Praising Godfrey Daniels

Four volumes recall a unique rye wit

Published: Jan 29 2015, 01:01:am

Tuesday, May15, 1973
A FLASK OF FIELDS. Edited by Richard J. Anobile. Darien House, Inc.,1972. 272 pp., Illus. $9.75.
DRAT. Edited by Richard J. Anobile. Signet Books, 1969; 149 pp., Illus. 95¢.
THE ART OF W.C. FIELDS. By William K. Everson. Bonanza Books, 1972. 232 pp., Illus. $2.49.
W.C. FIELDS AND ME. By Carlotta Monti with Cy Rice. Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971. 227 pp., Illus., Index. $7.95.

WILLIAM CLAUDE DUKENFIELD never planned on becoming an industry. When he ran away from home at the age of 11, his idea of success was pool hustling and undetected petty theft.
    Born in Philadelphia, the son of an immigrant fruit peddler, "Whitey" Dukenfield took to the streets in 1890. It was his street years that would shape him for life.
     By the time he was 14, he had decided that show business was his best bet for real success. It was then that he started following the fair wagons and circus trains, working as a roustabout and, whenever he could, showing off his skill as a juggler.
    He survived his street years, but they left him scarred. The nights spent sleeping in ditches or abandoned shacks put a permanent rasp in his voice. Scrapping in back alleys left him with a nose smashed to a pulpy mess. Both the voice and the nose became his trademarks, as familiar 36 years after his death [in 1946] as they were at the height of his career.
    Today [1973], the heirs of W.C. Fields are a corporate entity. Overseeing the marketing — some would say the exploitation — of his familiar sound and image is an organization called W.C. Fields Productions. The recently incorporated company has as its president the late comedian's grandson, W.C. Fields III, an FBI special agent assigned, ironically, to that agency's Philadelphia office.
    What the heirs want, of course, is a share in the profits currently being generated by the booming market in Fieldsiana. In recent months, books about the tippling comic have carved out for themselves a new section on the film buff's bookshelf.
    Fields, by virtue of his biting honesty — "A thing worth having," he once said, "is worth cheating for . . . " — brought out the brass in others. Accordingly, the brassiest of the new books about him is A Flask of Fields (George McLeod; $9.75). Subtitled "Verbal and Visual Gems from the Films of W.C. Fields,"  the book is 272 pages of photos taken directly from the films themselves.
    Says editor Richard Anobile in his forward: "There are over 700 frame blow-ups here. No stills, no publicity shots. Every photo used to illustrate scenes from the films can be found on screen, and the dialogue has been transcribed directly from the films."
    To produce his book, Anobile mined 1o films, including 1940's My Little Chickadee, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) and The Bank Dick (1940). For textual support, he collared critic Judith Crist to pen a brief introduction.
    Set out in a large format, Flask is an attractive and entertaining book with a great and glaring fault. Despite some aggressive posturing in his forward about his "respect for these films," Anobile fails to provide his readers with the most basic information about them: who was in them.
    Fields, of course. But who are all those co-stars, featured players and rhubarbing extras sharing the scenes with him?
    The same frustration faces readers of Drat (Signet paperback; 95¢). Another Anobile project, the smaller book is the one in which he uses all the stills and publicity shots. It is, however, an imaginative picture collection, one that  benefits from an affectionate introduction by Ed McMahon, a TV announcer now making a sidebar career for himself as a Fields imitator.
     Also included is an informative essay by New York Times culture commentator Richard Shepherd, and some articles written by Fields himself.
    While intermittently funny, the picture books offer little insight 
into the comedian as artist. For that, there is William K. Everson's exhaustively researched The Art of W.C. Fields, recently issued in an inexpensive reprint edition by Bonanza Books (232 pp., $2.49).
    Everson, the English-born author of a number of studies of film as popular culture, surveys Fields's entire career. While his book is essentially text, it is generously illustrated.
    A solid, unambiguous writer, Everson describes the films in detail for the benefit of those who haven't seen them. Despite the lack of an index, his book stands as the best look at the comedian's work currently available.
    For a look at the life of the man himself, Prentice-Hall is offering W.C. Fields and Me (227 pp., $7.95), a rather bizarre memoir by Carlotta Monti, one-time Hollywood starlet and, for the last 14 years of his life, Fields's mistress.
    Aided by ghost writer Cy Rice, Monti has pieced together a self-serving portrait of their 14-year relationship. Written in modified Ladies Home Journalese, her book weaves a web both gossipy and fascinating.
    She is delicate in an age of explicitness. On the subject of their intimate relations she draws a curtain. "I will not disclose the wonderful details, except to comment briefly that it was ecstasy." Nonetheless, Monti trades heavily on a mood of illicitness.
    In the process, though, she does manage to show a side of the mature Fields that his estranged wife of all those years may never have known. And, in comparison to the other items discussed above, Monti provides a final surprise.
    Hers is the only book in the bundle that comes complete with an index.

The above is a restored version of a Province book review feature by Michael Walsh originally published in 1973. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Carlotta Monti's memoir of her "Woody" was optioned by Universal Pictures. Released in 1976, W.C. Fields and Me starred Rod Steiger and Valerie Perrine in the title roles. Monti, who had made her screen debut as a extra (playing a slave girl) in the 1925 silent epic Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, made her final movie appearance as an extra in the film based on her book. She died in 1993 at the age of 86.