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W.C. Fields—In Africa

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by Leonard Maltin
November 7, 2012 10:52 AM
8 Comments
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Dr. Harriet Fields during her visit to the Kwetu Film Institute.
Dr. Harriet Fields during her visit to the Kwetu Film Institute.

I don’t know how many young people are aware of the great W.C. Fields, but they ought to be. Two years ago, Zach Galifianakis wrote on his MySpace page, “Influences – my family, my friends and wc fields…” Contemporary comedy guru Judd Apatow has said, “W.C. Fields is the funniest guy of everybody, ever.” When Conan O’Brien was asked by James Lipton, “Who makes you laugh?” he replied, “W.C. Fields I think is maybe the funniest man that ever lived.”

The great man’s grandchildren keep his flame alive around the world. Not long ago, Dr. Harriet Fields sent me this note: “I just returned from Rwanda, Africa, studying health care throughout the country. I also presented at the Rwanda Cinema Center/Kwetu Film Institute screening two of our grandfather W.C. Fields’ films. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences put Eric Kabera, the founder of the Kwetu Film Institute, in contact, for the Rwanda Cinema Center is part of the Academy’s international outreach program, and last year they visited there.

Here’s a rare casual shot of Fields, Dorothy Lamour, and director Mitchell Leisen on the Paramount studio lot during filming of 'The Big Broadcast of 1938.'
Here’s a rare casual shot of Fields, Dorothy Lamour, and director Mitchell Leisen on the Paramount studio lot during filming of 'The Big Broadcast of 1938.'

“On Sunday, August 12, the Kwetu Film Institute screened two W.C. Fields films under the stars – a magical experience for all, many attendees said they will remember the evening forever. I had the privilege to speak to the audience [and] I shared with the audience that our grandfather performed in South Africa. Eric Kabera said he wants to teach his film students how to do comedy to help make them and the country laugh again, and said W.C. Fields comic genius is unmatched in the world today. Rwanda has suffered so much from the genocide of 1994. I donated DVDs of many of W.C. Fields films and shared that W.C. Fields said, ‘If I can make them laugh and through that laughter make this old world seem just a little brighter, then I am satisfied.’ ”

Harriet continued, “I studied health care delivery in the rural villages in Rwanda and the relationship to university education in nursing, and will be returning to follow-up.”

If you’d like to read more about this heartening cultural exchange, which has brought one of the world’s greatest comedians to an appreciative new audience, you should visit the official W.C. Fields website HERE.

And not so incidentally, the great nonsense classic Million Dollar Legs (1932), which Fields plays the King of Klopstokia, is finally available on DVD as part of a collection called Universal Rarities, released by Turner Classic Movies. (Yes, I know, all four films on the set were made by Paramount, but now they’re owned by Universal.) For more information, click HERE.

And while the W.C. Fields Fan Club is no longer publishing a physical newsletter, it still has interesting material on its website.  

More W.C.

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    More W.C. Fields

    W.C. meets another Paramount star, Popeye, in this 1938 publicity still.
  • 2 of 4

    More W.C. Fields

    Fields as Mr. Micawber, the role he was born to play, in 'David Copperfield' (1935). As it happens, he replaced Charles Laughton after the film had already begun production.
  • 3 of 4

    More W.C. Fields

    Susan Fleming (later Mrs. Harpo Marx), Jack Oakie, and W.C. Fields in the hilarious 'Million Dollar Legs' (1932).
  • 4 of 4

    More W.C. Fields

    Fields takes a break from shooting 'Poppy' (1936) on the Paramount lot.
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8 Comments

  • Dbenson | November 8, 2012 2:40 PMReply

    W.C. Fields as an international ambassador of goodwill? Heartwarming, but also sounds like the setup for a great Fields film.

  • Jeff Heise | November 8, 2012 11:24 AMReply

    Fields was (and still is) the greatest comic that sound film ever produced. His voice, along with Orson Welles, Ronald Colman and Claude Rains, was one of the most colorful and distinctive in the history of film. I usually rank IT'S A GIFT in my top 10-15 films of all time-not just because it is funny as hell (the backporch sequence is the greatest sustained comedy sequence ever filmed) but it is also a bittersweet commentary on the American dream of home, family and owning your own business. Fields brilliantly satirized this without insulting the intelligence of the audience, yet left room for a happy ending that makes his character one you gladly root for. My other favorite film of his is the Mack Sennett short THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER, which perplexed audiences when it was released because they could not see that he was not only satirizing Robert Service and his ilk, but also the sometime shoddiness of studio filmmaking and its use of process screens, stock footage and exteriors that were really interiors. Many people today still don't appreciate its dry wit and tongue-in-cheek humor ("And it ain't a fit night out...for man nor beast!") but I have loved it since I was twelve and laughed until I cried.

    No one, and repeat-NO ONE-has surpassed "The Great Man" for brilliance in comedy and for showing the average man how to laugh at himself.

