Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W. C. Fieldsby Simon Louvish, W.C. Fields, w.c. fields
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"[Fields] was his own greatest creation, and in Louvish, this complicated artist has finally found the biographer he deserves."Malcolm Jones, Jr., NewsweekMan on the Flying Trapeze is the first biography in decades and the only accurate one of the beloved cinematic curmudgeon and inimitable comic genius W. C. Fields. Simon Louvish brilliantly sifts through evidence of Fields's own self-creation to illuminate the vaudeville world from which Fields sprang and his struggles with studios and censors to make his hilarious films-in the process confirming suspicions (yes, he did drink) and confounding them (he doted on his grandchildren). "One of the best movie biographies to come along in quite some time. . . . [A] book to cherish."Film Review "[Man on the Flying Trapeze] nicely regales us with many vaudevillian stories. . . . Louvish does a heroic job."Katharine Whittemore, New York Times Book Review "A rapturous, giddy, and irrepressible book. . . . Let us be clear: this is a delight, a marvel of research . . . and a superb argument for the case that William Claude Dukenfield was, and is, the greatest comic the movies have given us."David Thomson "At last 'the Great Man' (as Fields called himself, accurately) has a great biography."Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
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In the Beginning -- 'All Jumbled Up
The little man tugged timidly at the attendant's sleeve, his face, as Will Fowler described it, 'hollowed from seasons of disappointment ... "I knew him for 35 years, in vaudeville first. Duffy and Sweeney ..."' He shuffled away and nobody took his picture. And from that day to this nobody knew his name.
But we can trace him now. Duffy and Sweeney. They were, in the jargon of the stage, a 'nut act'. That is, an act in which the protagonists beat each other up on the stage. Sweeney would begin a pointless story while Duffy dozed in a chair. Duffy would wake, slap his partner in the face, and bow to the audience. Sweeney would smack Duffy on the jaw. Then they would fall on and off the chair. Duffy had begun his career as a child with his father and mother as Duffy, Sawtelle and Duffy, at the turn of the twentieth century. In the week of 4 November 1899 they were appearing at Tony Pastor's Vaudeville Theatre, and the critic of the New York Dramatic Mirror wrote:
Master Duffy carries off the honours. He should be instructed to speak much more slowly and distinctly, as many of his best gags lose their effect on account of his quickness, which necessitates the repetition of the lines by his elders.
Master Duffy was then ten years old. On the same bill, the great Tony Pastor himself sang every evening, and a speciality was presented, 'A Trip to the Vaudevilles', written by another young man going places, George M. Cohan. On the same page of the Mirror, the critics noted that Irwin's Burlesquers appeared at Miner's Eighth Avenue Theatre, and 'introduced Carver and Pollard, Sisters Tredwyn, Bailey and Madison, Mlle. Marie, Thompson and Carter, and W. C. Fields. Business excellent.'
Later in his career, James Terence Duffy joined with an actress named Mercedes Lorenz, 'in odds and ends of rhyme and melody', but he was already becoming known for another factor of the actor's life through the ages -- that is, the curse of strong drink. Duffy soon teamed up with another lover of the sauce, Frederick Sweeney, with whom he toured the various circuits. Duffy and Sweeney became as famous for their drinking prowess as for their act, so well known that even George Burns, in his own reminiscences seventy years rarer, recounted a typical tale of their exploits: Duffy and Sweeney are drinking steadily at a bar, until suddenly, without warning, Sweeney keels over on the floor. Duffy, without batting an eye, continued to swig his drink, commenting: 'I like a man who knows when to stop.'
Duffy came to a tragic end. In the spring of 1939, when, despite his alcoholism, he had been taken on for a radio show with NBC, his body was found in a doorway at the corner of 8th Avenue and 42nd Street in New York. Sweeney headed out west, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and then to Hollywood, where he found work in tiny, unrecorded bit parts. It was thus Sweeney who turned up at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Mausoleum on 2 January 1947, to miss the funeral of one of his greatest contemporaries on the vaudeville stage. He died in December 1954, at the age of sixty.
