Friday, April 1, 2011

In Praise of William Claude Dukenfield

This one’s going to be kind of “out there,” K?

I’ve never been one for old movies.   I mean, when I’m channel flipping and I see something in black and white, unless it’s Young Frankenstein, I charge right on through until I find something with far less redeeming social value.  And more explosions.

But I have one soft spot for the old films.  And it all started with pizza.

When we lived in Columbus, my parents used to take us to this Italian place named “Franco’s.”  While as Steeler fans, the name resonated with us immediately, our appreciation for the place went beyond our ball-carrying paisan.   They used to show old black and white movie shorts on a blank wall, while you and your family munched on pizza.  And one of the recurrent stars was WC Fields.

After getting some giggles over WC Fields’ anti-social, alcoholic exploits, I looked into some more of his work and became a big fan.

There were a lot of qualities that got me hooked.  I was drawn to the rascally attitude… his sticking it to the conventions of the times.  He drank too much, gambled, cheated at cards, hustled billiard games, told tall tales and had no tolerance for children.

I wanted to grow up to be him.

But the thing I loved the best was simply the cadence of his speech and love for funny-sounding words.

Later, when I was in college, a buddy gave me a record album he had in his family.  It was a series of vocal snippets from various WC Fields movies.  It was a goldmine of material for me.  I used it to drop sound bytes in between songs, during my air shifts on our college radio station.  All the cool radio stations of the time were using drop-ins.  There was a lot of movie lines, cartoons, maybe some Three Stooges.  But no one was using WC Fields. 

At a very early age, it helped mold me into the ne’er-do-well raconteur I am today.

These were some of my favorites.  (Now you have to imagine them in the Fields voice and cadence.)

Bar customer: Squonk Mulligan tells me you buried your wife several years ago.

WCF: Ahh, yes, I had to… She died.

(That was on  the clip above.)  A perfectly obvious observation, and so devoid of sentimentality.  This one ties in as well:

Guy: Mr. Wiffin tells me your wife has passed away

WCF: Yes, the poor dear was killed in Upper Sandusky… run over by a pie wagon…

***
Woman: Do you like children?

WCF: I do if they’re properly cooked.

That was one of his most famous lines and his signature attitude.  With “most” children, that is…


Girl: Why didn’t you ever marry?

WCF: I was in love with a beautiful blond once, dear.  She drove me to drink.  That’s the one thing I’m indebted to her for.

That’s perhaps my favorite line of all.  I wish I could find the YouTube clip of it.

***

WCF: Sleep!  The most beautiful experience in life… except drink!

***

Lady: Don’t be so free with your hands!

WCF: Listen honey… I was only trying to guess your weight… You take things too seriously…

***

His love of drink was legendary.  Sometimes the jokes were obvious.  This one was somewhat more subtle:

WCF: During one my treks (he pronounced it “treeks”) through Afghanistan, we lost our corkscrew.  We had to live on nothing but food and water… for several days…

The beauty of that exchange was that this was the 1940s… $20 was an obscene amount of money to blow in a bar at the time.

To get past the movie censors, he had to invent his own brand of profanity:

Godfrey Daniels!

Sufferin’ sciatica…”

He was also a master juggler and billiards trick-shot artist.  These skills fed into his gift for physical comedy.

I don’t really have a point to this post… I was remembering some old lines and felt like talking about it.  If you’ve found any of this even remotely interesting, there is a wealth of WC Fields movie clips on YouTube.  If not… I’ll be back with a new post on Sunday.

9 comments:

  1. My favorite WCF line is "I don't drink water! Fish piss in it!"

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  2. Great post! I liked the old flicks. Been awhile since I've seen them. My dad was a fan.

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  3. Judie,
    In the line I saw, he wasn't referring to fish "peeing" in the water, it was quite another thing entirely. (Although I can see how a lady of your refinement might shy away from such bawdy references.)

    WC's aversion to water was legendary though. There was a scene in one of the clips I saw, where the barkeep gives him a shot of whiskey and a glass of water for a chaser. He does the shot, then dips his fingers in the water to clean them off.

    Momma Fargo,
    My dad always enjoyed the Fields stuff, so I probably picked up the inclination from him, what with being the oldest and wanting to do what the grownups do.

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  4. HAHAHAHA! You are right! I remember EXACTLY what he said, now!!

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  5. hehehehe those are great clips.

    Also, Young Frankenstein rocks.

    And now I want pizza. :P

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  6. Raven,
    Thank you for taking the time to check them out. Glad you liked.

    Young Frankenstein deserves its own post. My favorite line: "A riot is an ugly sink. Und, I tink that it is just about time dat vee had vun!"

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  7. Then there was "put the candle back!"

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  8. Love it, love it. A real genius, Dukinfield. When he met Mae West on the train in 'Chickadee' and asked her name, it was Flower Belle, he said, 'Ahhhh, Flower Belle... What a euphonious apellation... Easy on the ears, and a banquet for the eyes.'
    His autobiography is heartbreaking. More than half of it made up of bitter (though sometimes very funny) reminiscences, and transcripts of his letters back and forth with his estranged wife, about her turning his young son against him.
    Thanks for the very nice page.
    'Cuthbert J. Twillie'

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  9. Glad you enjoyed, "Mr. Twillie!"

    Love that line... it just points up how good he was with words, especially faux formality.

    I read (parts of) a book on him, long ago. What I mainly remember was that it had scripts of some of his sketches with Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen. Funny stuff...

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