On January 29, the 100th anniversary of his birth, the quite unmistakable face of W. C. Fields will appear on a United States postage stamp. Fields cultists we have checked with recall no jokes by the Great One about the post office. But he must have made them. He made jokes about everything institutional, and there's no point pretending they were all genial.
Fields was a critic to a degree that was almost un- American. A comedian is supposed to go right to the edge of serious criticism, then pull back and chuckle: "Just kidding, folks."
Not W. C. He was one of those comedians who refuse to be jolly -- ever. He managed the rather astonishing feat of becoming beloved without supplying the smallest evidence that he loved back
His very face was a map of mistrust. If ever a portrait could declare a stamp a forgery, it must be Fields'. His eyes squinted as if they could not bear the dispiriting sight of what they saw. The nose -- Fields' trademark -- seemed to be sniffing, and rejecting, every odor proferred to it. The mouth was shaped into a permanent mutter. From his disappointed lips a steady stream of complaints directed themselves at a snarl's crawl toward the inadequate flunkies of what he took to be a third-rate world.
Even Fields' clothes looked hostile. At moments when he felt threatened he clutched his hat like a helmet, and his cane became a weapon, flailing in every direction. For everybody and everything was a potential, a probable enemy -- hatracks, dogs, babies, on up the hierarchy of inanimate and animate things to bank presidents.
That ever-present cane!How it kept a suspect universe at bay! Fields carried his cane through life as if it were a mine detector or a Geiger counter. The tall tales he drawled about battles for existence against straggering odds in wild, exotic places were, in fact, his perceptions of everybody life. It attacks were not taking place, Fields invented them. Treachery and ambush were the plots of his script; survival was his final scene.
Where did the Fields characterization begin and Fields himself (born William Claude Dukenfield) end? Impossible to say. But the young man who, in real life , bought his 10-month-old son a pair of boxing gloves certainly bore considerable resemblance to the besieged fellow he would come to play on screen.
How did such a balefull curmudgeon manage to be lovable? An even more impossible question. In his youth Fields was a superb juggler who started on the vaudeville and music hall stages of England, France, China, Australia, and South Africa as well as the United States. In 1913 he played a command performance for the king and queen of England in the company of Sarah Bernhardt, who called him a "rare artist." Was it a delicate act of character-balancing, carried over from the discipline of juggling, that enabled Fields to be that paradox, a charming misanthrope?
And now Fields has been made, in effect, American currency. He will glare from his postage stamp as if muttering to the postman, "How dare you deliver me?" -- as if saying to the recipent of any letter: "What makes you think thism will be good news?"
Fields loved Dickens. He was a Dickensian character himself, as he proved when he played the role of Micawber in a film version of "David Copperfield." Of all Dickens characters, Fields loved Scrooge the best, though he regretted he went soft in the end.
Fields, for better or for worse, never went soft, and yet we continue to love him as perversely, as persistently as he loved Scrooge.
His phiz will cheer up every bill he freights.