"Someone should tell Mr. Fields that he does not have to wear that silly, artificial nose to be funny," a critic once wrote about our star of the month W.C. Fields. The writer, who obviously didn't get around much, was unaware that Fields' big, bulbous, tomato-red nose was "The Real McCoy," a huge apparition some observers swore grew in size by the week. (Edgar Bergen via his dummy Charlie McCarthy, used to refer to Fields as "the original half-man, half-nose.") The critic, however, was dead-on regarding that other observation about Fields: he was indeed funny, hilariously funny, and we have the films to prove it. All month long we'll be showing you ample samples of his ability to inspire laughs, roars and guffaws of the knee-slapping variety. Further, in between the Fields films, we'll also be bringing you a cornucopia of tidbits about the man behind the schnozola. He was, for instance, born William Claude Dunkenfield and was billed under all three names when he began as a juggler in show business when barely in his teens. At the age of 16, one theatre manager found that name much too long for his billboard, so without even asking, the manager chopped off the "Dunken" and substituted initials in place of the boy's two given names, thus, W.C. Fields was born and remained so for the next 51 years.
History doesn't tell us at which age he began drinking but his imbibing eventually became as legendary as his comic turns. It's said Fields could easily down three quarts of whiskey in a day and not only keep standing, but keep working. Fields wrote most of his funniest films himself, under pseudonyms like Mahatma Kane Jeeves, Otis Criblecablis and Charles Bogle, and in the scripts he wrote, his movie wives were invariably pretentious harridans and his film sons were always disrespectful whiners. That was Fields' basic impression of his own wife and son; about his wife Hattie, Fields once said, "She drove me to drink. It's the one thing I'm indebted to her for." There was no daughter in the Fields' household, which is probably why the daughters in his screenplays were loving and gentle, a gilded image of the daughter he wished he had.
Fields came very close to starring in MGM's classic The Wizard of Oz. In August 1938, the film's producer Mervyn LeRoy asked Fields to play either The Wizard or The Cowardly Lion, whichever he preferred, for which he would receive star billing and a $5000-per-day fee, an astronomical fee. Fields said no; he didn't thinkWizard had the sweet smell of success about it. He may have been a bad fortune-teller and a less than sober citizen, but nothing kept him from bouncing forth with funny lines and first-rate quips, even on his deathbed. When one of his last visitors came to see him, Fields was reading a Bible. Since he had never been a religious man, the visitor asked, "why the Bible? Retorted W.C., a rascal to the end, "I'm lookin' for loopholes."
by Robert Osborne