For today’s installment of TMP Reads, I’ll be taking a look at The Films of W. C. Fields by Donald Deschner. Originally published in 1966, the edition I own (from a library book sale) is the second paperbound edition from Citadel Press, 1969. This edition includes an introduction by Arthur Knight.
“If there was ever a great clown in this time of changeover from beer and music hall to the universal distribution of radio and films, I would say it was in the person and the character and the undying, if corny, gusto of Bill Fields, who moved mountains until they fell on him, and then brushed himself off and looked around for more.” -Otis Ferguson, The New Republic
With this quote, the book begins. Much like the Michael Conway and Mark Ricci books I’ve reviewed (The Films of Jean Harlow and The Films of Greta Garbo), this one starts with an introduction and biography section before discussing individual films in which the subject of the book appeared.
As an added bonus, this book includes two short pieces written by Fields himself (“Speaking of Benefits” and “Anything for a Laugh”), as well as two essays about Fields’ comedy style by Otis Ferguson an Heywood Brown. Also incorporated into the book are plenty of black and white images – some of which take up full pages – including photographs, newspaper advertisements and personal letters/memos.
Though the filmography portion of the book is standard, offering up summaries and contemporary reviews of each film, these additional essays and scans make all the difference, giving the reader a fuller picture of Fields as a person and as a performer than is offered by many books of this type. The biography details Fields’ struggles in his early years. In “Speaking of Benefits” and “Anything for a Laugh,” Fields reflects in his own words on what it’s like to make a living as a comedian:
“Mostly, it’s hanging around in the wings – for, of course, no one knows where your dressing room is – hoping that all of the audience won’t go home, because they have a hard working day ahead of them tomorrow and they only came in the first place to oblige Aunt Ella, who was forced to buy tickets from that Moore person, before you go on.” -Fields on the nature of performing at benefits
“The funniest thing about comedy is that you never know why people laugh. I know what makes them laugh, but trying to get your hands on the why of it is like trying to pick an eel out of a tub of water.” -Fields on the puzzling nature of audiences
Having known only a bit about Fields’ career prior to reading this book, I do feel like it helped me learn quite a bit about him, though the biography and essays take up a smaller portion of the book than the filmography. It’s a very enjoyable and quick read. I’m looking forward to reading The Art of W. C. Fields by William Everson (another library sale find!) soon, to learn even more about the life and work of this legendary comedian.