Frederick Sweeney was one of hundreds of foot soldiers of the army of actors who trod the boards of theatres throughout North America and, indeed, the world, and who would do anything, undergo any hardship, endure any humiliation and risk the failure, obscurity and oblivion that overtook so many. When previous writers wrote about W.C. Fields' anxieties, fears and paranoias, attention has always been paid to the supposed hardships of his early youth, his teenage years. But every actor, basking in the warmth of an ephemeral acclaim, the passing adulation of the public, knew how fleeting fame could be. They were aware of such items as the following in the Dramatic Mirror of 9 October 1909:
CIRCUS PERFORMER IN POORHOUSE
Diavolo, the original 'loop the loop' rider on a bicycle, who made a tremendous fortune with the Barnum and Bailey circus seven years ago, is reported to be in the workhouse at Milwaukee, Wis.. He is reported to have been arrested for vagrancy a week ago and to have been sentenced by a judge of the District Court.
No wonder W. C. Fields was said to have salted away money in seven hundred different bank accounts all over the world, although this, too, like so many other legends, turns out to be just another tall tale.
In looking at that vanished world of theatrical show business, before the advent of the motion picture, of radio, and finally of television -- the technologies which changed show business for ever -- we have first to define our terms. Names like 'vaudeville', 'variety', 'music hall' 'burlesque', 'revue', tend to be used promiscuously. Strange forgotten words, like 'olio', crop up, in different contexts, to confuse the reader. Other concepts, like 'medicine shows' and 'dime museums', cloud the air still further. The 'dime museum' was a euphemism for the freak show, pioneered in spectacular fashion by the 'Prince of Humbugs', Phineas T. Barnum, who began, as long ago as the 1830s, to exhibit an aged black woman named Joice Heth as the '160 year old nurse of George Washington' and a dried-up sewn-together mummy of a tunafish and a monkey as the 'Feejee Mermaid'. Show business was nothing if not eclectic from its earliest days in North America. The great Houdini himself began his career in a 'museum', as he related in his regular Vaudeville column, 'Houdini's Entertaining Chat', in the New York Dramatic Mirror -- writing from Germany, on 8 November 1902 (he was reporting on freak shows in Munich):
It reminded me of the time when I was travelling with the Welsh Brothers' Circus through Pennsylvania and had to be a freak myself. I was put in a small den and called 'Projea, the Wild Man of Mexico.' I remember once when Clint Newton threw me some raw meat to eat. He hit me in the eye, and I would not look at him for three weeks, as my eyes were closed. This caused me to become tame, and some one else had to play wild man of Mexico.
These kinds of circuses were probably the earliest form of entertainment in the American colonies. The diaries of Thomas Jefferson, in 1771, record:
Paid for hearing the musical glasses -- 3 shillings.
Paid for seeing the alligator -- 1 shilling, 3d.
And in 1786:
Paid for seeing figure of King of Prussia -- 12 francs.
Paid for seeing a learned pig -- 1 shilling.
Before photography, panoramas and wagon shows entertained the people with colourful views of western life and magic lantern shows. Before the building of the mighty railroads which tied America together, these shows travelled on the waterways, giving birth to the heyday of the showboats, which was to be reconstructed a century later in Florenz Ziegfeld's epic version of Edna Ferber's novel. The largest showboats could seat one thousand persons. The band would play into the night and the variety acts would perform under the stars as the great boats churned down the Mississippi. These were images which would return, on stage, and burn themselves too, into the imagination of the young William Claude, featuring in his 1935 film Mississippi, in which he would share the honours with another old-time nostalgist, Bing Crosby. Just as the circus would return again and again in his fictions, from Sally of the Sawdust in 1925, through the missing film Two Flaming Youths of 1927, The Old Fashioned Way of 1934 and up to Larson E. Whipsnade ...
The prototype of the circus barker and entrepreneur was of course P. T. Barnum himself. The master of fakery and the king of show business, Barnum could fleece the American, and eventually the European public, like no man before or after. After coining it in with the 'Feejee Mermaid', which even he admitted was a fake, he exploited the young midget Charles Stratton as the marvellous 'General Tom Thumb', exhibiting him all over the country and presenting him in London to Queen Victoria, in Napoleonic garb.
