Like many Americans, I'm having trouble getting excited about this year's presidential race. Somehow the candidates don't measure up to my standards of political greatness. Confronted with this group of diminutive talents, I think back nostalgically to earlier days of American politics, when giants strode the earth. Take 1940, for example--the last time an authentic Great Man ran for president of the United States. No, I don't mean Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and not Wendell Wilkie or Norman Thomas either, but the one candidate in the race who had the right attitude toward the government: W.C. Fields.
Few people today are aware that a great comedian took a fling at presidential politics and, in anticipation of today's campaign hucksters, even got a book out of the process: Fields for President, published by Dodd, Mead in 1940.
Fields built his campaign around a winning slogan--"A chickadee in every pot"--and made candor his chief concern in addressing the American people. "When, on next November fifth, I am elected chief executive of this fair land, amidst thunderous cheering and shouting and throwing of babies out the window, I shall, my fellow citizens, offer no such empty panaceas as a New Deal, or an Old Deal, or even a Re-Deal," he promised. "No, my friends, the reliable old False Shuffle was good enough for my father and it's good enough for me." Fields cut through the usual campaign rhetoric and got right to the heart of how to elect someone to the White House: "The major responsibility of a President is to squeeze the last possible cent out of the taxpayer."
Fields' obsession with the IRS threatened to turn him into a one-issue candidate. He kept harping on the dreaded moment when IRS payments come due, explaining, "That is the day when all the citizens of our fair land may practice their inalienable rights of sending a fat slice of their yearly increments to Washington; in return, our Congressmen will forward packages of radish seed or intimate candid-camera shots of themselves weeding their farms or kissing their grandchildren."
Fields' antipathy to tax authorities dated back to the days when he toured the world as a celebrated juggler. In 1913, he complained about being stopped by a policeman in Prague: "I was informed that I would have to pay a tax of five cents for coming home at that hour. (It appears they tax everyone who remains out after nine o'clock.) I asked the policeman what would happen if I didn't come home at all. He said I wouldn't have to pay in that case. And, ashamed as I am to tell it, I must admit that I strolled away and didn't come back to my rooms for two weeks--and then I left without paying half the taxes I owed the city. See what I have on my conscience."
Over the years, Fields was to become more adept at tax evasion, and with good cause. He was especially incensed when FDR proposed capping actors' annual incomes at $25,000. Fields became famous for his ongoing battles with the IRS over his aggressive deduction strategy on his tax returns. He is rumored to have claimed $25,000 spent on milk for entertaining the press; one year he supposedly tried to deduct his liquor bill as a legitimate business expense. After all, he did have a public image to maintain.
But the tax policy of the federal government was not the only target of Fields' ire and satire. Though one hesitates to attribute to him a consistent political philosophy, he did end up serving as a spokesman for freedom in several areas of American life. What's more, he showcased his defense of such values on the silver screen. We're used to thinking of 1930s Hollywood as a bastion of leftist propaganda. Certainly Charlie Chaplin, for all his comic genius, offered the unedifying spectacle of a man criticizing capitalism all the way to the bank. But in a Hollywood that was all too eager to jump on the Roosevelt bandwagon and sycophantically cheer the New Deal, Fields was the great contrarian.
Indeed, he had the audacity to make fun of the sacred cow of the New Deal--Roosevelt's labor policy, specifically the new power granted to labor unions by the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, popularly known as the Wagner Act. In Fields' 1939 film You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, he plays the spirited con man Larson E. Whipsnade, a circus manager who always manages to stay one step ahead of local officials trying to shut down his operation.
Whipsnade's life as a small businessman is made even more complicated by a labor thug who barges into his office with the ominous words: "You don't want no trouble with the unions, do you?"--a line that had more resonance for the Hollywood of Fields' days than most filmmakers would have cared to admit in public. When the union goon says, "Now you take the Wagner Act," Fields' character replies, "You take them. We had them last summer--the worst acrobats I ever saw."
Just imagine: a joke at the expense of the Wagner Act in 1939 Hollywood--the artistic community that one year later was to give us John Ford's film of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath--a smarmy and mawkish tribute to the downtrodden workers of America and the New Deal camps that were supposed to teach them to rebuild their lives, recapture their dignity, and brush their teeth regularly.
The income tax and the New Deal were bad enough. But for Fields, the central symbol of everything that was wrong with federal government policy was the Noble Experiment, Prohibition. A lifetime devotee of potent potables, Fields had no sympathy for the U.S. government's attempt to impose a temperance policy on its citizens. Throughout Prohibition, he revelled in making fun of the idiocy of the anti-alcohol policy. One of his funniest shorts, The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933), was based on a Broadway stage routine he introduced in the 1920s. The short viciously parodies the kind of 19th-century pro-temperance drama that swept the United States and that helped seduce the nation into embracing Prohibition.
As with Fields' animus against the IRS, his hatred of Prohibition had a personal basis, but a more general philosophy of liberty emerges in his comedy as a whole. The great enemy in Fields' films is the busybody, the person who in the time-honored American puritan tradition tries to tell you how to live your life. It may be your boss, your wife, your mother-in-law, the snoopy neighbor, a temperance preacher, a policeman, or an agent of the federal government. But in each case, someone tells you what is good for you and it never turns out to be what you yourself want to do--whether it is drinking, smoking, or simply going to the wrestling matches in the afternoon. Fields evidently was struck by how much time and effort some people devote to interfering in other people's lives for no reason beyond the pleasure of exercising power over them.
Perhaps the best glimpse of Fields' vision of how overregulated our lives have become can be caught in his short film The Golf Specialist (1930). According to a wanted poster, the film's "hero," Effingham Bellwether, stands accused of a multitude of transgressions:
PASSING AS THE PRINCE OF WALES.
EATING SPAGHETTI IN PUBLIC.
USING HARD WORDS IN A SPEAKEASY.
TRUMPING PARTNER'S ACE.
SPITTING IN THE GULF STREAM.
JUMPING BOARD BILL IN 17
FAILING TO PAY INSTALLMENTS ON A STRAITJACKET.
POSSESSING A SKUNK.
REVEALING THE FACTS OF LIFE TO AN INDIAN.
With his genius for the absurd, Fields exaggerated the bizarre lengths to which society will go to regulate human conduct, but if he were alive today he might find that life has outrun art. With contemporary environmental, animal rights, and cultural sensitivity concerns, I would guess that all of Bellwether's activities are now in fact illegal in one state or another.