April 2, 2003

Comedian Cleese Discusses W.C. Fields

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Yesterday night, in the sold-out Statler Auditorium, approximately 900 people laughed through a dialogue about comedian W.C. Fields between comedian John Cleese, A.D. White Professor-at-Large, and author James Curtis. Promoting Curtis’s book W.C. Fields: A Biography, Cleese and Curtis discussed the actor’s life and professional career, peppering the discussion with a number of film clips and jokes.

After a short film overview of Fields’ life, Cleese expressed his admiration and affinity for the actor. A former member of the comedy group Monty Python, Cleese acknowledged the similarity between his style of comedy and Fields’.

“Fields was doing Pythonesque things before there was any [Monty] Python,” he said. “I think Fields is a great comic … I don’t think any [of the great comedians] do humor with the same depth.”

Considered one of the great comedians of the black-and-white era, Fields often took on topics that might offend people, according to Cleese. “I think one of the great delights of comedy is when it gets into slightly risky fields,” he said.

Curtis then explained why Fields’ comedy was often politically incorrect. “Fields wanted to be understood, he didn’t want to be loved,” Curtis said.

They then discussed Fields’ typically negative portrayal of women and children on film and how it reflected his personal life. This attitude developed as a result of Fields’ wife refusing to travel with him while he was in vaudeville. Travel was a requirement of the job, according to Curtis. After the birth of their son, the relationship turned very cold, and Fields’ wife turned his son against him.

“He kept waiting for his son to come to his senses … and in a real sense, he never did,” Curtis said.

In particular, Fields is famously known for a scene where he kicks a small child over. Commenting on this attitude, Dr. Leo C. Rosten famously said this about Fields: “Any man who hates dogs and children can’t be all bad.”

From that quote, Curtis and Cleese engaged in a brief discussion of the movie A Fish Called Wanda, co-written by Cleese. The film received a number of complaints about a plot point involving a number of dogs being accidentally killed.

“I remember thinking, ‘Will the audience accept [actor] Michael Palin trying to kill an old woman?’ I never heard a complaint about that,” Cleese said. “The whole area of what you can get away with is an infinitely complex [field].”

Curtis and Cleese then turned to another politically incorrect aspect of Fields’ comedy — his nearly constant drinking. Most of his films were released during Prohibition or shortly after it ended.

“He was a symbol of public misbehavior,” Curtis said. “He was the embodiment of what people thought about a government that was a little too paternalistic.”

After discussing Fields’ status as the world’s best comic juggler, they talked about his experience in the Ziegfeld Follies and his film career. Although Fields began as a popular actor in silent films, his fame quickly faded. However, he rose once again to stardom when he began acting in films with sound. Curtis described a contract that required that Fields write and star in four films over a period of 10 months.

“Not only did he produce the sheer volume of work as he did at that time, but 70 years later, it’s still funny,” Curtis said.

After discussing Fields’ radio career, Curtis and Cleese opened the discussion to questions from the audience.

Most of the audience seemed to enjoy the lecture, applauding loudly at the end.

Although Leslie Lucero ’03 expected the lecture to be about Cleese’s career, she was still satisfied: “I was very interested in learning about W.C. Fields and I think I’ll see a few of his films,” she said. “This was great comic relief.”

Similarly, Ithaca resident Alan Lynch appreciated Cleese’s commentary on Fields’ work.

“It was interesting getting Cleese’s reaction, and that he was influenced by Fields. I hadn’t realized that until this point.”

Some fans came from a distance to see Cleese, as Drew Marlowe and two of his friends did. A junior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Marlowe drove about three hours to see the comedian speak after seeing the speech mentioned on CNN.com.

“I would have rather seen a talk, but that’s mostly because I came here, more for John Cleese than the book,” he said. However, he still enjoyed the discussion. “I thought it was great.”

Archived article by Shannon Brescher