  • Walt Mitchell | November 7, 2012 11:13 PMReply

    @ Jim Reinecke: Thank you for that wonderful story--I LOVE it! I, too, enjoy sharing my showbiz history collections (records, films, videos, etc.) with young people--and everybody else whom I can corral! :-)!

  • Walt Mitchell | November 7, 2012 11:06 PMReply

    Thank you for your spotlight on W.C. Fields. (My parents did not like the man because of the alcohol angle. They were personal witnesses to the damage that alcohol caused in my family before I was born, though neither of them ever drank a drop. They did, however, allow me to have the Castle Films silent home movie of the climactic chase scene from "The Bank Dick.")

    In my collection of 78 rpm records, I have the original release of the set of three discs of comedy material that Fields recorded not long before his death in 1946. The two sketches are "The Temperence Lecture" and "The Day I Drank a Glass of Water." Guitarist/inventor Les Paul decided to try getting into the record business with his "Variety" label, and he engaged Fields to make this set. (He also hired Pat O'Brien to make two other sets, which I also own.)

    Mr.Paul's name is nowhere to be seen on those sets. But the word in the record collecting fraternity was that he was the man who had owned the short-lived company and produced its records. Many years later, I was face to face with the man when he attended a convention of "The Friends of Old-Time Radio" in Newark, N. J. I asked him if it was true that he was the owner of the company that made those W. C. Fields records. A look of astonishment crossed his face at the reference, and he replied, "Yes! How did you know about THAT?" I expained that I was a collector/researcher of 78 rpm records. He then verified what I had suspected: On "The Day I Drank a Glass of Water," the narrator says that Fields is strumming his guitar while being interviewed by a lady reporter. Sure enough, it was Les Paul himself playing that background guitar as Fields spoke the sketch! But Les couldn't remember the name of the actress who played the interviewer, nor the name of the pianist hired for background playing on "The Temperence Lecture!" Dang!

  • JFredMuggs | November 7, 2012 9:00 PMReply

    Amazing how much the children/grandchildren look like W.C.!!

  • Ted Wioncek, Jr. - President, W.C. Fields Fan Club | November 7, 2012 4:16 PMReply

    Forgot to mention...I have plans for publishing a physical newsletter which will include coverage of Harriet's trip to Africia.

    Leonard, I would be pleased to reprint your article, with your permission of course.

    Ted Wioncek, Jr. President W.C. Fields Fan Club www.webtrec.com/WCFields WCFieldsFanClub@comcast.net

  • Ted Wioncek, Jr. - President, W.C. Fields Fan Club | November 7, 2012 4:01 PMReply

    Leonard,

    Thank you so much for your article on Harriet Fields' visit to the Kwetu Film Institute to screen the films of W.C. Fields. Harriet is one of the most wonderful people that I have ever know and I am proud to call he my friend. Harriet and I have visited several film organizations together to help promote W.C. Fields film screenings. She was been a frequent contributer of articles and photos for the WCFFC newsletter. Harriet is devoted to helping to keep the sprit of W.C. Fields alive.

    Thank you also, Leonard, for being a member of the W.C. Fields Fan Club and for your help in keeping the spirit of W.C. Fields alive.

    Ted Wioncek, Jr.
    President
    W.C. Fields Fan Club
    www.webtrec.com/WCFields
    WCFieldsFanClub@comcast.net

  • Jim Reinecke | November 7, 2012 2:01 PMReply

    As an avowed Fields fanatic, I wanted to tell you a personal story that relates to your first sentence in this post regarding the need for young people to be aware of the magnificent comedic brilliance of this very unique individual. Back in the late '90's, when the second trilogy of STAR WARS films was about to come out, I was talking to the teenage daughter of a friend of mine and mentioned that although I had seen the first two installments of the original trio, I had yet to see RETURN OF THE JEDI. She offered to lend me her tape of that particular film and in return I asked her how adventurous she might be. She was a bit skeptical when I told her that I would like, as a return favor, to lend her a film that I deeply loved. I asked "Do you enjoy comedy movies?" She responded in the affirmative, stating her fondness for Adam Sandler and Mike Myers. She wasn't so sure about a nearly 60-year-old black and white movie, but I finally convinced her to allow me to lend it to her. Well, a few days later my friend informed me that this young lady had been laughing so loudly from her room while watching this tape that it was necessary to ask her to please hold it down a bit because her guffaws were disturbing the whole house. The next day, Meagan (the young lady in question) telephoned two of her teenage gal-pals, inviting them to join her in a repeat viewing of the film and telling them "I don't care if this movie is old and black and white but you have never seen a funnier person than this man!" Her buddies joined her for a popcorn and soda party that evening, viewing the movie again and I was told that all three girls were collapsing with hilarity. The movie? THE BANK DICK, of course! So when Meagan returned the tape, she inquired if I owned any more films with this very funny man and that she was through with Mr. Sandler and Mr. Myers. There's an old saying, Leonard: You save one person, you save the world. I think I did my part there!

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