The influence of William Claude Dukenfield in the history of comedy can’t be underestimated. Every snarky comment, snide insult and anti-hero sentiment you watch and listen to today can be traced back to Fields, not necessarily as a source, but certainly as a perfecter of hilarious misanthropy.
If you haven’t seen movies like The Bank Dick, The Man on the Flying Trapeze or–the astonishingly surreal for its time–Never Give a Sucker an Even Break , you really owe it to yourself to see a genius in action. A magazine columnist once quipped that Fields’ film It’s a Gift is an even better and more memorable comedy than the Oscar winner for Best Picture that year, It Happened One Night. I agree.
A couple of facts you may not have known:
In the late 1930’s, after making the great Paramount films It’s a Gift and The Man on the Flying Trapeze, Fields was practically near death, due in part to his legendary drinking binges.
Paramount dropped him and Fields only got back on track to making films, even more legendary than his previous ones, by a renewed popularity via radio. His feuds with Charlie McCarthy became comedy classics ranking with The Bickersons and Jack Benny/Fred Allen as among the funniest banters on the airwaves during that time. Check out his appearance on The Chase and Sanborn Hour with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy starting at about the 31:00 mark.
During the year of his death (1946) he recorded “The Temperance Lecture” and “The Day I Drank a Glass of Water,” thereby further establishing himself as a fine talent of recorded comedy, even if his vision deteriorated so much he had to read from large print cue cards.
One of the most unusual homages to this genius was by another genius, voice actor/announcer Paul Frees. On the 1970 album, “Paul Frees and the Poster People,” he recorded hit songs of the day sung in the voice of famous film and TV stars he impersonated. Here’s his version of “Mama Told Me Not to Come” as W. C. Fields: