, and works by authors ranging from Shakespeare to Dickens to Twain and P. G. Wodehouse. [62]

The couple had a son, William Claude Fields, Jr. (1904–1971) [63] and although Fields was an atheist—who, according to James Curtis, "regarded all religions with the suspicion of a seasoned con man"—he yielded to Hattie's wish to have their son baptized. [64]

By 1907, he and Hattie had separated she had been pressing him to stop touring and settle into a respectable trade, but he was unwilling to give up show business. [65] They never divorced. Until his death, Fields continued to correspond with Hattie (mostly through letters) and voluntarily sent her a weekly stipend. [66] Their correspondence would at times be tense. Fields accused Hattie of turning their son against him and of demanding more money from him than he could afford. [67]

While performing in New York City at the New Amsterdam Theater in 1916, Fields met Bessie Poole, an established Ziegfeld Follies performer whose beauty and quick wit attracted him, and they began a relationship. With her he had another son, named William Rexford Fields Morris (1917–2014). [68] [69] [70] Neither Fields nor Poole wanted to abandon touring to raise the child, who was placed in foster care with a childless couple of Bessie's acquaintance. [71] Fields' relationship with Poole lasted until 1926. In 1927, he made a negotiated payment to her of $20,000 upon her signing an affidavit declaring that "W. C. Fields is NOT the father of my child". [72] Poole died of complications of alcoholism in October 1928, [73] and Fields contributed to their son's support until he was 19 years of age. [74]

Fields met Carlotta Monti (1907–1993) in 1933, and the two began a sporadic relationship that lasted until his death in 1946. [75] Monti had small roles in two of Fields' films, and in 1971 wrote a memoir, W.C. Fields and Me, which was made into a motion picture at Universal Studios in 1976. Fields was listed in the 1940 census as single and living at 2015 DeMille Drive. (Cecil B. DeMille lived at 2000, the only other address on the street.)

Alcohol, dogs, and children Edit

Fields' screen character often expressed a fondness for alcohol, a prominent component of the Fields legend. Fields never drank in his early career as a juggler because he wanted to be sober while performing. Eventually, the loneliness of constant travel prompted him to keep liquor in his dressing room as an inducement for fellow performers to socialize with him on the road. Only after he became a Follies star and abandoned juggling did Fields begin drinking regularly. [76] His role in Paramount Pictures' International House (1933), as an aviator with an unquenchable taste for beer, did much to establish Fields' popular reputation as a prodigious drinker. [77] Studio publicists promoted this image, as did Fields himself in press interviews. [78]

Fields expressed his fondness for alcohol to Gloria Jean (playing his niece) in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break: "I was in love with a beautiful blonde once, dear. She drove me to drink. That's the one thing I am indebted to her for." Equally memorable was a line in the 1940 film My Little Chickadee: "Once, on a trek through Afghanistan, we lost our corkscrew . and were compelled to live on food and water for several days." The oft-repeated anecdote that Fields refused to drink water "because fish fuck in it" is unsubstantiated. [79]

On movie sets, Fields shot most of his scenes in varying states of inebriation. During the filming of Tales of Manhattan (1942), he kept a vacuum flask with him at all times and frequently availed himself of its contents. Phil Silvers, who had a minor supporting role in the scene featuring Fields, described in his memoir what happened next:

One day the producers appeared on the set to plead with Fields: "Please don't drink while we're shooting—we're way behind schedule". Fields merely raised an eyebrow. "Gentlemen, this is only lemonade. For a little acid condition afflicting me." He leaned on me. "Would you be kind enough to taste this, sir?" I took a careful sip—pure gin. I have always been a friend of the drinking man I respect him for his courage to withdraw from the world of the thinking man. I answered the producers a little scornfully, "It's lemonade." My reward? The scene was snipped out of the picture. [80]

In a testimonial dinner for Fields in 1939, the humorist Leo Rosten remarked of the comedian that "any man who hates dogs and babies can't be all bad". [81] The line—which Bartlett's Familiar Quotations later erroneously attributed to Fields himself—was widely quoted, and reinforced the popular perception that Fields hated children and dogs. In reality, Fields was somewhat indifferent to dogs, but occasionally owned one. [82] He was fond of entertaining the children of friends who visited him, and doted on his first grandchild, Bill Fields III, born in 1943. [83] He sent encouraging replies to all of the letters he received from boys who, inspired by his performance in The Old Fashioned Way, expressed an interest in juggling. [84]

In 1936, Fields' heavy drinking precipitated a significant decline in his health. By the following year he recovered sufficiently to make one last film for Paramount, The Big Broadcast of 1938, but his troublesome behavior discouraged other producers from hiring him. By 1938 he was chronically ill and suffering from delirium tremens. [85]

Physically unable to work in films, Fields was off the screen for more than a year. During his absence, he recorded a brief speech for a radio broadcast. His familiar snide drawl registered so well with listeners that he quickly became a popular guest on network radio shows. [86] Although his radio work was not as demanding as motion-picture production, Fields insisted on his established movie star salary of $5,000 per week. He joined ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and Bergen's dummy Charlie McCarthy on The Chase and Sanborn Hour for weekly insult-comedy routines.

Fields would twit Charlie about his being made of wood:

Fields: "Tell me, Charles, is it true your father was a gate-leg table?"

McCarthy: "If it is, your father was under it!"

When Fields would refer to McCarthy as a "woodpecker's pin-up boy" or a "termite's flophouse", Charlie would fire back at Fields about his drinking:

McCarthy: "Is it true, Mr. Fields, that when you stood on the corner of Hollywood and Vine, 43 cars waited for your nose to change to green?"

Bergen: "Why, Bill, I thought you didn't like children."

Fields: "Oh, not at all, Edgar, I love children. I can remember when, with my own little unsteady legs, I toddled from room to room . "

McCarthy: "When was that, last night?"

During his recovery from illness, Fields reconciled with his estranged wife and established a close relationship with his son after Claude's marriage in 1938. [87]

Fields' renewed popularity from his radio broadcasts with Bergen and McCarthy earned him a contract with Universal Pictures in 1939. His first feature for Universal, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, carried on the Fields–McCarthy rivalry. In 1940 he made My Little Chickadee, co-starring with Mae West, and then The Bank Dick in which he has the following exchange with Shemp Howard, who plays a bartender:

Fields: "Was I in here last night, and did I spend a $20 bill?"

Shemp: "Yeah."

Fields: "Oh boy, what a load that is off my mind . I thought I'd lost it!"

