W.C. Fields: A MGTOW for all seasons

Featured By Cine-Mundial 516 Fifth Avenue New York. This was a Spanish-language film magazine published in New York. – page 113 Cine-Mundial, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wcfields36682u_flipped.jpg


To be of the belief that Mr. Fields is no more than a funny man is to

hold the opinion that Gulliver’s Travels is a book for children.

– Andre Sennwald, New York Times movie critic, January 13, 1935

 Thank God he’s a comic.  Had he been a statesman he’d have

plunged the world into total war.

– Will Rogers

W. C. Fields (born William Claude Dunkefield in 1880) died on Christmas Day in 1946, but a quarter of a century later he was something of an icon among college students. His image was included on the cover art of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, his films were regularly shown at campus screenings, and his sour puss graced posters in head shops. Counter-cultural and anti-establishment types sensed a kindred soul.  Indeed, Fields did go against the grain, not just in his own time, but in the late 1960s as well as today.

Today, however, his posthumous presence would no longer be welcome on campus. In his time, he was often described as a misanthrope.  Since that includes men and women, by definition, he was guilty of both misandry and misogyny. That would seem to indicate perfect equality, but the former is still permissible while the latter is not. And that would render him persona non grata today.

With few exceptions, Fields always played himself in his movies. Of course, once he had established a strong public image, he had no economic incentive to tinker with it. Even at the peak of his fame, he was essentially a character actor with his name above the title. Unlike other character actors, however, he usually wrote his own material.

Did his public persona overlap his personality? Was he as churlish in real life as he appeared in movies? True, he could be petty and spiteful, but he could also be charitable and thoughtful. As disdainful of children as he was in films, he was the opposite in real life.

His on-screen boozing, however, was no act (“I drink, therefore I am”). As a young man, he was a teetotaler. His initial foray into show business was as a comic juggler in vaudeville (he is a member of the Juggling Hall of Fame), so steady hands were a must.

As he moved away from juggling and expanded his comic repertoire, he began to drink more and more, to the point where almost every room in his house had a fully-stocked bar. While he was almost always observed with a drink in his hand, no one ever saw him drunk.

Though far from athletic, his hand-eye coordination was extraordinary, as many an opponent in golf, tennis, or ping pong discovered. Allegedly, he once fell down the stairs with a martini in hand and didn’t spill a drop, even though he broke his tail bone. He was sometimes observed playing tennis with a racket in one hand and a martini glass in the other.

Though his rotund, rubicund nose was his signature feature (“He referred to my proboscis as an adscititious excrescence,” he fumed in The Bank Dick.), it was not the result of drinking but genetics and getting punched in the nose a few too many times as a child. Nevertheless, it was always assumed drinking was the cause. As a result, the medical condition of rhinophyma (i.e., red nose) is known as W.C. Fields Syndrome.

But what about his misogyny?  One of his best-known quotes combined booze and women: “It was a woman who drove me to drink, and I never had the courtesy to thank her for it.” Another of his better-known quotations was “Women are like elephants. I like to look at ‘em, but I wouldn’t want to own one.”

But what about the NAWALT? Is there no such fabled creature?  Not according to Fields. “No doubt exists that all women are crazy; it’s only a question of degree,” he asserted.

His views on marriage also bear repeating:

Marry an outdoors woman. Then if you throw her out into the yard on a cold night, she can still survive.

I believe in tying the marriage knot, as long as it’s around the woman’s neck.

Never trust your wife behind your back, even if she claims she only wants to wash or scratch it.

Marriage is better than leprosy because it’s easier to get rid of.

Getting married is like buying a new horse, or going into a strange saloon.

An ideal start for matrimony would be to have a drunken rabbi perform a Catholic ceremony in an Episcopalian church.  Then it could be declared illegal in the courts.

So what was Fields’ private life like? Well, he was no monk, but women were not particularly important to him. As old pictures of him readily indicate, he was no Adonis, yet on occasion, he could attract a Venus.

In Fields’ day, the idea of a stage-door Johnny wooing a ditzy, leggy showgirl was the stuff of farce. Though the situation rarely arose in real life, it became something of a pop culture stereotype. Even as late as the 1960s, when I was a teenager, my mom occasionally joked that one day I would probably “run off with a chorus girl.”

