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.

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