Movies

Fields of Glory

The absurdist anti-politics of W.C. Fields.

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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:

BIGAMY.
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
LUNATIC ASYLUMS.
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.

Fields himself sometimes ran afoul of the law in ways that can only make us honor him as an early martyr to political correctness. In 1928 he was hauled into court in New York on charges of cruelty to a canary. The local Humane Society had accused him of mistreating the bird in one of his dentist sketches on Broadway and being responsible for its death. Fields was acquitted on the grounds that the canary had actually been killed when the Humane Society officers tried to have it photographed as evidence and the smoke from the flashbulbs asphyxiated it. This story may be apocryphal–Simon Louvish's wonderful 1997 biography of Fields, Man on the Flying Trapeze, suggests that the affair may have originated as a publicity stunt–but in any case it offers an apt parable of how regulation can backfire.

Killing canaries was no doubt incidental to Fields' achievements as a comedian, but in one respect his conflict with an intrusive society went straight to the heart of his art. He found himself constantly at odds with the Hollywood censors. Fields' humor was often off-color and his sight gags were occasionally mildly obscene, though by today's standards his bawdiness seems almost tame. What strikes us now is the incredible pettiness of the censors Fields had to deal with. In 1939 he got into trouble over a line in the script for his film with Mae West, My Little Chickadee: "I know what I'll do, I'll go to India and become a missionary. I know there's good money in it, too." As Louvish documents, the line was challenged by Joseph Breen, an official with the motion picture censorship board, because the now infamous Hays Production Code ruled out anything "suggestive of an unfavorable, or derogatory, or comedy, reflection on the gentlemen of the cloth."

Hoping to salvage his script in foreign markets, Fields wrote directly to Breen in a desperate effort to save the line: "Will this also have to be deleted from the European version or does that not come under your jurisdiction? I've got to get a laugh out of this picture somewhere even if it's down in India." Fields' humor was evidently lost on Breen, who became even more picky when dealing with Fields' 1941 movie Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. Breen was determined not to let Fields get away with anything this time and his memo to the studio is quite explicit and peremptory: "Any and all dialogue and showing of bananas and pineapples is unacceptable."

In a heroic gesture on behalf of denture-wearers everywhere, Breen put his censorious foot down: "The business of the man taking out his false teeth strikes us as a piece of business which will give offense to mixed audiences"–a sentence so preposterous it sounds like something Fields himself might have written. Indeed, faced with the ultimate busybody, he could only respond by making censorship itself the butt of his comedy in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, with the famous line: "This scene was supposed to be in a saloon, but the censor cut it out."

Fields' vision might best be described as absurdist anarchism or anarchic absurdism. He ridiculed all figures of authority mercilessly, revealing them as petty, pompous, and silly, and exposing their efforts to govern our lives as meddlesome, misguided, and inept. He celebrated the spirit of individualism and enterprise, even when the entrepreneurs took eccentric or morally questionable forms, like the gadget inventor, the carny barker, or the patent medicine salesman. As a champion of free speech and an opponent of the federal income tax, Big Labor, puritanical experiments like Prohibition, and intrusive regulation in general, Fields ought to be a hero for our time.

Alas, I can find no evidence of his actually getting any votes in the 1940 election. Yet his record shows that he understood American liberty better than any of the men–FDR, Wilkie, and Thomas–he was running against. As one contemplates the political scene today, one can only wish that we had a satirist with Fields' wit and courage to give our politicians what they deserve. To paraphrase Wordsworth on Milton, "Fields, thou shouldst be living at this hour." Or, more to the point: "W.C. Fields: Now more than ever."

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