Fields fought with studio producers, directors, and writers over the content of his films. He was determined to make a movie his way, with his own script and staging, and his choice of supporting players. Universal finally gave him the chance, and the resulting film, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), was a work of absurd humor in which Fields appeared as "The Great Man". [ citation needed ] Universal's then-popular singing star Gloria Jean played opposite Fields, and his cronies Leon Errol and Franklin Pangborn as his comic foils. Typically, the finished film was sufficiently surreal that Universal recut and reshot parts of it and ultimately released both the film and Fields. Sucker was Fields' last starring film.

Fields fraternized at his home with actors, directors and writers who shared his fondness for good company and good liquor. John Barrymore, Gene Fowler, and Gregory La Cava were among his close friends. On March 15, 1941, while Fields was out of town, Christopher Quinn, the two-year-old son of his neighbors, actor Anthony Quinn and his wife Katherine DeMille, drowned in a lily pond on Fields' property. Grief-stricken over the tragedy, he had the pond filled in. [88]

Fields had a substantial library in his home. Although a staunch atheist—or perhaps because of it—he studied theology and collected books on the subject. [89] According to a popular story (possibly apocryphal, according to biographer James Curtis), Fields told someone who caught him reading a Bible that he was "looking for loopholes". [89]

In a 1994 episode of the Biography television series, Fields' 1941 co-star Gloria Jean recalled her conversations with Fields at his home. She described him as kind and gentle in personal interactions, and believed he yearned for the family environment he never experienced as a child. [90]

During the 1940 presidential campaign, Fields authored a book, Fields for President, with humorous essays in the form of a campaign speech. Dodd, Mead and Company published it in 1940, with illustrations by Otto Soglow. [91] In 1971, when Fields was seen as an anti-establishment figure, Dodd, Mead issued a reprint, illustrated with photographs of the author.

Fields' film career slowed considerably in the 1940s. His illnesses confined him to brief guest film appearances. An extended sequence in 20th Century Fox's Tales of Manhattan (1942) was cut from the original release of the film and later reinstated for some home video releases. [92] The scene featured a temperance meeting with society people at the home of a wealthy society matron Margaret Dumont, in which Fields discovers that the punch has been spiked, resulting in drunken guests and a very happy Fields.

He enacted his billiard table routine for the final time for Follow the Boys, an all-star entertainment revue for the Armed Forces. (Despite the charitable nature of the movie, Fields was paid $15,000 for this appearance he was never able to perform in person for the armed services.) In Song of the Open Road (1944), Fields juggled for a few moments and then remarked, "This used to be my racket." [93] His last film, the musical revue Sensations of 1945, was released in late 1944. By then his vision and memory had deteriorated so much that he had to read his lines from large-print blackboards. [94]

In 1944, Fields continued to make radio guest appearances, where script memorizations were unnecessary. A notable guest slot was with Frank Sinatra on Sinatra's CBS radio program on February 9, 1944.

Fields' last radio appearance was on March 24, 1946, on the Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show on NBC. Just before his death that year, Fields recorded a spoken-word album, including his "Temperance Lecture" and "The Day I Drank a Glass of Water", at Les Paul's studio, where Paul had installed a new multi-track recorder. The session was arranged by one of his radio writers, Bill Morrow, and was Fields' last performance.

Listening to one of Paul's experimental multi-track recordings, Fields remarked, "The music you're making sounds like an octopus. Like a guy with a million hands. I've never heard anything like it." Paul was amused, and named his new machine OCT, short for octopus. [95]

Fields spent the last 22 months of his life at the Las Encinas Sanatorium in Pasadena, California. In 1946, on Christmas Day—the holiday he said he despised—he had a massive gastric hemorrhage and died, aged 66. [96] Carlotta Monti wrote that in his final moments, she used a garden hose to spray water onto the roof over his bedroom to simulate his favorite sound, falling rain. [97] According to a 2004 documentary, he winked and smiled at a nurse, put a finger to his lips, and died. [98] This poignant depiction is uncorroborated and "unlikely", according to biographer James Curtis. [99] Fields' funeral took place on January 2, 1947, in Glendale, California. [100]

His cremation, as directed in his will, was delayed pending resolution of an objection filed by Hattie and Claude Fields on religious grounds. [99] They also contested a clause leaving a portion of his estate to establish a "W. C. Fields College for Orphan White Boys and Girls, where no religion of any sort is to be preached". [101] [102] After a lengthy period of litigation his remains were cremated on June 2, 1949, [103] and his ashes interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale.

Gravestone Edit

A popular bit of Fields folklore maintains that his grave marker is inscribed, "I'd rather be in Philadelphia"—or a close variant thereof. The legend originated from a mock epitaph written by Fields for a 1925 Vanity Fair article: "Here Lies / W.C. Fields / I Would Rather Be Living in Philadelphia". [104] In reality, his interment marker bears only his stage name and the years of his birth and death. [10]

He plays a "bumbling hero". [105] In 1937, in an article in Motion Picture magazine, Fields analyzed the characters he played:

You've heard the old legend that it's the little put-upon guy who gets the laughs, but I'm the most belligerent guy on the screen. I'm going to kill everybody. But, at the same time, I'm afraid of everybody—just a great big frightened bully . . I was the first comic in world history, so they told me, to pick fights with children. I booted Baby LeRoy . then, in another picture, I kicked a little dog . . But I got sympathy both times. People didn't know what the unmanageable baby might do to get even, and they thought the dog might bite me. [106]

In features such as It's a Gift and Man on the Flying Trapeze, he is reported to have written or improvised more or less all of his own dialogue and material, leaving story structure to other writers. [107] He frequently incorporated his stage sketches into his films—e.g., the "Back Porch" scene he wrote for the Follies of 1925 was filmed in It's the Old Army Game (1926) and It's a Gift (1934) [108] the golf sketch he performed in the lost film His Lordship's Dilemma (1915) was re-used in the Follies of 1918, and in the films So's Your Old Man (1926), The Golf Specialist (1930), The Dentist (1932), and You're Telling Me (1934). [109]

Fields' most familiar characteristics included a distinctive drawl, which was not his normal speaking voice. [110] His manner of muttering deprecatory asides was copied from his mother, who in Fields' childhood often mumbled sly comments about neighbors who passed by. [111] He delighted in provoking the censors with double entendres and the near-profanities "Godfrey Daniels" and "mother of pearl". A favorite bit of "business", repeated in many of his films, involved his hat going astray—either caught on the end of his cane, or simply facing the wrong way—as he attempts to put it onto his head. [112]

In several of his films, he played hustlers, carnival barkers, and card sharps, spinning yarns and distracting his marks. In others, he cast himself as a victim: a bumbling everyman husband and father whose family does not appreciate him. [113]

