© 1986 New York Times Company/New York Times; March 13, 1986
A Profile of W.C. Fields Tonight on Channel 13By John J. O'Connor
Even today, in a mundane world seemingly dominated by flourishing stockbrokers and real-estate speculators, few things are more refreshing than the spectacle of William Claude (W. C.) Fields tilting tipsily against pretentiousness. In the 1933 movie International House, Fields crash-lands his autogyro plane, called the "Spirit of Brooklyn," into the middle of a swank party being held in Wuhu, China. He thinks he has reached Kansas City, but the prissy Franklin Pangborn shouts out "Woo-hoo." Ripping a huge flower from his lapel, Fields snarls, "Don't let the posy fool ya."
"Maybe you're lost," Pangborn suggests. ''Kansas City is lost,'' snaps Fields, ''I am here.''
He certainly was here. And he still is, as becomes evident while watching W. C. Fields Straight Up, a documentary on Channel 13 at 9 o'clock this evening. The profile, produced by Robert B. Weide, was co-written, with Joe Adamson, by Ronald J. Fields, W.C.'s grandson and author of W. C. Fields: A Life on Film.
Moving more or less chronologically, the documentary traces Fields from his birth above a Philadelphia bar in 1880 to his death, following years of rampaging alcoholism, in 1946. Leaving home at the age of 11, and becoming ''The World's Greatest Eccentric Juggler'' by age 20, Fields determined early on that he wanted to be a definite personality, that he wouldn't teeter on the fence. He succeeded triumphantly, of course, and in the process became, by 1938, the sixth highest-salaried person in the United States.
Fields was convinced the world was made up of men who never settled down and those who wished they hadn't. He belonged tenaciously to the first category. Married in 1900, he quickly left his wife, Hattie, and was not reunited until 30 years later with his only son, a successful, abstemious lawyer. In fact, Ronald Fields, although long a great fan of the comedian's films, did not know W. C. was his grandfather until he was 12 years old.
Whether out of guilt or anger, Fields focused many of his comedy routines on hapless husbands in the grip of shrill wives and dreadful children. One typical scene has Fields being wakened by his fretting wife in the middle of the night to investigate the possibility of burglars. After putting both his socks on the same foot, the bleary-eyed husband reaches for his shotgun, which goes off accidentally, causing the overwrought woman to faint. Leaning over her prostrate body, Fields asks with just a smidgeon of hope in his voice, ''Did I kill ya?''
As Ronald Fields notes, it is not easy separating fact from fiction when trying to pin down the essential W.C. Fields. The star was surrounded by publicity machines partial to exaggeration and, more to the point, the grandson says, ''W.C. was probably the biggest liar of them all.'' But it is true that his career didn't really take off until he was in his mid-30's. And his drinking also started later in life; he couldn't drink and juggle at the same time.
But the drinking accelerated rapidly to the level of consuming at least one quart of liquor a day. His battles, in hospitals and out, with delirium tremens were well known in the business. He remained magnificently unrepentant, however, observing at one point: ''It's hard to tell where Hollywood ends and the D.T.'s begin.''
Straight Up skims over surfaces, for the most part, but it provides fascinating glimpses of the very funny man who once insisted that ''I was born lonely.'' He remained delightfully impossible to the end. During his battles with Mae West while filming My Little Chickadee, he publicly described his co-star as ''a plumber's idea of Cleopatra.'' Caught reading the Bible, he explained that ''I'm looking for loopholes.'' Loving skulduggery, convinced that comedy was really tragedy that was happening to someone else, he remains a hilarious American original, a decidedly definite personality.