Despite having been the subject of more than 25 books, W.C. Fields has been so caricatured for so long, that it is hard to imagine the portly curmudgeon as a flesh-and-blood human being. But James Curtis rectifies the situation -- and then some--with his new biography.

Despite having been the subject of more than 25 books, W.C. Fields has been so caricatured for so long, that it is hard to imagine the portly curmudgeon as a flesh-and-blood human being. But James Curtis rectifies the situation — and then some–with his new biography.

This handsomely produced, exhaustively researched tome not only dispels many myths about Fields, but also allows readers to appreciate the performer anew. Using private papers, letters, and interviews with colleagues, Curtis depicts a man who did not dislike children, did not drink on film sets (he took up drinking late in life to relieve severe ailments), and was frugal but not stingy with money.

Regarding the unheralded Fields, Curtis documents his efforts as a gangly juggler on vaudeville, his sketches for Broadway’s Ziegfeld Follies, and the writing and directing for which he rarely received credit on his films — including “The Old Fashioned Way” and “My Little Chickadee,” his legendary collaboration with Mae West.

Even the career footnotes are intriguing: Fields’ nightmarish make-up sessions as Humpty-Dumpty for “Alice in Wonderland”; his replacement of Charles Laughton as Micawber in David Copperfield; and his losing out on the title role in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Curtis doesn’t shy away from the more troubling side of Fields’ private life, either, including his bad temper, and his often cavalier treatment of his many mistresses during his lengthy marriage to one Hattie Hughes Fields.

As with his books about Preston Sturges and James Whale, Curtis is more than meticulous. A small quibble, however: that perfunctory title! (“Between Flops,” about Sturges, and “A New World of Gods and Monsters,” about Whale, were so perfect.) One also wishes for a bit more about the relevance of Fields today (what with his trademark ironic understatement), but then this book isn’t meant to be analysis as much as biography–and as that it succeeds admirably.

W.C. Fields: A Biography

Alfred A. Knopf, $35, 593 pgs.

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James Curtis
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