Wednesday, 7 March 2012

He Didn’t Hate Dogs

W.C. Fields was one of filmdom’s most talented and iconoclastic stars. His movies were little more than short comedy scenes linked together by a pretty bare plot—“It’s a Gift” (1934) is probably my favourite. Fields was a tremendous writer as well. The book W.C. Fields by Himself contains his detailed outlines for a number of his movies, all of them better than what ended up on the screen after tinkering by higher-ups at whichever studio he happened to be working (the book also features his blunt letters to the studio giving his opinion about the tinkering).

Fields is quoted as saying “Anyone who hates dogs and kids can’t be all bad.” Apparently, his dislike was all a put-on. Sure, he poured gin into scene-stealing Baby Leroy’s milk, which unexpectedly stopped production on one of their movies until the youngster stopped staggering around. But that was just for fun. He was, by all stories, kind and friendly to young Freddie Bartholomew when the two made “David Copperfield” (1935).

And it seems he liked dogs, too. At least, he purported to in this United Press story from 1945.

W. C. Fields Is Just the Man To Reform Drunken Canine
By Virginia MacPherson
HOLLYWOOD, Oct. 26 (UP) — Bulbous-nosed W. C. Fields today offered a congenial home to Pepe, the dog drunk who gets the blind staggers on muscatel, and said he’d “reform” him from a wine to a martini hound.
“I’m a martini man, pure and simple,” drawled the comedian who uses quart jars for cocktail glasses. “And any dog that drinks with me can’t drink wine.”
Fields said he read about Pepe in the newspapers after police picked him up as a confirmed wino who was using alcoholic barks to tip off his human friends that the cops were approaching.
“I understand this dog needs a good home,” the neon-nosed actor added, “Well, I do, too. If this canine will meet me halfway, we can make a deal.”
Friends said he was being .kicked out of his famulous house, which has a billiard-table in the middle of the living room and a portable refrigerator well stocked with liquids. It’s mounted on wheels 30 he always has a drink handy when he gets thirsty.
Pepe and I could hunt .for a home together,” Fields said. Seems my lease on this place has expired—or something.”
His secretary reminded him that Pepe was undergoing scientific treatment of chronic alcoholism.
“I’ll breathe on him,” Fields declared. “That’ll cure the cur.”
Fields said he’d like to go down to the animal shelter, where Pepe was recovering from a hangover, but didn’t have time.
“I’m working on my notes for a temperance lecture I have to give soon,” he wheezed, reaching for the quart jar. “And tonight my writers are coming to work on a radio script.”
As soon as he’s kicked out of his house he’s moving into Las Encinas sanitarium in Pasadena, Calif.
“Going over for a short cure,” Fields grinned. “It’s the only place I can find to live for a while. Pepe might as well come along to keep me company.
The police booked Pepe yesterday when they found him staggering around Los Angeles streets. It wasn't the first time, either.
They picked him up a month ago, lapping wine from an old tomato can and barking an alarm to two-legged friends who were already five or six tomato cans ahead of him.
That time his friends sobered up and bailed him out with a dog license.
When police chased him again yesterday Pepe fell flat on his face in a drunken stupor.
“A condition I understand perfectly,” commented Fields. “This mutt is a dog after my own heart.”
Fields hasn't gone to the dogs, yet, he added. But in the case of Pepe he’s willing to make an exception.

While Fields’ quotes make this a light story, it really was sad. And I don’t mean the story of the alcoholic dog. Fields himself was on the losing end of his battle with the bottle, and the sanitarium mentioned in the story is where Fields went to live until he died 14 months later on Christmas Day, 1946.

Fields left behind some great movies. Audiences couldn’t help but love him. He played a man who just wanted to enjoy life but met with unfairness and stupidity, two things the average viewer can still identify with. It made his triumph (such as at the end of “It’s a Gift”) all that much better.

Like many ex-vaudevillians, Fields made short films before going into features. You can watch three of them cobbled together below.

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