Well, I never did that (chorus girls have been in short supply since the death of vaudeville), but Fields did. In fact, he was only 20 years old when he did so. His first wife, Harriet Hughes, was literally a chorus girl.

It did not go particularly well. Seven years later they separated but were never divorced. He never cut her off, however, and even sent her money on a regular basis. They had one son, W.C. Fields, Jr., from whom Fields was estranged, but they were reconciled in later years.

Bessie Poole, the next love of his life (he was 36 at the time) was also something of a babe. She was a Ziegfeld girl.

The Ziegfeld Follies was an annual Broadway Variety review (Fields was a regular performer in various comedy sketches) founded by Florenz Ziegfeld in 1907. Ziegfeld’s shows were noted for their lavish displays of pulchritude, so a showgirl in one of his productions had a lot of sexual market value.

Consorting with Bessie Poole, however, was not a smart move on Fields’ part, as she was an alcoholic. She bore Fields another son  (“A night of pleasure can cause a swollen abdomen nine months later,” he lamented) who was adopted out, as neither Fields nor Poole wanted to give up show biz for the trammels of domestic life. The relationship lasted till Fields was 47. Soon after the breakup, she died of complications from alcoholism.

Fields’ best-known relationship was with Carlotta Monti, a small-time actress whose resume included bit parts in a number of well-known films (e.g., the silent versions of Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments). Later she had bit parts in two of Fields’ features, The Man on the Flying Trapeze and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.

If you like cute romcom style introductions, you can hardly beat Fields and Monti’s initial encounter on the Paramount lot in 1932. Observing that she was wearing a hula skirt, he immediately snuffed out his cigar, saying “I don’t want to start a grass fire.” When they met, he was 53, and she was 26. She remained his mistress till he died.

Their relationship is documented in Carlotta Monti’s book, W.C. Fields and Me, published in 1971, and turned into a movie in 1976 with Rod Steiger as the former and Valerie Perrine as the latter.

While Fields hardly looked the part of the alpha male, he definitely was one regarding fame and fortune, having been a star of stage, screen, and radio. His persona provided fodder for countless cartoonists and impressionists. His circle of friends included a number of well-known actors, directors, and writers. So therein lay his appeal to Carlotta Monti.

One suspects that Fields was more than happy to enjoy the company of a Latin cutie half his age, but that he didn’t go out of his way to make himself attractive to her. As he once said, “Never try to impress a woman, because if you do she’ll expect you to keep up the standard for the rest of your life.”

Fields, however, was not popular with females who did not have personal access to him or his assets. One of his drinking buddies, director Edward Sutherland, thought he would have been an even bigger star if women liked him. But his lack of gynocentrism was all too evident on screen. “A henpecked man gets surefire laughs,“ he observed, “but the cardinal rule is that he must triumph over the shrew he married or his harridan mother-in-law in the end.”

While Fields often portrayed henpecked husbands in his films, he was anything but in real life. He particularly reviled “henpecking, literary, and pedantic” women. Film critic Pauline Kael said he was an acquired taste “like sour mash bourbon.” He probably would have appreciated the analogy.

As querulous as he was bibulous, his pet peeves included doctors, lawyers, bankers, the internal revenue service, churchgoers, and Puritans. Though he had very little formal education, he dedicated his spare time to educating himself, and he had a voluminous library in his home. His quips regularly included arcane puns or esoteric references. A case in point is his pen name of Mahatma Kane Jeeves in the credits of The Bank Dick. The name derives from the saying, “My hat, my cane, Jeeves,” supposedly a catchphrase from drawing room comedies.

So Fields was a MGTOW of the first order, but he was hardly a role model. And perhaps that is the ultimate lesson of his life or that of any other MGTOW. By definition, a MGTOW can never have a role model. Everyone’s path in life is unique, and Fields was definitely sui generis.

This is not to say he was not capable of offering advice to budding MGTOWs. When an interviewer asked him how a young man could build wealth, he replied “When the little beggar is only ten years old, have him castrated and his taste buds destroyed. He’ll grow up never needing a woman, a steak, or a cigarette. Think of the money saved.”

Spoken like a true MGTOW!

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