The curtains raised, but not on an empty stage. Smack dab in the middle of the yacht were the two monstrous golfers, already talking and drowning out the soft orchestral arrangement.
"Give me the five iron, my good man," W. C. bawled as he went through complicated and arcane gestures placing his tee. He turned around to find that from the copious golf bag Catlett had pulled a pole with five old fashioned steam irons strung to it. Fields jumped back in offended surprise. He cuffed Catlett and rummaged in the bag himself till he found the club he sought a" one with a rubber shaft that kept wrapping itself around Field's neck with each swing.
In the wings the bathing beauties milled in confusion. Not knowing what to do about the unannounced change of plans, they had missed their cue. The orchestra conductor, a wise, patient, and resigned fellow, signalled his musicians and doubled back to the entrance music.
The girls rallied and shimmied on stage. Their elaborate bathing costumes glittered under the bright lights. There was a second of shocked silence from the audience; then they started giggling and chuckling at the incongruity.
The warfare escalated. When the girls were good and kept behind W. C. he'd turn, tip his hat and leer at them. But whenever one of the dancers threatened to slither between Fields and his audience he'd brandish his unpredictable club threateningly and yell "Fore!" at the top of his lungs. People were howling with laughter.
In the wings W. C. and Catlett could see Flo Ziegfeld crying. But what could he do? The audience loved it.
"Ahh yaas, ahh yaas," Fields muttered under his breath to Catlett as he took a mighty swing. "Hoisted on his own petard."
W. C. could never forget his hungry days, and ate each meal as though it were his last. He developed a taste for imported cheeses, pt, all forms of shellfish, smoked game, petit fours, and chocolate truffles. He drank more and more liquor, buying only the most expensive labels. He claimed that his penchant for drink was responsible for the condition of his increasingly famous nose.
In spite of all the physical activity involved in preparing and executing his acts, the added prosperity at last began to upholster W. C. to plumpness, till to his audience's eye he looked like an aging versiion of that perennial bad boy Flip from the comics of their youth.
Affluence brought other rewards. It seemed a good time to indulge in other long suppressed desires. Fields bought a huge, sumptuous touring Cadillac, the first of what would prove to be a collection of luxurious sedans.
He drove the way he juggled a" adroitly, with verve, risk and not a little danger. As in the theater, where he treated anyone who shared the stage with him as a dangerous competitor out to rob him of glory and threaten his life, so even more so on the road. And just as on the stage, anyone who crossed him regretted it.
Once on a trip through the south with his agent, Bill Grady, Fields made the error of picking up a hitchhiker. W. C. had spent the morning swerving back and forth across the road to avoid the alligators he claimed were lying in wait for him in the bogs that served as curbs in that locale.
Grady took a turn driving so that W. C. could take a well-earned martini break in the back seat. This ritual consisted of Fields sitting with a bottle of vermouth in one hand, a bottle of gin in the other and a jar of olives balanced on his hat. W. C. would take a gulp of gin, follow with a sip of vermouth, and then, by what means Grady could never comprehend, with a peculiar motion of his neck somehow pop an olive up and out of the jar and catch it neatly on the mouth of the bottle of gin. Whereupon he daintily nibbled the olive as an appetizer for the next swig of gin.
They passed a gaunt and dusty man standing beside the highway, portmanteau in one hand, thumb out on the other.
W. C. remembered his own hard days on the road. "Where's your humanity, Grady? Pick the poor fellow up."
Grady obediently backed up and the man hopped aboard.
A couple of miles further on Fields decided to extend his charity even further and offered the man a drink.
The gentleman looked down his long, bony nose at Fields. "I can see God has sent me to save you-all from your sinning ways, brother." He reached inside his satchel and pulled out a bible and some pamphlets. "I'm a preacher and this-here is my cure to save sinners like you-all from demon rum," he said, waving one of the tracts in W. C.'s face. He began reading and ranting.
W. C. took about five miles of it before screaming to Grady to stop the car. Fields picked up the preacher and threw him out.
As the man of God lay stunned in the ditch, W. C. threw a fresh bottle of gin at him a roared, with great satisfaction, "I'm W. C. Fields and that there is my cure to save preachers like you from demon sobriety." Then he loftily waved Grady to drive on.
Cars, good food, fame, wealth and adventure were not enough. Like the cartoon character Mr. Goodenough, W. C. soon felt restless for new adventures and accomplishments. Unlike Mr. Goodenough, he did not retreat from them.
In 1923 Fields was invited to try out for the part of Eustace McGargle in the musical comedy Poppy. The role must have been written for W. C. by a benevolent God with a sense of humor.
Eustace McGargle was a rascal of the first water, an old time carny-con who survived by bilking hayseeds at country fairs. To the director's despair and the audience's delight, W. C. improvised freely, adding juggling routines whenever he wished and developing Eustace McGargle's character till it bore a marked resemblance to certain burlesque managers Fields had once known.