Fields often reproduced elements of his own family life in his films. By the time he entered motion pictures, his relationship with his estranged wife had become acrimonious, and he believed she had turned their son Claude—whom he seldom saw—against him. [114] James Curtis says of Man on the Flying Trapeze that the "disapproving mother-in-law, Mrs. Neselrode, was clearly patterned after his wife, Hattie, and the unemployable mama's boy played by [Grady] Sutton was deliberately named Claude. Fields hadn't laid eyes on his family in nearly twenty years, and yet the painful memories lingered." [115]

Unusual names Edit

Although lacking formal education, Fields was well read and a lifelong admirer of author Charles Dickens, whose characters' unusual names inspired Fields to collect odd names he encountered in his travels, to be used for his characters. [116] Some examples are:

  • "The Great McGonigle" (The Old-Fashioned Way)
  • "Ambrose Wolfinger" [pointing toward "Wolf-whistling"] (Man on the Flying Trapeze)
  • "Larson E. [read "Larceny"] Whipsnade", the surname taken from a dog track Fields had seen outside London [117] (You Can't Cheat an Honest Man),
  • "Egbert Sousé" [pronounced 'soo-ZAY', but pointing toward "souse", a synonym for a drunk] (The Bank Dick, 1940).

Fields often contributed to the scripts of his films under unusual pseudonyms. They include the seemingly prosaic "Charles Bogle", credited in four of his films in the 1930s "Otis Criblecoblis", which contains an embedded homophone for "scribble" and "Mahatma Kane Jeeves", a play on Mahatma and a phrase an aristocrat might use when about to leave the house: "My hat, my cane, Jeeves". [118]

Supporting players Edit

Fields had a small cadre of supporting players that he employed in several films:

    , whose onscreen interplay with Fields was compared (by William K. Everson) to that between Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont[119]
  • Jan Duggan, an old-maid character (actually about Fields' age). [120] It was of her character that Fields said in The Old Fashioned Way, "She's all dressed up like a well-kept grave." , as a nagging wife or antagonist , as a preschool child fond of playing pranks on Fields' characters , a fussy, ubiquitous character actor who played in several Fields films, most memorably as J. Pinkerton Snoopington in The Bank Dick , as his wife (although 16 years his senior), usually in a supportive role rather than the stereotypical nag , typically a country bumpkin type, as a foil or an antagonist to Fields' character
  • Bill Wolfe, as a gaunt-looking character, usually a Fields foil , as a dim-witted, unintentionally harmful assistant, who appeared in seven Fields films until his sudden death from heart failure in 1936

W. C. Fields was (with Ed Wynn) one of the two original choices for the title role in the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz. Fields was enthusiastic about the role, but ultimately withdrew his name from consideration so he could devote his time to writing You Can't Cheat an Honest Man. [121]

Fields figured in an Orson Welles project. Welles's bosses at RKO Radio Pictures, after losing money on Citizen Kane, urged Welles to choose as his next film a subject with more commercial appeal. Welles considered an adaptation of Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers which would have starred Fields, but the project was shelved, partly because of contract difficulties, [122] and Welles went on to adapt The Magnificent Ambersons.

During the early planning for his film It's a Wonderful Life, director Frank Capra considered Fields for the role of Uncle Billy, which eventually went to Thomas Mitchell. [123]

A best-selling biography of Fields published three years after his death, W.C. Fields, His Follies and Fortunes by Robert Lewis Taylor, was instrumental in popularizing the idea that Fields' real-life character matched his screen persona. [124] In 1973, the comedian's grandson, Ronald J. Fields, published the first book to challenge this idea significantly, W. C. Fields by Himself, His Intended Autobiography, a compilation of material from private scrapbooks and letters found in the home of Hattie Fields after her death in 1963. [125]

According to Woody Allen (in a New York Times interview from January 30, 2000), Fields is one of six "genuine comic geniuses" he recognized as such in movie history, along with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Groucho and Harpo Marx, and Peter Sellers. [126]

The Surrealists loved Fields' absurdism and anarchistic pranks. Max Ernst painted a Project for a Monument to W.C. Fields (1957), and René Magritte made a Hommage to Mack Sennett (1934).

Fields is one of the figures that appears in the crowd scene on the cover of The Beatles' 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Firesign Theatre titled the second track of their 1968 album Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him "W.C. Fields Forever", as a pun referring to the Beatles song "Strawberry Fields Forever".

The United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp on the comedian's 100th birthday, in January 1980. [127]

There is a poster of Fields on the wall of Sam's bedroom on the TV show Freaks and Geeks.

Caricatures and imitations Edit

  • The character Horatio K. Boomer in the Fibber McGee and Molly radio show had a persona and delivery very much like the characters portrayed by Fields.
  • A caricature of Fields appears in the Lucky Luke comic book album Western Circus and again in the animated feature Lucky Luke: The Ballad of the Daltons. [128]
  • Cartoonist Al Hirschfeld portrayed Fields in caricature many times, including the book cover illustrations for Drat!, A Flask of Fields, and Godfrey Daniels! – all edited by Richard J. Anobile. [citation needed]
  • The TV show Gigglesnort Hotel featured a puppet character named "W. C. Cornfield" who resembled Fields in appearance and voice. [129]
  • Impressionist Rich Little often imitated Fields on his TV series The Kopycats, and he used a Fields characterization for the Ebenezer Scrooge character in his HBO special Rich Little's Christmas Carol (1978), a one-man presentation of A Christmas Carol.
  • A 1960s Canadian cartoon series for kids Tales of the Wizard of Oz featured a Wizard with a voice imitation of Fields, a nod to the real-life choice of Fields to play the Wizard in the 1939 film classic opposite Judy Garland.
  • Fields is among the many celebrities caricatured in the 1936 Merrie Melodies short The Coo-Coo Nut Grove.
  • Fields is seen sitting on the spectators' bench in the Disney cartoon Mickey's Polo Team (1936).
  • He appears as W.C. Fieldmouse in the Merrie Melodies short The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos (1937).
  • In the 1938 Silly Symphonies cartoon Mother Goose Goes Hollywood Fields is caricatured as Humpty Dumpty, in reference to his role in the live-action film Alice in Wonderland (1933).
  • One episode of The Flintstones featured a tramp who gets old clothes belonging to Fred from his wife Wilma, then when Fred attempts to take back a coat, is trounced with the tramp's cane. The tramp has Fields' voice and persona.
  • The Firesign Theatre used Philip Proctor's voice impersonation of Fields for two characters on their albums Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him and How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All.
  • The Wizard of Id comic strip contains a shady lawyer character, a Fields caricature named "Larsen E. Pettifogger".
  • In the second series of the TV drama Gangsters a character named the White Devil is introduced, who styles himself W.D. Fields, affecting the vocal mannerisms and appearance of Fields to confuse and confound his enemies. Played by series writer Philip Martin, he himself is credited in the final episode as "Larson E. Whipsnade" after Fields' character in You Can't Cheat an Honest Man. adapted a Fields comic routine for the animated TV special The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians in 1970.
  • Actor Bob Leeman portrayed Fields in the 1991 movie The Rocketeer.
  • In 1971 Frito-Lay replaced the Frito Bandito TV ad campaign with one featuring W.C. Fritos, a round, top-hat wearing character modeled on the movie persona of Fields. Also, circa 1970 Sunkist Growers produced a series of animated TV ads featuring the "Sunkist Monster", whose voice was an impression of Fields performed by Paul Frees.
  • Canadian actor Andrew Chapman played Fields in a vaudeville-themed episode of "Murdoch Mysteries" in season 8, titled "The Keystone Constables".
  • Comedian Mark Proksch impersonates Fields in a number of On Cinema episodes, beginning with the series' Second Annual Oscar Special and continuing through a majority of the seasons.

