The All-American Con Man

The All-American Con Man

W. C. Fields spent his entire show business career, from stage to screen, perfecting his role of consummate con man.

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2m 12sec

"Being Claude Dukenfield: W. C. Fields and the American Dream" by Paul A. Cantor, in Perspectives on Political Science (Spring 2002), 1319 18th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036–1802.

Some people consider William Claude Dukenfield Hollywood’s all-time greatest con man. But the man we know as W. C. Fields (1880–1946) would have taken that as a compliment. "He loved to cast a spell over an audience," says Cantor, an English professor at the University of Virginia, but he "took equal delight in exposing his own magic as a fraud." It was this peculiar mix of illusion and disillusion that allowed Fields to make the often difficult transition from his early days as a vaudeville juggler and comedian, through a successful middle period with the Ziegfeld Follies, and, finally, to modest success in the movie business with a string of hits in the 1930s and ’40s.

He was, in a sense, the first postmodernist. In Cantor’s view, "the construction of identity is the principle that unites Fields the man and Fields the artist." His onscreen persona was "basically the all-American con man, part carnival barker, part patent medicine salesman, part circus showman, part cardsharp, and part stockbroker." This gave his comedy "a distinctly dark side," says Cantor, and may also explain why he never matched the success of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. Unlike those other comedians, Fields "never developed a truly cinematic imagination," and many of his movies "feel as if they are merely filmed versions of stage plays"—though, to be fair, he never had the creative control that, for instance, Chaplin enjoyed.

Films such as The Fatal Glass of Beer (1932) and The Bank Dick (1940) still afforded the comedian delicious opportunities to lampoon America’s absurdities. In The Fatal Glass of Beer, Fields—whose reputation as a notorious drinker was exaggerated—struck back at the Prohibition-era "demonizing of rum, beer, and other alcoholic beverages." The wild plot of The Bank Dick at one point lands Fields’s character in the director’s chair on a movie set, where he deadpans: "We’ve got a 36-hour schedule and a stinko script . . . and it opens in this very town the day after tomorrow."

The wisecrack reveals how Fields never fully embraced the movie medium. Already in his fifties when he moved to Hollywood, he remained suspicious of its rags-to-riches promises, and his films "debunked a variety of incarnations of the American Dream" even as he lived it. That wasn’t his only paradox, Cantor concludes: It was "ironically the very medium whose reality he questioned—the motion picture," that "allowed him to create images of himself that have fixed him in the public eye forever."

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