Even if the part had not been so perfect for him Fields still would have taken it: He couldn't resist the name Eustace McGargle. The show, of course, was a smashing success.
D. W. Griffith took note of Poppy's popularity and decided to shoot a film version of it at Paramount's studio out on Long Island in 1925. His first choice for the role of Eustace McGargle was Fatty Arbuckle. When that fell through he turned to the vaudevillian who'd defined the role on Broadway, a Mr. W. C. Fields.
Griffith retitled the film Sally of the Sawdust. The plot was rewritten to revolve around the comely starlet Carol Dempster. This didn't suit W. C. at all. From his first day on the set he pulled out every high-handed maneuver he knew from his substantial bag of tricks to dominate and abscond with the show. The movie was a smash hit. The studio heads, who W. C. had driven to such distraction that they'd considered having him assassinated, decided that he was an astute thespian after all.
This led to other roles for Fields in the movies So's Your Old Man, Running Wild and The Old Army Game, all produced by Paramount at the Long Island facility. These films met with critical acclaim but only lukewarm financial success. Paramount let W. C. go.
He was not crushed. With the added luster of the title "movie star" to his already considerable reputation, W. C. negotiated an attractively lucrative contract with Earl Carroll and briefly returned to Broadway to appear in Carroll's Vanities revue.
But Fields' prodigious nose could easily tell which way and from where the wind was blowing. In 1931 he bought himself a splendid new Lincoln sedan, emptied his bank accounts of at least three hundred and fifty thousand dollars for pocket money and drove out to Hollywood.
Fields didn't break into the movie scene in Hollywood easily. If his reputation for brilliance preceded him, so, equally, did his reputation for being high-handed and difficult. Compounding his problem was the fact that several producers had attended the performance years before where he'd brained Ed Wynn with the warped pool cue. They were terrified of W. C. and wouldn't allow him within striking distance.
To keep himself busy while he waited for the Hollywood directors and producers to come to their senses, W. C. kept himself entertained with various diversions, including golf, a game he'd continued playing with great enthusiasm after his success in using it to bring the great Flo Ziegfeld to his knees.
Golf held many benefits for Fields, not the least of which was keeping him in extra pocket change and sharpening his wits. He prepared for each game like a general going to battle. Each potential partner's life was studied intensely. Just when W. C.'s intended victim appeared to be ripe, either recovering from domestic strife or exhausted from stressful professional dealings, Fields would call up and suggest a relaxing round of golf, with perhaps a "small" bet on the side to enliven the game.
Once on the course he toyed with his prey like a cat playing along a half-dead mouse. First he replayed the beginning of his Ziegfeld golf act, confounding his partners with exaggerated etiquette. He followed this up with floundering through hole after hole, luring his partners into upping the bets. Then with a juggler's skill he handily sank the most improbable shots imaginable, winning easily. "Well, what do you know about that?" he'd bray, scratching his head in bewilderment at his astounding good fortune. "Madame Bella Fortuna finally decided to smile upon me after all, ah yaas."
He met the film director Mack Sennett in this fashion. Recognizing a first rate rogue when he saw one, Sennett wisely kept his wager small. Fields had to respect someone who recognized his talents so quickly.
Sennett had originally trained to be an opera singer. He started up his own studio by parlaying a gambling debt (that he owed) somehow into funding for the soon-famous Keystone Studios.
W. C. decided that anyone who could pull off such a feat of legerdemain could almost be considered an equal and deserved to have the great W. C. Fields starring in their movies. Amused, Sennett consented to agree with him.
They made seven films together in two years, including The Chemist and The Fatal Glass of Beer.
W. C. may now have found a secure foothold in the movie industry, but his trials and tribulations weren't over. An old, old problem reasserted itself with a vengeance, and that was his peculiarly antagonistic relationship with the animal kingdom.
It had begun in his vagrant youth, when neighborhood dogs correctly figured him for a thief and a ne'er-do-well and did their best to run him out of their territories, biting shreds off the seat of his pants when they could.
The situation escalated in the circus with his encounters with the elephants Gunga Din, Rajah and Elsie. Now beasts were not only his foes, but his artistic rivals as well.
A wooden stage is a confining and awkward venue for most four-footed performers, so W. C.'s years in vaudeville were relatively animal-free. An exception was his white mice, who he kept so dizzy from juggling that he felt he usually had the upper hand with them.
Film making was an entirely different matter. With the greater space available in the big production lots or even a" with location shooting a" all of the great outdoors, and the luxury of limitless reshooting as opposed to the confining immediacy of theater, the motion picture industry was well-suited for showcasing the talents of animals.
And W. C. quickly realized the animal kingdom had aligned itself against him as a balance against his success.
In one movie he barely outran a pride of lions. In other films he had to contend with the obstinance of mules and the neuroses of horses. Later, as a final humiliation, he'd have to endure a cinematic amorous encounter with a goat in a case of mistaken identity in the movie My Little Chickadee. It was a miserable experience for Fields, but his public loved it.