Information for this filmography is derived from the book, W. C. Fields: A Life on Film, by Ronald J. Fields. All films are feature length except where noted.


This weekend is the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa. I have always been partial both to the hobo ethic itself (I’ve been working on an essay about that very thing for a while now) and the image of the Tramp Comedian or Clown. The first costume I can recall ever wearing was a tramp/clown get-up for a Halloween parade when I was about four years old. It captures the imagination — the rootless wanderer, riding the rails, hitting the road, no ties, bindlestiff on his shoulder. Samuel Beckett put a core of such characters at the center of his masterpiece Waiting for Godot, the first non-children’s show I ever saw in a theatre. And it’s the theme of one of my favorite terrifically strange movie musicals Hallelujah I’m a Bum.

The theme is romantic, sentimental. And, in the hands of the right comedian, it is funny. Here’s a handful of some prominent ones from vaudeville, circus and films (there were scores, maybe hundreds of others besides these). Just click the links below to learn more about the performers.

Tramp comedians had long been popular in vaudeville and music hall when Chaplin decided to take his screen character in that direction, thus becoming the most popular tramp in the entire world. Not only were there other tramp comics in the world, but there were several that looked like Charlie’s. Chaplin was said (by some) to have taken his took from Billie Ritchie in turn Billy West stole his look and act from Chaplin.

Billed as “The Happy Tramp”, Wills may well have been America’s most popular stage tramp from the turn of the century to his untimely death in 1917. He was a star of vaudeville, Broadway, and some of the very first comedy albums.

Harrigan was widely emulated in vaudeville from the late 19th century through the early 20th as the first tramp juggler.

One of the many to emulate Harrigan early in his career was the young W.C. Fields, shown here in his tramp get-up around the turn of the century

Circus performer Emmett Kelly’s sad clown make-up and costume were so much imitated it became a cliche.

Stage and screen Skelton had a repertoire of many characters his clown “bum” Freddie may have been the most beloved.

Bloom was the first of the tramp comedians, preceding even Wills or Harrigan. He was known as “The Society Tramp”.

African American comedian George Dewey Washington affected a tramp look in Broadway and in films.

To learn more about vaudeville, including specialties like tramp comedians, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

'Dawson City' Doc Tells Bizarre Story of Lost Films

The story would sound far-fetched if a Hollywood screenwriter devised it: In 1978, a construction crew excavating in the Yukon town of Dawson City uncovered 533 reels of film from the silent-cinema era. The hoard of newsreels and dramatic features had accumulated in the basement of the town library, under the supervision of the Canadian Bank of Commerce, until 1929, when bank employee Clifford Thomson dumped it in a defunct swimming pool beneath the town's hockey rink. Thomson disposed of the highly flammable silver-nitrate films for safety reasons, not knowing that a thick layer of permafrost would cover the buried canisters and serve as a primitive form of film preservation.

The bizarre tale of the discovery of hundreds of lost films is the subject of Dawson City: Frozen Time, which will be screened on Friday, October 20, at Dartmouth College's Hopkins Center for the Arts in Hanover, N.H. A film history buff's dream, the documentary also serves to chronicle an early chapter of the American dream, in which thousands of prospectors trekked north to the Canadian boomtown that served as the center of the Klondike Gold Rush.

After the Dawson City film collection was discovered, the Royal Canadian Air Force transported it to Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. Though the painstakingly restored films have been available for public viewing for decades, in that city and at the Library of Congress, Dawson City director Bill Morrison suspected that few were aware of the significance of the find.

"As I got more and more into the collection, [I realized] that I really had a synopsis of Western civilization in the 20th century, somehow," Morrison says in a phone interview. "From the removal of the indigenous population and the discovery of gold, and then the corporatization of gold and how the town really rose and fell."

As Morrison's documentary details, the remote Yukon outpost attracted a cornucopia of figures who would later become famous. "Tex" Rickard, the most successful boxing promoter of the early 20th century, got his start in the fight game in Dawson City. William Desmond Taylor, the prolific silent-film director whose unsolved 1922 murder scandalized Hollywood, was a timekeeper for the Yukon Gold Company. Frederick Trump, the grandfather of the 45th U.S. president, opened a restaurant and hotel in Whitehorse, on the route to Dawson. Believed by historians also to contain a brothel, the establishment served as an early source of the Trump family fortune.

Morrison is no stranger to found-footage docs. His experimental 2002 film Decasia combined silent-film clips in various stages of deterioration into an abstract meditation on the slow death of celluloid. Though his latest work also re-edits found footage, it's a more traditional documentary, mixing clips from the Dawson City film collection with interviews and archival photographs.

Perhaps the most notable nugget from the reclaimed cinematic treasure is newsreel footage from the 1919 World Series, which Chicago White Sox players conspired with gamblers to throw. As Morrison observes, it's remarkable in itself that footage from the infamous "Black Sox" scandal was part of the surviving film reels. Even more improbable is that one of the moments depicted — a botched double play in the fourth inning of Game 1 — was later used as evidence in the trial that led to eight players being banned from professional baseball for life.

"All of the coincidences that would have to happen for that to be captured and for us to see it today, it's really breathtaking," Morrison says.

Morrison will appear at a Q&A session after the Friday screening at Dartmouth. On Thursday, he'll address a pair of classes taught by Mark Williams, an associate film professor who also serves as director of the university's Media Ecology Project, an initiative that provides online access to moving-image research materials.

Williams sees Morrison's visit as an ideal opportunity to spotlight a neglected period of film history. "Most people aren't familiar with this era, certainly, and they haven't necessarily given much thought to these kinds of found-footage compilations as opportunities for art," he says. "And Bill is just the master of that."

