A great hatred of water

MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE: The Life and Times of W C Fields by Simon Louvish, Faber pounds 20

When W C Fields and three of his Hollywood drinking companions arrived to register for "home defence" in 1941, the young woman who gave them their registration papers is supposed to have asked: "Gentlemen, who sent you? The enemy?" The story, unlike many about Fields, is probably true, but not necessarily so the image it evokes: the Great McGonigle, alias Eustace McGargle, alias Augustus Q Winterbottom, offering with an expansive gesture to exchange his stovepipe hat and check trousers for an army uniform. But then it comes as a surprise to learn from Simon Louvish in this informative but somewhat pedestrian biography that the legend is often deceptive and that the old rascal made quite an effort to cover his tracks.

He certainly drank: there is nothing apocryphal about the often-declared hatred of water, and he seems to have sustained high levels of consumption through the Twenties and Thirties, with less annoyance from Prohibition than he was to have from the taxman and the Hays Code. But there is less to confirm the abhorrence, just as loudly proclaimed, of children, animals, domineering women and Christmas; even the famous nose was chiefly attributable to heredity, sinus and a skin condition. And the one thing Fields really hated was cant.

He had three or four distinct careers, dovetailing into each other, the music hall leading to the Ziegfield Follies and preparing him for the routines of silent cinema, the comedy sketches of the Follies providing material for his talking pictures. He was born William Claude Duckenfield, around March 1880, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He liked to nurture the myth of a Dickensian childhood, running away from home to scrape a bare existence thieving and begging, then going into show business at the age of eleven, so that (a typical Fieldsian touch) "I could sleep late in the mornings". In reality, he seems to have started at the age of 16 as an assistant to a specialist in something like the three-card trick. Hard work and determination made Fields an expert "eccentric juggler", with a repertoire of tricks and humorous routines.

Music hall, vaudeville and burlesque theatre at the turn of the century had an immense appetite for such talent. By 1901, having established his reputation in America, Fields was making his first appearance in Germany; by 1914, when he returned from his last foreign tour, having travelled several times round the world, he had a reputation second only to that of Houdini.

Simon Louvish has conscientiously hunted down the materials for a thorough account of this period in Fields's life: playbills, notices, letters, reminiscences. This is the most absorbing section of his biography, discarding a number of inventions in Fields's own unreliable memoirs and taking us into a sphere of entertainment that has all but vanished. Fields, the eccentric juggler, in his tramp's costume, shared the bill with comedians, impersonators, trick cyclists, hypnotists, clowns, conjurors and often the "biograph", a short film featuring as a novelty. By the time of his foreign tours, he was also married; and though the marriage was to last only seven years, Louvish sets out to re-establish the neglected Hattie Hughes's importance in her husband's life and career.

"I am at a loss to extend permission to you for the hand of my daughter Hattie in marriage, never having met you," her mother wrote to Fields in 1899, in a letter that suggests a whole social world. "However, under the circumstances, and believing you possessed of every noble quality of a man, and gentleman, I consent. She is a noble and superb girl well worthy to be a wife, qualified with every amiable trait of character."

Fields travelled with his trick pool table and, according to one account, with three boxes of books. His own letters are often amusing, but show traces of his interrupted schooling; he read with the hunger of the self- educated man. He passionately loved Dickens, like that other tramp of silent movies, Charlie Chaplin. But, while Chaplin (who really did have a "Dickensian" childhood) aimed for sentiment, Fields's Dickens is the creator of the unreformed Scrooge and the irrepressible Mr Micawber - whom Fields was to play, memorably, in George Cukor's Oliver Twist. He loved language, but language in performance: extensively quoted here, his verbal humour on its own usually lies flat on the page: you have to see the man and hear the voice. Luckily, we have them on film, however imperfect the films may be. Louvish quotes enough of the censor's reports to remind us how restricted a medium cinema was in the Thirties and Forties: "Any and all dialogue and showing of bananas and pineapples is unacceptable ...", "the business of the man taking out his false teeth strikes us as a piece of business which will give offense to mixed audiences ...", and so on, in a struggle to maintain grotesque standards of good taste and decency.

Despite the irony of his dying on Christmas Day, there is a deep sadness about the end of Fields's story. Several of his close friends preceded him: Will Rogers in a plane crash, John Barrymore another victim of alcoholism. The jokes about sauce and sarsaparilla, libations and water shortages and ninety-proof buttermilk begin to sound more painful than humorous. Louvish also suggests that Fields had an underlying sense of failure, which is believable: the cinema is a cold medium compared to the music hall, and not even fast cars and a Hollywood mansion could compensate for the excitement of the vaudeville days.

Exploding the myth is a thankless task. Louvish makes Fields's later life seem both sadder and duller than one imagined, and one could have done with a few more anecdotes, however questionable - a dash of the night before, to make up for the hangover. An epilogue to this biography sums up its subject: more of a conformist than he might seem, less misanthropic than he pretended, not as funny as he would have liked.

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?