Although 'Tom Thumb' did not do badly by Barnum -- he married a fellow midget, Lavinia Warren, and retired with a fair stack of cash -- there was no doubt who raked in the main share. Less fortunate than the midgets were the more traditional exhibits, like 'Zip' the 'What Is It?', a retarded cone-headed black man named William Henry Johnson, whom Barnum displayed as the 'missing link': 'Is it a lower order of MAN? Or a higher order of MONKEY?' One has to remember that Darwin's Origin of Species had only recently exploded upon the philosophical scene. Other coups of Barnum's included his American touring of the 'Swedish Nightingale', Jenny Lind, whom Barnum built up into a paragon of art and beauty, auctioning tickets for her shows to the highest bidders and thus adding to his already fabulous pile. Despite his rarer bankruptcy, the indefatigable Humbug bounced back, transporting London Zoo's famous elephant, Jumbo, to become a world-wide household name. Even when the poor pachyderm died its carcass was exhibited around the country to yet more box office cheer.
One of the best descriptions of the old style 'dime museum' can be found in Fred Allen's autobiography Much Ado About Me. Fred Allen (1894-1956) began, like Fields, as a comedy juggler, but went on to become a major radio star, though he turned away from motion pictures He describes the famous Austin and Stone 'museum', on Boston's Scollay Square, which was run by the colourful Professor Hutching. At these establishments there was always a 'Professor', explaining the marvels within, a character taken over whole by Fields in his basic role as 'Eustace McGargle' in his first major stage hit, Poppy, in 1923. The Professor would introduce his attractions Chang, the Chinese Giant; Miss Eva Eversole, the Armless Wonder; Miss Corbin, 'the four-legged girl born with four perfectly formed legs; Riley, the man-fish, 'who eats, drinks, reads and smokes under water'; Jo-Jo, the Dog-Faced Boy, et al., in loud flowery tones. The Professor, who, Allen writes, 'was loath to use one word if eight or nine would do', would proclaim loftily: 'My constant aim is to elevate and instruct humanity.'
Across the road, the new Nickelodeon would charge five cents to see the moving pictures or bioscope, and ten cents extra to see the Big Girl Show, featuring 'dance routines completely devoid of skill or rhythm. If sex had been known in Boston at this time,' writes Allen, 'these girls would have set sex back two hundred years.' Other theatres presented the more full-blown burlesque: two acts consisting of varied sketches with a number of vaudeville or variety turns in between. This in-between category was known as the 'olio', which later, in the larger scale of vaudeville proper, came to describe the juggling and stand-up acts which were performed in front of the dropped curtain while the more complex routines were preparing behind it. The olio was the place in which new acts were often tried our and given their chance to blossom or die. It was better than coming on as the very first act, during which the audience was still coming in, banging and scraping their seats and shouting at each other across the hall.
Burlesque was rough and ready. At the Old Howard in Boston, Fred Allen relates, a burly policeman with a billy club kept order, appearing at the first row just before the show started to call out: 'Hers off! And no smoking! Keep your feet off the rails!' He would then smite the gallery rail with his billy, producing loud metallic vibrations which would smother the yelling of the patrons.
Burlesque, as ex-burlesque queen Ann Corio put it: 'was the breeding grounds for ... great comics. It gave them a stage, an audience, and a chance to develop the acts, mannerism, pantomime, or whatever made them famous. Al Jolson sang his first song in a burlesque house. Joe E. Brown was part of an acrobatic team.' Others in the Hall of Fame of comedy who began in burlesque were Will Rogers, Bert Lahr, Ed Wynn, Buster Keaton, Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Durante, and, as we shall see, W. C. Fields. The whole point of the burlesque, despite all of these gentlemen, was to bring on the girls. Burlesque ladies were famed for all manner of gyrations and contortions which they performed on stage and were immortalised in cigarette cards, which doubled as pin ups. These 'Ballet Queens' were almost invariably of ample proportions, and some would put the alumni of modern body-building emporiums to shame. Contemporary photographs show them bursting out of their ornate if flimsy attire capped by hats of the most outrageous mode. As the years moved on the attire became flimsier, eventually giving way to what we know today as 'strip-tease'. Even in the 1890s, when very little was revealed to the panting male public, burlesque was a byword for immorality, potential or actual, to stern reformers and ranting ministers of the cloth. The best managers protected their female performers from both their male colleagues and the mob. The worst absconded with everyone's funds.