Dartmouth has a long history of film presentation and preservation. The Dartmouth Film Society got its start in 1949 with a free showing of the 1932 W.C. Fields comedy Million Dollar Legs. A notable alum is Robert Gitt, who helped curate the university's film collection as an undergrad and went on to become senior film preservation officer at the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Bill Pence, longtime director of film at the Hopkins Center, cofounded the Telluride Film Festival in 1974.

Sydney Stowe, who took over as acting director of film when Pence retired last year, notes that the Hop didn't fully convert to digital projection until 2013. She mourns that many young moviegoers have never experienced watching 35mm film flicker on the big screen.

"I was carrying 60 pounds of film up until four years ago and opening up the cans and pulling out the films and threading the projectors," Stowe recalls, "so I have that connection to [film's] birth, but I'm not sure that modern audiences do."

She adds that the scarcity of recent movies shot on actual film stock underscores the historical importance of Morrison's documentary.

"I think what Dawson City does," says Stowe, "is, it reminds us that film was a really dynamic and often explosive medium that feels light-years away from what we're experiencing now through our computers and our televisions and our [digital] screenings."

Dawson City: Frozen Time, Friday, October 20, 7 p.m., at Loew Auditorium, Hopkins Center for the Arts, Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H. $5-15.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Found-Footage Doc Unearths a Gold Mine of Lost Silver-Screen Gems"


December 9 is the anniversary of the release date of the classic W.C. Fields short The Dentist (1932). Along with The Fatal Glass of Beer and The Golf Specialist this film ranks among the classic comedies I have watched the most times. A compilation video was one of the first videotapes I ever got (back when home video was new) and I’ve certainly watched these movies dozens and dozens of times. (These films fell into the public domain in the 1960s, thus they are among the most accessible of all films and have been for half a century. If you haven’t seen them yet, we hope the rectify that right here and now)

The Dentist was adapted from a a sketch Fields had done in Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1928, with some elements of his famous golf routine from the Ziegfeld Follies, and some other new narrative elements. It was filmed during the window of time when Fields’ status as a movie star was at a low ebb. He’d been a star of Paramount features in the silent 1920s, but that career had fizzled out. By the mid 30s he would be a star of Paramount comedy features yet again — after he proved himself in these shorts and several parts in ensemble comedies. Thus, Mack Sennett was briefly able to grab him for his comedy shorts. Sennett was on his way out at this late date — his films with Fields are considered his last gasps of greatness. But what a note to go out on!

The plot is simple. Fields plays a small town jawbreaker who butchers several eccentric looking patients, in between holes of golf, and attempts to prevent his wayward daughter (Babe Kane) from eloping with the ice man (Arnold Gray). The latter development provides the only semblance of plot, the majority is just a hilarious, sometimes naughty backout sketch, full of laugh-out loud jokes and physical business. “You’re fortunate it wasn’t a Newfoundland dog that bit you,” quips Fields when his cute, flirtatious patient (Dorothy Granger) bends over to show him the spot on her ankle where she was nipped by a Dachsund. He must also wrestle with a “horse-faced”, long legged woman who resembles Olive Oyl (Elise Cavanna) in order to yank a stubborn tooth. And then there’s the small Russian man (Billy Bletcher) whose beard is so thick Fields can’t find his mouth. When he disturbs the whiskers trying to get to the teeth, two birds fly out. (BTW, this gag is the source of one of show business’ best known real life stories. When Fields presented it onstage in the Vanities he was actually arrested and tried for animal abuse when one of the birds died.) Other notables in the cast include Bud Jamison as the Dentist’s pal Harry Frobisher, and Bobby Dunn as the Dentist’s caddy.

For the Showman Behind Film Forum, It’s On With the Show

Last month, the projectors at Film Forum flickered back on for the first time in over a year, for a screening of Fellini’s carnivalesque tragedy La Strada.

“I wanted a really famous art-house classic to open with,” said Bruce Goldstein, the 68-year-old repertory programmer who has been creating robust retrospective showcases and classic film revivals for Film Forum since 1986.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading through New York City last year and Film Forum announced it would close on March 14, the non-profit theater had only screened half of Goldstein’s last big showcase. Titled “The Women Behind Hitchcock,” the series of over 30 films highlighted the underappreciated cinematic contributions of two female Hitchcock collaborators, his producer Joan Harrison and his wife and screenwriter Alma Reville. The last film screened of Goldstein’s series before it was abruptly canceled was Hitchock’s 1963 thriller, The Birds. The film stayed on the marquee during the year Film Forum was supposed to host a festival celebrating its 50th anniversary.

“I thought it was funny because it was an apocalyptic movie,” said Goldstein.

During Film Forum’s hiatus, Goldstein kept busy preparing future series, working on documentary projects and taking care of the film distribution company he founded in 1997, Rialto Pictures, which specializes in rereleasing classic works in movie theaters.

“Bruce is an old-fashioned showman and a quintessential New Yorker,” said Andrienne Halpern, a former entertainment lawyer and co-president of Rialto Pictures. Halpern joined the company a year after it was founded and continues to secure the rights for Rialto’s vast catalogue of over a hundred films, many of them classics of European art cinema.

Since movie theaters were closed during the pandemic, the company instead booked drive-in screenings of films that were more lowbrow than its usual fare, such as Evil Dead 2, Terminator 2, and Escape from New York. Rialto’s latest release, the steamy French drama La Piscine, started running at Film Forum on May 14.

The seeds of cinephilia were planted in Goldstein during his childhood, as he watched old movies starring the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Mae West, and Humphrey Bogart—to name just a few—on channels 5 and 11. Born in Amityville, New York, and raised in Hicksville, Goldstein made journeys to New York City as a child and teenager, and fell in love with its repertory movie halls, particularly the New Yorker and the Thalia. Reminiscing on what hooked him about these now defunct cinemas, Goldstein said, “Feeling the atmosphere of the theater itself, combined with the 35mm print, it was kind of like a time capsule for me.”

In 1970, at 18, Goldstein opened his own repertory theater in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It did not do well, and after just one season, he passed it on for others to run. Looking back, he said opening a venue for vintage movies probably wasn’t the best idea in a town where everyone was trying to get laid. A few years later, he moved to New York City to work and program at the Bleecker Street Cinema and Carnegie Hall Cinema, followed by two years of work in the fashion industry in London as a publicity manager before returning to the city again in 1981. He founded a successful film publicity company and began co-directing the Thalia, a post he held until 1984.

The “pre-Bruce history of Film Forum,” as director Karen Cooper described it, began in 1970 when the newly opened theater consisted of a room full of folding chairs and a single projector on the Upper West Side. Cooper took charge in 1972, moved Film Forum to Soho in 1975 and then to Watts Street in 1980. By this point, Cooper had a second screening room and was trying to find a use for it. She rented it out over several years until she decided Film Forum should do all of its programming in-house.

