W.C.FIELDS by Robert Lewis Taylor

W.C. FIELDS : HIS FOLLIES AND FORTUNES

by Robert Lewis Taylor

It was often difficult to trap Fields into telling the truth, but his father was, as he said, an Englishman – James Dukinfield, a London cockney, whose family had emigrated to America in the late 1870’s. He settled in the Germantown district of Philadelphia and married a neighbours daughter, Kate Felton. Their first child, William Claude, who later changed his name to W.C. Fields for professional reasons, was born on April 9, 1879. Both the Dukinfields and the Feltons were poor, and the Dukinfields had to scramble for a living. After weighing several professions, he invested in an elderly horse named White Swan and began to hawk vegetables and fruit. Years afterward, Fields was to give various accounts of his ancestry. He told an interviewer for a High School paper that both his father and mother suffered from leprosy, a blatant falsehood. During one period he maintained that his grandfather had invented a process for making imitation tortoise-shell combs, and, in attempting to come to America, had been shipwrecked off Glen Cove, Long Island. For years he attributed his artistic talent to a powerful theatrical strain in the family – an uncle, he said, had been a popular Swiss bell ringer at Elks’ smokers and chowder parties. “I’ve got the theatre in my blood,” Fields used to say.

The Dukinfield household was dedicated to making ends meet, and there are grounds for the belief that Fields was dangerously bored by the time he was four. The family recreation consisted of listening to Mr. Dukinfield sing sentimental and religious songs, after he’d had a couple of beers. His favourites were ‘The Little Green Leaf in the Bible,’ ‘Annie Laurie,’ and ‘Oh, Genevieve,’ all of which Fields detested to his dying day. In fact, he worked up a strong fixation about vocal singing, and would absent himself from any locality in which he believed song threatened. One of his mistresses, toward the end of his life, handled domestic spats by locking herself in his bathroom and singing at the top of her notable voice. Fields would howl, beat on the walls with a cane and threaten to burn the house down with her in it. He went to the length, on one occasion, of firing up some newspapers and holding them in such a way that the smoke curled under her door. She emerged, but continued to sing till she reached the street, and Fields later conceded her moral victory. “The girl’s got guts,” he told several friends.

…one of the most distressing facets of his trips was the fact that he seemed to get jailed more often than is common. He had spent much of his childhood in jails and the habit lingered. In exceptionally relaxed moments, Fields gave out comparative notes on jails, criticizing the cuisine, the cots, and the turnkeys. His remarks about French detention were disparaging in the extreme, though possibly tinctured with bias, while he spoke expansively of the lock-up system in England. His enthusiasm was only moderate about jails in Australia – he felt that Australians had made no great strides in this field because their jails’ most frequent occupants, Aboriginies, were unused to creature comforts and, provided with the luxury of food and beds, might get a distorted notion of punishment…

The principal reason for his confinements was gallantry. Fields would steer a girl into an inexpensive Saloon, and when some friendly client gave her a harmless pinch, he would swing. The proprietors of saloons tend to favour their steady patrons, and Fields came off badly in the arraignments..they locked him up in London for socking a Bobby. “He pushed me into the gutter,” said Fields without explanation. He had an inflexible feeling for fair play, no doubt because of the unfair drubbings he had collected along the route. It was impossible for him to watch a fight without getting into it. In Paris, a French acrobat of his acquaintance, a man who worked with small, quiet props, was set upon, for reasons unknown to Fields, by three Gendarmes struck Fields as thoughtless. Without making inquiries, he pitched into the scrap; he knocked out two of the Gendarmes and, with the acrobat, assisted the third over the railing of a subway entrance. The winners had scarcely time to congratulate themselves before police reinforcements stampeded over them like cattle. Fields spent a cooling-off period in jail, clanging on the bars with tin cups, bawling for the American ambassador, and building up a profane international understanding with the acrobat..

SIGNET CLASSICS EDITION (Pub. 1949)

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI

(1947)

Orson Welles – Michael O’Hara / Rita Hayworth – Elsa Bannister / Everett Sloan – Arthur Banniser / Glenn Anders – George Grisby / From the Novel ‘If I Die Before I Wake’ Sherwood King / Screenplay Orson Welles / Produced & Directed Orson Welles

Till all about, the sea was made of sharks..