The writer and critic Bernard Sobel described a typical burlesque show, in his Pictorial History of Burlesque:
The opening chorus goes something like this 'College girls, college girls, we are the college girls.'
Then the oversized prima donna appears with a letter in her hand and reads: 'I just received this letter from two millionaires, Mr Clancy and Mr Schwartz. Shall we show the gentlemen a good time?'
You bet!' shouts the entire company.
At this cue, the orchestra starts playing 'The wearing of the Green' and the Irishman appears, saying, 'By golly, where's Schwartz.?'
Immediately the Dutch comedian rushes in, shouting, 'Is dis de place?'
If it wasn't, it's difficult to imagine what was. This was the wellspring of American comedy. In the intermission, the audience would adjourn to the next-door saloon or to the sidewalk to chat up the girls or send a discreet note backstage. Then, in the 'olio', the speciality acts would come on, the knife-throwers, contortionists, musical-glass players, acrobats, singers, ventriloquists, the jugglers, and the 'added attractions', which might include a monologue by a famous celebrity such as a retired boxer, or a strong man. The famous Sandow, who was discovered by a young Florenz Ziegfeld, began his career in such shows, exhibiting 'his extraordinary command over his entire muscular system by making his muscles dance'. The boxers Jim Jeffries and James J. Corbett appeared often on these stages.
The most electrifying phenomenon in old burlesque was undoubtedly the infamous 'hootchie-cootchie'. This dance was apparently introduced to America by a lady known as 'Little Egypt', whose real name seems to have been Fahreda Mahzar Spyropolos. She first presented her gyrations at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, and stopped the show. Within a year there were hundreds of 'Little Egypts' wiggling their limbs throughout the United States. It appears to have been a kind of Balkan belly dance, but it set puritan American males into spasms. This special attraction would often herald the finale of a burlesque show, which would consist of a parade of all the girls, in patriotic star spangled banners, kicking their legs high above the perspiring clientele.
The burlesque shows spawned Weber and Fields, perhaps the most influential of the ethnic acts which proliferated in a country of churning immigrations. From humble beginnings in New York's Jewish Lower East Side, Joe Weber and Lew Fields became an inseparable double-act (until their separation in 1904) which practically wrote the rules of American musical comedy with shows produced at their own theatre, Weber & Fields' Music Hall. Beginning as a kid act playing make-believe Irish comedians, they performed a clog dance at various amateur nights before breaking through at Miner's Bowery Theatre. The act they then went on to perfect, as 'Mike and Meyer', became a hallowed teaching ground for many double-acts which formed later, and one can clearly see the origins of the Marx Brothers Groucho-Chico routines in their happy mangling of immigrant English:
MIKE: I am delightfulness to met you.
MEYER: Der disgust is all mine.
MIKE: I receivedid a letter from mein goil, but I don't know how to writteninin her back.
MEYER: ... How can you answer her ven you don't know how to write?
MIKE: Dot make no nefer mind. She don't know how to read.
They would then go into heavy knockabout stuff, beating each other over the head, poking in the eye and kicking in the shins with an explosive cap in the toe of the boot. Joe Weber was short and fat and Lew Fields was tall and thin. Laurel and Hardy of course also come to mind. As they became more famous they began to pioneer the combination of stage play and musical numbers which would mutate into the American musical. But in their early days they also developed a successful pool act, with all kinds of comedy business around a pool table the balls falling into the pockets in all manner of miraculous ways.
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Simon Louvish is the author of nine critically acclaimed novels, including The Days of Miracles and Wonders. He teaches film at the London International Film School and writes frequently about the Golden Age of comedy.
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W.C. Fields is my favorite of the old comedians, and with this book one gets a thorough--and apparently genuinely authoritative--view of his life. It also includes a view of the entertainment world of his era. If you want to know about Fields specifically, or vaudeville and early radio and movies in general, I recommend this book.
As with Louvish's Marx Brothers bio, this volume is spoiled by the author's limitations as a biography writer: his editorializing and lamentably lame attempts at making jokes in the style of his subject (or victim). Save your money and search out a copy of Ronald Fields' 'W.C. Fields by Himself' and let the Great Man speak for himself.