According to Goldstein, longtime film critic J. Hoberman recommended him to Cooper to select films for her other screen. Neither Cooper nor Hoberman could recall if he advocated for Goldstein to get the job. However, Hoberman reviewed films that Goldstein screened at the Thalia for the Village Voice during the early eighties and knew him to be incredibly knowledgeable and energetic. “Anyway, I’m glad to take credit,” wrote Hoberman in an email.

Other than one time when Cooper objected to Goldstein placing a picture of Bye Bye Birdie actress Ann-Margret on a calendar (she hates Ann-Margret), she can’t recall any major friction with her repertory programmer. For the over 30 years Goldstein has spent at Film Forum, Cooper has given him free reign over classic screenings and admires his deep, encyclopedic knowledge of film history. “It’s kind of foolish to interfere with someone who knows what they’re doing,” said Cooper. “Bruce knows what he’s doing, you know, better than I can begin to say.”

With time to spare during the pandemic, Goldstein explored the city on foot and took pictures of whatever caught his eye. He never used to take photos on his iPhone, but now there are thousands. He showed me manhole covers he found that date back over a hundred years, an easy-to-miss engraving of the Ten Commandments in Hebrew on the facade of a former synagogue on East 10th Street that’s now a Baptist church, and a woman sitting in a subway car with a bomber jacket whose back reads “LES STRONG.” After sharing some snapshots of faces carved onto the entranceways of apartment buildings, Goldstein said, “There are vestiges all over the city of things that don’t exist anymore, but you just have to look.”

Photographing obscure sightings in the city is an appropriate pastime for Goldstein. A NYC buff and proselytizer for his neighborhood of the Lower East Side, he also makes short documentaries on how movies succeed (or fail) to depict his cherished city. In 2010, Goldstein’s made-in-a-day tour of director Martin Scorsese’s childhood neighborhood, Les Rues de Mean Streets, appeared as a special feature in a French DVD. In the Footsteps of “Speedy” (2015) distinguishes the moments from Harold Lloyd’s 1928 silent comedy that were shot in NYC from those made in Los Angeles. In Uncovering “The Naked City” (2020), Goldstein educates viewers on the staggering amount of authentic filming locations in Jules Dassin’s groundbreaking 1948 police film.

His most recent short, Pelham One Two Three: NYC Underground, which premiered on HBO Max on May 6 as a part of the TCM Classic Film Festival, introduces the 1974 crime film as an authentic subway thriller. After detailing how the film’s crew had to wear surgical masks while shooting in underground tunnels, Goldstein looks to the camera in faux surprise and asks, “Could you imagine?”

Goldstein has often been referred to as a showman, a descriptor he hopes he lives up to. It’s a reputation earned over decades of going the extra mile in delighting his audiences, whether presenting 3-D films from the ’50s with the projection techniques of the time, sending skeletons flying over heads as buzzers ring under seats for screenings of William Castle’s gimmicky horror movies, or making sure a pianist is present to accompany a silent film. “I’m kind of inspired by showmanship,” said Goldstein. “I don’t think you can just show movies. It’s not enough anymore—never was.”

While a lover of the past, Goldstein has never been a stranger for embracing the new. His 2012 “This is DCP” series marked a celebration of the vivid quality that digital restorations and projection can bring to classic movies at a venue long known for screening rare 35mm prints on celluloid. In 2015, Goldstein hired Elspeth Carroll out of college. As she went from assistant to programmer, he gave her the wiggle room to create series that fell outside of his own expertise, such as a sweeping international slate of films entitled “THE HOUR OF LIBERATION: Decolonizing Cinema, 1966-1981.”

“He’s always been very good at recognizing and boosting good ideas, even when they’re out of his wheelhouse,” said Carroll. “He understands the audience better than anyone and has great instincts for how things will play and how to promote them.”

Film Forum reopened April 2, adhering to the 25% seating limit in New York City movie theaters (it has since been uncapped with the caveat being that moviegoers must be seated six feet apart). Goldstein doesn’t envision a full return to programming the large, exhaustive series that have characterized his tenure as Film Forum’s resident showman anytime soon. However, he is making plans for series that would accommodate more films as the number of people that can enter the theater continues to grow.

A Goldstein-crafted retrospective on 15 classic Humphrey Bogart films will screen at Film Forum from July 16 to August 5. The theater also has the unscreened film prints of the canceled half of “The Women Behind Hitchcock,” and Goldstein intends to finish what he started.

Carlotta Monti

In 1933, W. C. Fields met a young actress named Carlotta Monti. They had an off-again, on-again relationship over the remaining years of his life. They frequently lived together, with her taking the role of his mistress. She later wrote the book, W. C. Fields and Me, which was later made into a biographical film after his death.

Silent Film Director Recalls W.C. Fields - HISTORY

Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926):

The greatest male attraction in exotic, adventurous romantic pictures was handsome, hot-blooded Italian-born import Rudolph Valentino, after his breakthrough appearance in the famous tango scene in director Rex Ingram's spectacle The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). Dubbed the "Latin Lover," the matinee idol symbolized the forbidden and mysterious eroticism denied to American women in the 1920s in such films as The Sheik (1921), Camille (1921), the successful Blood and Sand (1922), The Eagle (1925), and The Sheik's popular sequel The Son of the Sheik (1926). The Son of the Sheik was a tremendous hit, released at the time of Valentino's funeral.

In 1926, his death came at the untimely age of 31, due to a perforated ulcer and peritonitis. Crowds in New York, mostly female mourners, verged on mass hysteria as they tried to view his body. [One of Valentino's legacies was that a brand of popular condoms was named after his role in one of his most famous films.] Native-born director Clarence Brown, who had directed Valentino in The Eagle (1925) also directed imported actress Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil (1927), Woman of Affairs (1928), and turn-of-the-decade Anna Christie (1930).

German Expressionism and Its Influence:

An artistic movement termed Expressionism was established in the prolific European film-making industry following World War I. It flourished in the 1920s, especially in Germany in a 'golden age' of cinema (often termed 'Weimar Cinema'), due to fewer restrictions and less strict production schedules.

Expressionism was marked by stylization, dark shadows and dramatic chiaroscuro lighting, visual story-telling, grotesque characters, distorted or slanted angular shots (of streets, buildings, etc.) and abstract sets. Leading directors utilizing these new unconventional, atmospheric and surrealistic dramatic styles included G.W. Pabst (known later for directing American actress Louise Brooks in Pandora's Box (1929)), Paul Leni (who directed the 'old dark house' film The Cat and the Canary (1927) and Universal's The Man Who Laughs (1928) with Conrad Veidt), F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang.

