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Stephen Schochet

 

 

 

W.C. Fields And Christmas

by Stephen Schochet

 

The movie industry has always had its share of nasty characters. During the making of The Island Of Dr. Moreau(1996), Val Kilmer ruined a co-stars close-up by putting out his cigarette in the cameraman's arm. On the set of Treasure Island (1934) Wallace Beery was accidentally shot in the foot by Jackie Cooper with a prop gun. The powder burns caused him to scream bloody murder, and the film crew who hated him burst into applause. While directing a dramatic scene in Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1941), Victor Fleming twisted Lana Turner's arm behind her back to get her to cry in front of the camera. But the man in Hollywood who was most famous for being mean was a juggler, comedian and writer named William Claude Dukenfield (1880-1946), later shortened to W.C. Field.

Although they respected Fields for being a total original, even his best friends thought he was a miserable old devil. Coming from an impoverished Philadelphia background, where his father used to hit him on the head with a shovel, W.C. thought he was entitled to act badly. He would fire servants at a drop of a hat, then rehire them and dock their pay for walking out on him. He tried to kill a swan who swam near his Toluca Lake house with a golf club until the fowl outmaneuvered him and chased him back into the house. He said he would only play the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, if he didn't have to repent at the end. One December, Fields and Bob Hope were shooting the breeze in the halls of Paramount Studios, when they were approached by two charity workers. "Gentlemen, there are so many who suffer during the Holiday Season. Could you see your way to help them out?" Hope reached into his pocket and pulled out some cash. But Fields said," I'm sorry Madam. I gave all my money to the SEBF." After the disappointed Samaritans left, Hope asked." Hey Bill, what's the SEBF?" "Screw everybody but Fields!"

Fields was famous for his drinking, and while he was never falling down drunk, alcohol didn't help his disposition. He was notorious for carrying a flask on movie sets, claiming to interested parties that it contained mere pineapple juice. One time a co-worker stole it, emptied the contents and poured real pineapple juice in it. Fields unwittingly took a swig and almost choked. "Whose been putting pineapple juice in my pineapple juice?"

Another time Fields kept messing up his lines saying things like," Charles Forbusher." "Bill stick to the lines," said the Director. "What? Why you scoundrel. Charles Forbusher has gotten laughs for years." After muttering under his breath that," the fellow doesn't know what he is doing," Fields seemed to get back on track, then blew another line with an equally ridiculous name. Again he was rebuffed and retorted angrily. It was whispered on the set that he was drunk. It turned out that he received a bonus if he filmed past midnight, which he accomplished after several more "screw-ups".

Sometimes Fields could use alcohol to get the best of a co-star. In the film Tillie And Gus (1935), The Great Man was paired with the three year old Baby Le Roy. As far as the curmudgeon was concerned, the devil child was there to ruin his career. During a break in filming Le Roy's mother was about to give him some orange juice when Fields said,"Take a break dear lady, I'll give the little nipper his juice." As soon as the grateful woman was out of sight, Fields took out his flask and spiked the orange juice with a generous helping of gin. Later, when the poor child was stumbling around the set Fields yelled," The kid's no trooper! Look at him!"

One co-star who would not put up with Field's drinking was Mae West. During the filming of My Little Chickadee (1940) she insisted that W.C. stay sober. "Don't worry, my dear. I'm on the wagon." Field's idea of giving up drinking was trading sherry for gin. Mae West found him out, and he was physically carried of the set by crew members, suspended from the film. Stuck at home he sat on the lawn drinking, became more surly and started shooting at imaginary prowlers with a BB gun. This caused extensive property damage for his neighbors. The local residents responded by tossing empty whiskey bottles on his driveway. Fields was certain that Director Cecil B. De Mille who lived across the street from him was responsible. One night he gathered the bottles in a bag, stood on De Mille's front lawn and hurled them through the Director's windows. "Take that and that, you sanctimonious knave!! Afterwards Fields had no more problems with unwanted garbage on his property.

Never the biggest box office star, Fields was always jealous of others in the industry. He called Charlie Chaplin a ballerina and said he would like to strangle him with his bare hands. Bing Crosby was a fine fellow, until W.C. worked with him and then the crooner became an untrustworthy scene stealer. Fields accused De Mille of being a hypocrite. He pointed out to any who would listen that Cecil's moralistic films always contained a great deal of sex and violence, including naked, leggy women luxuriating in huge bathtubs. One night in 1943 De Mille knocked on Field's door and said," Mr. Fields, we are having a blackout in the neighborhood. I'm telling everyone to fill up their bathtubs in case of a water shortage." The comedian who had been drinking said," Not another of your bathtub scenes, De Mille," and slammed the door in his face.

But there was a softer side to the mean old man. He always claimed he hated children but he kept a picture of Baby Le Roy around the house and wrote a part for the infant in one of his movies. He told his servants false tales of gossip to spread distrust among them, but was thrilled when they threw him a Christmas party. In quieter moments he would praise the talent of De Mille. And Fields was a patriot. When World War II started he had a few drinks, then went down to the local army recruiting office and volunteered to become a commando. "Did the enemy send you?" was the reply he got.

When William was fifteen, he was on the road with a traveling troupe of performers when the manager of the act disappeared with all their money. It was the middle of winter, and he was stuck in Kent, Ohio at the train station unable to buy a ticket back to New York. The man behind the counter asked," Are you an actor?" William nodded. "People don't trust your kind." The young Fields who had committed acts of larceny since he had run away from his father back in Philadelphia said nothing. The ticket man came out from behind the counter. "Listen son, here's ten dollars. Pay me back when things are better for you." Shocked by such kindness in a cruel world, William burst into tears. Two years later on Christmas day the generous ticket man received a note thanking him for his gesture with the original ten dollars, plus another ten dollars in interest. It was all the money Fields had, so he spent the Holiday in a soup kitchen.

 

 

Stephen Schochet is the author of the upcoming book

Hollywood Stories: Short Entertaining Anecdotes About the Stars and Legends of the Movies. He is also the author of two acclaimed audiobooks

Tales of Hollywood: Hear the Origins of Hollywood!

and

Fascinating Walt Disney: Hear How Walt Disney's Dreams Came True!

These entertaining gift items are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, 1-800-431-1579 or wherever books are sold.

View samples at www.hollywoodstories.com

 

 

 

 

 

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