Lured by the sensuous Lady from Shanghai (Rita Hayworth), Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) is drawn into a web of malicious back-stabbing & a heady combination of Raymond Chandler film noir and dizzying German expressionism. Welles convinced the Studio bosses to let him make this ‘simple little murder movie’ , but the poor fellows must have screamed blue murder when they saw the finished product. It’s not a film that runs all that smoothly, but the quality and sheer oddness of the piece elevates it high above it’s formulaic contemporaries. Welles & Hayworth only had one more year of their marriage to go in 1947, but the lingering intensity of Hayworth’s close-ups betray nothing short of giddy adoration. The gorgeously inventive opening scene has Welles & Hayworth seemlessly rolling from literary narration to bantering dialogue, in a fashion reminiscent of Richard III. Sergio Leone made a whole career out of imitating Welles sweaty close-ups on Glenn Anders, and other influences on modern filmmaking are too numerous to list. Orson’s decision to give his lead character an Irish brogue is a little jarring at first, but before long it makes perfect sense, especially when we come to his mesmerizing ‘shark monologue’, which more than finds echoes in Quint’s chilling Indianapolis tale in Jaws.

BANNISTER – Well, Michael!

MICHAELWell, Mr. Bannister?

BANNISTERMy wife´s lost her sense of humour, and you´ve lost your sense of adventure. Sit down and have a drink. Give him a drink, George. And don´t look so shocked. Michael may not be in the Social Register, but then neither are you…anymore.

MICHAELIs this what you folks do for amusement? Sit around toasting marshmallows and call each other names? If you´re so anxious for me to join the game, l´d be glad to. I have a few names l´d like to be calling you myself.

BANNISTER Oh, but, Michael, that isn´t fair. You´re bound to lose the contest. We´ll have to give you a handicap, Michael. You should know what George knows about me…if you really want to call me names…

BANNISTERAnd, Michael…if you think George´s story is interesting… you ought to hear the one about how Elsa got to be my wife..

ELSADo you want me to tell him what you´ve got on me, Arthur?

MICHAEL Do you know…once, off the hump of Brazil… I saw the ocean so darkened with blood it was black… and the sun fainting away over the lip of the sky. We´d put in at Fortaleza… and a few of us had lines out for a bit of idle fishing. It was me had the first strike. A shark it was. Then there was another. And another shark again. Till all about, the sea was made of sharks… and more sharks still. And no water at all. My shark had torn himself from the hook .. and the scent or maybe the stain it was, and him bleeding his life away… drove the rest of them mad..

MICHAELThen the beasts took to eating each other. In their frenzy.. they ate at themselves. You could feel the lust of murder like a wind stinging your eyes. And you could smell the death reeking up out of the sea. I never saw anything worse.. until this little picnic tonight.

MICHAELAnd you know there wasn´t one of them sharks in the whole crazy pack that survived. l´ll be leaving you now.

BANNISTERGeorge, that´s the first time anyone ever thought enough of you to call you a shark. If you were a good lawyer, you´d be flattered.

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PRODUCTION

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 QUINT’s INDIANAPOLIS FISH TALE

‘Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was comin’ back from the island of Tinian to Leyte… just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes. Didn’t see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. 13-footer. You know how you know that when you’re in the water, Chief? You tell by looking from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn’t know, was our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn’t even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, Chief, sharks come cruisin’, so we formed ourselves into tight groups. You know, it was kinda like old squares in the battle like you see in the calendar named “The Battle of Waterloo” and the idea was: shark comes to the nearest man, that man he starts poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’ and sometimes the shark go away… but sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. And, you know, the thing about a shark… he’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be living… until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then… ah then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin’. The ocean turns red, and despite all the poundin’ and the hollerin’, they all come in and they… rip you to pieces. You know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men. I don’t know how many sharks, maybe a thousand. I know how many men, they averaged six an hour. On Thursday morning, Chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player. Boatswain’s mate. I thought he was asleep. I reached over to wake him up. Bobbed up, down in the water just like a kinda top. Upended. Well, he’d been bitten in half below the waist. Noon, the fifth day, Mr. Hooper, a Lockheed Ventura saw us. He swung in low and he saw us… he was a young pilot, a lot younger than Mr. Hooper. Anyway, he saw us and he come in low and three hours later a big fat PBY comes down and starts to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened… waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again. So, eleven hundred men went in the water; 316 men come out and the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945. Anyway, we delivered the bomb.’

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