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Books: Never give a sucker an even break

Scott Bradfield toasts the wit who made an exhibition of himself
The Man on the Flying Trapeze: the life and times of WC Fields by Simon Louvish, Faber, pounds 20

In his various guises as Egbert Souse, Professor Eustace McGargle and Cuthbert J Twillie, WC Fields played an unregenerate con-man who could sell a nasty bill of goods to practically anyone - including himself. He wrestled children for their piggy-banks, insulted women and their poor, grey-haired old mothers, kicked small dogs that bothered him, and readily blew the family savings on any get-rich-quick scheme that came along. Then, whenever anybody called him on his atrocious behaviour, he simply gave them a begrudged little shrug and reached for the nearest bottle. "I note the derogatory rumours concerning my use of alcoholic stimulant and lavish living," he once wrote to his long-estranged wife, Hattie. "It is the penalty of greatness."

Born in 1880 just outside Philadelphia (the city he loved to hate, where "anyone found smiling after curfew was liable to get arrested"), William Claude Dukenfield met the age of quacks, gold-brick-pedlars and circus barkers head on. In his youth he roamed the streets, working as a shill in small cons, and as a hustler in pool-rooms.

Then, when "the juggling urge first asserted itself" in his teens, he joined vaudeville, went on a series of annual world tours, and eventually became one of the best paid performers in his business. Fed up with travelling by 1915, he joined the Ziegfield Follies and, in his spare time, began starring in silent-film comedies, none of which did very well.

Fields's entire persona was, like the age of quick-cons that inspired it, one of a shifty demeanour inflated by words, so it wasn't until talkies arrived that he enjoyed his first real film successes. In a series of shorts he wrote and starred in during the early Thirties, Fields perfected the personality he'd worked on throughout his burlesque career - a hucksterish self-promoter in search of whatever immediate gratification he can get.

He showed up as anybody from a thug-like dentist who prefers telling golf tales to torturing patients, to the immortal bond-forger, Effingham Bellweather, wanted by the law for "Eating spaghetti in public. Using hard words in a speakeasy", and even "Revealing the facts of life to an Indian". It's a sneaky world, and some people just happen to be better at it than others.

By the time Fields finished his most successful films (from the brilliant It's A Gift! in 1934 to The Bank Dick in 1940), he was already in his late fifties. And considering his hard living, his age might as well have been measured in dog years. He spent most of his free time with the likes of John Barrymore, and whatever time was left over, drying out in sanatoriums, where he impatiently awaited the case-load shipments of gin, vermouth and beer smuggled into him each week by his assistant.

"There is no question as to whether whiskey or the dog is man's best friend," Fields once wrote. "Whiskey does not need to be periodically wormed, it does not need to be fed. You have to train a dog. But you never have to train a bottle of grog." Unless of course, the grog trains you instead.

It's the primary argument of Simon Louvish's enthusiastic new biography that Fields perfected only one great work of art in his career, and that was himself. By digging through the comedian's personal scrapbooks and letters, Louvish has done an excellent job both in presenting the age that produced Fields and sorting Fields's own lies from the thinner facts of his strange and selfish life.

There's a lot of data here - transcripts of old burlesque routines, out-takes from films, letters from film censors, and so on - and it sometimes muffles the hearty roar of Fields himself. But in the end, Louvish does prove his basic contention: that Fields's existing films only mark "the tip of a giant iceberg of comedy".

It's hard to imagine any of Fields's best lines being spoken by anybody else, because his comedy was always aimed at himself. No matter how rude he may have been to children, dogs and old women, he played the part of himself like a tired and weatherbeaten man whose self-derogatory gestures and asides suggested that anybody who took him seriously deserved whatever they got.

In the paradigmatic words of Larson E Whipsnade (president and general manager of Whipsnade's Circus Giganticus): "As my grandfather said before they sprung the trap: `You can't cheat an honest man. Never give a sucker an even break or smarten up a chump. Step this way, folks, the Big Show is about to begin' ... "

So step right up. And don't be a chump.