In the early 1920s, three nightmarish, German expressionistic films were to have a strong and significant influence on the coming development of U.S. films in the 30s-40s - notably the horror film cycle of Universal Studios in the 30s, and the advent of film noir in the 1940s:

  • Robert Wiene's surrealistic fantasy/horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919-20, Germ.) (aka Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari) starring Conrad Veidt - the earliest and most influential of German Expressionistic cinema
  • F. W. Murnau's classic vampire film (the first of its kind) with actor Max Schreck - an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula novel titled Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horrors (1922, Germ.) (aka Nosferatu, Symphonie des Grauens)
  • Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922, Germ.) (aka Doktor Mabuse der Spieler) introduced the director's evil genius character
  • -- Lang's Metropolis (1927, Germ.) has generally been considered the last of the classic German Expressionistic films

Destined to encourage the viewing of foreign-language films, English subtitles were put on the German musical Two Hearts in Waltz Time (1930) (aka Zwei Herzen im Dreiviertel-Takt) by Herman Weinberg. It was the first film to be subtitled for release in the United States.

Some of the best artists, directors, and stars (such as Pola Negri, Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre and Greta Garbo) from European film-making circles were imported to Hollywood and assimilated there as emigrants. A number of early directors in Hollywood were hired artists from abroad - including successful German directors F. W. Murnau (invited to Hollywood by William Fox for his first Fox film - the critically-acclaimed Sunrise (1927)), Fritz Lang, Josef von Sternberg and Ernst Lubitsch (he directed his first American film, Rosita (1923) starring Mary Pickford), the great Swedish director Victor Seastrom (famous for The Wind (1928) - the last silent film of Lillian Gish), Austrian-born director Erich von Stroheim, producer Alexander Korda, director Michael Curtiz (recruited by Warners from Hungary), German cinematographer Karl Freund, and Russian-born director Rouben Mamoulian.

Director Ernst Lubitsch's first American comedy The Marriage Circle (1924) about marital infidelity in Vienna, was later remade as the musical One Hour With You (1932). With his classic, sophisticated "touch," Lubitsch boldly confronted the pre-Hays code of censorship with So This Is Paris (1926).

Later in Germany, Fritz Lang's last major silent film was the futuristic drama Metropolis (1927) - the expensive film enriched cinema in years to come with its innovative techniques, futuristic sets and Expressionistic production design, and allegorical study of the class system. Murnau's notable silent film weepie classic The Last Laugh (1924) told its entire story about a proud but demoted hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) through visualization, innovative camera movements (with only one inter-title), stylized mis-en-scene, a subjective point-of-view, and optical effects. Both Lang's Metropolis and Murnau's The Last Laugh were filmed by the pioneering German cameraman Karl Freund.

Murnau also filmed Moliere's 17th century satire Tartuffe (1925) as a movie within a movie, and Goethe's tragedy Faust (1926) with stunning chiaroscuro, images of medieval castles, huge mountains and Faust (Gosta Ekman) flying with Mephisto (Emil Jannings). Faust was the film that gave Murnau a contract with Hollywood's Fox Studios. The dark films of Josef von Sternberg in the late 1920s ushered in the gangster film: Underworld (1927), The Drag Net (1929), and The Docks of New York (1929).

Austrian-born director Erich von Stroheim's style was more harsh and European than the works of other imported directors. He had begun as an assistant director to D. W. Griffith. His specialty was the melodramatic portrayal of a decadent Europe with audacious scenes of sexuality. His brooding and expensive Foolish Wives (1922) was the longest commercially-made American film to be released uncut at 6 hours and 24 minutes in Latin America, but it was severely edited to a 10-reel version for general release. Von Stroheim's admired nine-hour, 42-reel silent masterpiece Greed (1924) (a detailed adaptation of Frank Norris' novel McTeague) was screened only once in its original form for newly-formed MGM executives including Irving Thalberg, and then severely cut down to its current length of 133 minutes (about 10 reels). Reportedly, the 32 reels of edited negatives were melted down by MGM to extract the valuable silver nitrate from the film stock. The same difficulties of extravagant over-spending and interminable length also plagued his film The Wedding March (1928).

Legendary Russian auteur director Sergei Eisenstein's classic landmark and visionary film, Battleship Potemkin (1925, Soviet Union) was released in the US in 1926, advancing the art of cinematic storytelling with the technique of montage (or film editing). Its most celebrated film scene, with superb editing combining wide, newsreel-like sequences inter-cut with close-ups of harrowing details - to increase tension, was the Odessa Steps episode. It was based upon the incident in 1905 when civilians and rioters were ruthlessly massacred. In the scene (with 155 separate shots in less than five minutes), the Czarist soldiers fired on the crowds thronging on the Odessa steps with the indelible, kinetic image of a baby carriage careening down the marble steps leading to the harbor, and the symbolism of a stone lion coming awake. [Note: The scene was parodied in a number of films, including Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985) and Brian DePalma's The Untouchables (1987).]

Another technological cinematic achievement was attained by experimental French filmmaker Abel Gance in his film Napoleon (1927, Fr.), a visually revolutionary picture originally six hours long and partially filmed with panoramic, "triptych" Polyvision (three-screens side-by-side to create a wide-screen effect, later known by future generations as Cinerama) at its climax. This meant that the film had to be shot with three synchronized cameras, and then projected on a gigantic, 3-part screens. [Within a few years, Fox's Grandeur wide-screen system was an early attempt at 70 mm. film gauge.]

And at the end of the decade, the influential and creative film The Man with the Movie Camera (1929, Soviet Union) from experimental cameraman/director Dziga Vertov, employed some of the first uses of the split screen, montage editing, and rapidly-filmed scenes in its view of Moscow.

Comedy Flourished: Arbuckle, Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton and More

It was a great era for light-hearted silent comedy, with the triumvirate of humorists: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, and the early popularity of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle until a scandal destroyed his career in 1921.

"Fatty" Arbuckle was one of the earliest silent film comedians (as well as director and screenwriter). He started out with the Selig Polyscope Company in 1909 (his first film was Ben's Kid (1909)), and then went onto Universal Pictures in 1913 and also appeared in several of Mack Sennett's Keystone Comedies films, noted for fast-paced chase sequences and 'pie-in-the-face' segments. Arbuckle was the first of the silent comedians to direct his own films, starting with Barnyard Flirtations (1914). His teaming with Mabel Normand at Keystone, in a series of "Fatty and Mabel" films, were lucrative for the studio.