His confrontations weren't limited to his professional life. Everywhere he went animals pursued him with malice. He rented a villa on Toluca Lake. The lake's primary inhabitant was a large, cantankerous swan. It hated Fields on sight and attacked him whenever he strolled in his backyard. W. C. took to carrying a crook-necked cane, hoping to hook the bird around the neck and pin it. This strategy never worked. His neighbor, Bing Crosby, would watch in amazement as the swan chased Fields back up to his house day after day.
W. C. finally realized that he might have better luck actually attacking the bird back with his golf clubs. The results were more satisfactory. Now Crosby was treated to the sight of Fields running after the feathered bathing beauty, swinging mightily and screaming "Fore!" at the top of his lungs.
In his two years with Sennett W. C. Fields became a household name. Paramount Studios finally realized they had made a mistake in letting W. C. go after his stint with them in Long Island. They lured him away from Sennett and back to them with a substantial raise on his contract.
In 1932 he shot International House with Rudy Vallee and Peggy Hopkins Joyce. Vallee was a pleasant enough singer, but for some reason he reminded W. C. of the Toluca Lake swan. W. C. thought up a scene that he insisted be written into the movie. He badgered the director, Eddie Sutherland, till Sutherland wearily gave in.
In the scene Fields walked into a room where one of those new fangled entertainment devices, a television, was turned on. Rudy Vallee was singing away on the tiny screen. W. C. did a horrified doubletake, pulled out a pistol and shot at the TV, wherein Vallee promptly keeled over dead within the screen.
"You've got one hell of an imagination, W. C.," marvelled Sutherland. "How did you think that one up?"
Fields drew himself up with an offended air. "That was a mere trifle for a master prestidigitator and the greatest juggler in the world."
On July 27, 1934, W. C. Fields read in the Los Angeles Times obituary column of the artist Zenas Winsor McCay's death the previous day. A photograph pictured a drained, faded man. The biography listed his accomplishments; from his famous comic strips to his political cartoons to his breakthrough work in animation. It mentioned a few of the usual trials and tribulations of any mortal a" some near scandals concerning his voluptuous wife Maude, the choice his daughter made to marry a much older man, his rivalry with fellow artist Outcault. The obit ended by remarking on Winsor McCay's long involvement with the Masonic Order.
The name rang a bell. W. C. shuffled through his desk, whistling a tune under his breath. There, underneath an old handbill for a vaudeville act he'd done titled "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break," was a piece of paper grown yellow and brittle with age. Though the ink of the drawing was faded, its lines still retained a special verve, a freshness. Chalk stubs wrote cryptic messages and symbols as they flew through the air. Chasing along after through a dingy railway saloon, a frantic youthful juggler erased them with one hand, drawing new symbols behind him with the other.
With a twinge of guilt W. C. was sure he remembered the artist a" tiny and tightly drawn, like a cartoon himself. Kind and brilliant, but almost ridiculously gullible and naive; the type that was far too vulnerable to guilt.
W. C. drew the vaudeville handbill back over the drawing. "Never give a sucker an even break." One of W. C.'s favorite sayings, right after "you can't cheat an honest man." They'd both make nice titles for movies. He'd have to have a little talk with his producers over at Paramount tomorrow.
That night W. C. pulled back the covers to his bed, humming as he slid with pleasure between the lovely, crisp sheets, changed fresh every day. What was that song? It had been haunting the edge of his memory for days. Yaas, yaas, now he remembered. One of the old standbys. "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life." Really rather catchy, when you thought about it.
In 1934, in the Traverse City State Hospital, Arthur McCay began to slowly emrge from the fugue he'd been immersed in all of his long years of residence at the institution. Although he never fully surfaced into reality, he seemed more at peace, quieter inside, as if he'd finally made the world his own.
Arthur died there, in the State Hospital, twelve years later on June 5, 1946, at the age of seventy-eight. In all the forty-eight years of his confinement, there is no record of him ever having been visited by a single member of his family.
Early in June of 1946 W. C. Fields began to feel disconnected from his own existence.
The last twelve years had seen his greatest creative achievements a" his radio work, his best movies, like My Little Chickadee and The Bank Dick a" as if some last barrier to his creativity had, dam-like, given way.
But for several years Fields had also been feeling tired and old. He'd already moved permanently into a cottage at the luxurious Seboba Hot Springs sanitorium/resort. Arthritis clawed his once miraculously nimble fingers. He slept wildly, often falling out of bed like a small child wrenched out of miraculous dreams of Slumberland.
Throughout the summer and into the fall he stumbled more and more frequently. By winter he felt as though his life had become like a drawing unravelling into disparate, unconnected lines.
During the evening of Christmas Eve his friends, nurses and doctors, gathered about his bed, heard him humming an old fashioned-sounding tune no one recognized. At midnight he put a hushing finger to his lips and winked. W. C. Fields, the most magnificent juggler in the world, the Master Prestidigitator, died the morning of Christmas day, 1946, at sixty-six years of age, in his bed, on fresh clean sheets.