W.C. Fields was born William Claude Dukenfield in January, 1880. He began his stage work as a juggler on the vaudeville stage. He became a world-class act, and toured several continents as "The Eccentric Juggler", dressed in hobo-like attire. Remarkably, for someone who later became instantly recognizable by his voice alone, he worked silently in his early juggling act. He added dialogue later when he took his act to Broadway. Some of his juggling prowess was demonstrated in the 1931 film Her Majesty Love and the 1934 movie The Old-Fashioned Way.
Fields worked in silent films from about 1915 into the 1920s, transitioning to sound films in the 1930s. He made a series of two-reelers, including:
The Golf Specialist
He went on to full-length films, many written by Fields himself, for Paramount and for Universal. These include: You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, The Bank Dick, My Little Chickadee, and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, and many others. Perhaps one of his most famous - and hilarious - scenes is the porch scene from It's a Gift.
Fields also worked in network radio, in particular with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Fields maintained an ongoing feud and insult exchange with Bergen's dummy, Charlie McCarthy.
Fields married Hattie Hughes in 1900, and they had one son. They separated less than a decade later, but never divorced. Fields corresponded with Hattie and supported his son until Fields' death.
Much has been said and written about W.C. Fields and his abuse of alcohol. Like so many quotes that have been attributed to Fields, it becomes hard to separate fact from fiction. I don't doubt that he was a heavy drinker, and that it shortened his career and his life. He spent considerable time in a sanitorium in his final years, and is said to have suffered from D.T.s. He died of a stomach hemorrhage on Christmas Day, 1946, at age 66.
Fields is one of the few persons in films that can make me laugh with a look, a gesture, or one of his sarcastic, cynical asides - usually muttered under his breath. Almost all his characters were rather shady curmudgeons, struggling to make their way in the world and do right by their families. It's amazing to me how alike many of his characters were, but how fresh every scene seems, no matter how many times I see them. Woody Allen called Fields one of only six genuine comic geniuses, the other five including Peter Sellers and two of the Marx Brothers. It's too bad that they're all gone, and there's no more of their work to come. But they were so good, what they left behind is enough to sustain us for a lifetime.