In 1917, Arbuckle formed his own production company ("Comique Film Corporation") with producer Joseph Schenck which afforded more creative control, hiring Buster Keaton to star in his first film The Butcher Boy (1917). He used his 'fatness' as part of his sight gags, and his slightly-vulgar but sweet and playful character became extremely popular with younger audiences. By 1919, he had secured at $3 million/3-year contract with Paramount Pictures to star in 18 silent films - the first multi-year, multi-million dollar deal for a Hollywood studio. It has been little mentioned that Arbuckle mentored and aided Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin as they entered the film business, before his own downfall in the early 1920s.

While Arbuckle's latest comedy was playing across the country, Crazy to Marry (1921), he was celebrating in San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel over a three-day Labor Day weekend. During the bash in the hotel with liquor freely flowing (during Prohibition!), he was accused of the rape and murder of young 25 year-old starlet and 'party girl' Virginia Rappe in a widely-publicized case - Rappe died a few days later in a hospital of a ruptured bladder. Arbuckle was thoroughly and unfairly chastised by Hearst's 'trial-by newspaper' (with soaring sales) and public condemnation. One of the partygoers interviewed by the prosecution was an unreliable witness named Maude Delmont, known in LA as a blackmailer and as "Madame Black" - with a criminal history of fraud and extortion (she would lure young women to parties in order to entrap wealthy males). She claimed that Arbuckle assaulted Rappe, although other witnesses disputed her assertions. Fatty's career was substantially over, although he was eventually fully acquitted of the act after three trials in the spring of 1922.

The popularity of Charlie Chaplin as the Tramp soared in movies after his initial films with Keystone, Essanay, and Mutual. As already stated, he co-founded United Artists studios in 1919 with Mary Pickford, D. W. Griffith, and Douglas Fairbanks. His first silent feature film was First National's 6-reel The Kid (1921) (with child star Jackie Coogan), in which he portrayed the Tramp in an attempt to save an abandoned and orphaned child. (35 year old Chaplin married his underage, 16 year-old The Kid co-star Lita Grey in 1924).

Chaplin also appeared in The Pilgrim (1923) - in which he mimed the David and Goliath story, and in the classic The Gold Rush (1925), a story with pathos and wild comedy about a Lone Prospector in Alaska. Chaplin was presented with a special Academy Award "for versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing, and producing" for The Circus (1928). Chaplin's comedies were matched by the acrobatics and dare-devil antics of silent comic Harold Lloyd, who appeared as a gallant, 'never-say-die' All-American "Boy" (with glasses) in Safety Last (1923) - famous for his harrowing climb up the side of a tall building, Girl Shy (1924), The Freshman (1925), and The Kid Brother (1927).

There was also the inspired comedic work of passively-unsmiling, sardonic Buster Keaton (The Great Stone Face) in Sherlock Jr. (1924) (Keaton's first solo directorial work), The Navigator (1924), the Civil War epic The General (1927) (Keaton co-directed with Clyde Bruckman) about a runaway train with spectacular sight gags, Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) - his last independent film, and The Cameraman (1928), Keaton's first film for MGM that also marked the beginning of his decline.

Baby-faced Harry Langdon's best feature film in a short four-year film career, The Strong Man (1926), was director Frank Capra's feature-film debut. The film predated Chaplin's City Lights (1931) by several years with its plot of a meek man in love with a blind woman. Langdon also starred in two other hits: Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926) and Capra's Long Pants (1927) that would place him the same league as his three other comic contemporaries: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy appeared in their first film as a slapstick comedy team - a Hal Roach studio comedy Duck Soup (1927), and then performed in director Clyde Bruckman's Putting Pants on Philip (1927). The Marx Brothers debuted in their first film together in 1929, The Cocoanuts (1929).

Our History: Comedian W.C. Fields once called Bayside home

In January the American Museum of the Moving Image presented a retrospective celebrating the career of a master comedian, W.C. Fields. A genius at screen comedy, Fields began his career as a variety hall entertainer and became known for his acerbic humor as well as his bulbous nose and drawling voice. Accounts of the Museum event did not mention, however, that Fields was once a resident of the village of Bayside and that some of his early silent films were made here. One was filmed on Bell Avenue (the former name for today’s Bell Boulevard) in front of my husband’s boyhood home near 48th Avenue, which was used as a backdrop and he was present, sitting on the picket fence in front of which the cameras were poised.

W.C. Fields was born Claude William Dunkenfield in April 1879 in Philadelphia. At a young age he ran away from home, had some encounters with the law for petty thievery, and somehow drifted into vaudeville. Often billed as “The Greatest Comedian in the World,” he preferred to be known as the “greatest juggler on earth” and it was as a comedic juggler that he made his early reputation. He joined the Ziegfield Follies in 1915 and later appeared in the Scandals of 1922 before he made “Sally of the Sawdust,” directed by the famed D.W. Griffith.

During filming Fields improvised much of his material. However, he did write the screenplays for many of his films using various pseudonyms. He appeared with Baby Leroy in “It’s a Gift,” one of his child-hating vehicles, and played such varied roles as Zazu Pitts’ mail-order husband in “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch.” As the “Great McGonigle” he played a self-styled turn-of-the-century actor-manager of a melodrama theater.

Field’s misanthropic view of the world which was reflected in his films is said by some to stem from his youthful experiences on the seedier streets of Philadelphia.

At 21 Fields was an international juggling star. After he had starred in Ziegfield’s Follies in 1914, he made his first film, “Pool Shark,” which was based on one of his most famous acts.

Fields had an erratic career in silent films but was able to rise to stardom with the arrival of sound. His comic personality and observations on life blended well with his bulbous nose and bleary eyes as some bizarre calamity loomed ahead.

His best films, “Million Dollar Legs” (1936), “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man” (1939), “My Little Chickadee” (1940), “The Bank Dick” (1940) and “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break” (1941), made him one of the most popular stars of his time.

One of the most inspired casting choices was MGM’s decision to borrow Fields from Paramount to play Micawber in “David Copperfield,” though director George Cukor had great difficulty persuading Fields that juggling could not be worked into the script. Even so, this great actor left the unique imprint of his personality on the film.

In the early 20th century Bayside, with its prize position close to the nerve center of New York City and situated in a fashionable location on Little Neck Bay, beckoned a group of wealthy stars and executives from the expanding motion picture industry. Long before Malibu, this village literally became a movie colony. Among the nouveau riche was Fields who lived around the corner from Joseph Schenk, the movie producer, and his movie actress wife, Norma Talmadge. Fields’ house still stands but it no longer goes down to the beach as it once did, for the property was separated from the shoreline when the Cross Island Parkway was built.

Watch the video: . Fields. The Art of Offense. A Docu-Mini