Great Snakes! 

W.C. Fields made a brilliant career of playing "a great big frightened bully," but his film legacy is in danger of being lost.

Anyone who has ever watched an old Hollywood comedy knows W.C. Fields -- the funny-looking gent in the top hat who wheezes about "my little chickadee" while sneaking gulps from his flask.

But James Curtis, author of W.C. Fields: A Biography (Alfred A. Knopf, $35), wants to introduce us to the real Fields: a one-time vaudeville juggler whose writing, physical gags, and screen persona combined to make him absolutely unique among Hollywood comic actors. In movie after movie from the early '30s until his death in 1946, Fields perfected the role of the original rough tough cream puff, a cowardly bully bedeviled by a nattering wife, horrid kids, dogs, and bosses, whose only defense was a sotto voce insult and the occasional furtive blow. The typical Fields character -- Harold Bissonette, Egbert Sousé, Cuthbert J. Twillie -- was not above cuffing children. Notes Curtis: "It takes a certain courage to play an unlikable character." In fact, when Curtis and Monty Python's John Cleese taught a Fields course together at Cornell, they stressed the petty nastiness of his persona. "Comedy is always most interesting when you're doing something dangerous, like making fun of blind men and kicking children," Curtis says. "Fields was the exact opposite of the Chaplin character. He didn't want to be loved, just understood. No one else did what he did."

Curtis will be at the Pacific Film Archive this Sunday, August 3 (5:30 p.m.), to introduce It's a Gift, the first film in the PFA's W.C. Fields: An Even Break series. He'll be joined by Ronald Fields, W.C.'s youngest grandson, and Jean Rouverol Butler, who played Fields' daughter in the film, to discuss the man and his working methods. Such rarely seen classics as The Man on the Flying Trapeze and The Barber Shop (a short) are also part of the mini-retrospective, but according to Curtis, the films aren't as available as they should be on 35mm. Evidently much of Fields' work belongs to Universal, and some prints are either on flammable nitrate stock or rotting in the vaults. "I worry that no one cares," Curtis says. 510-642-1412 or


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