In 1936, having suffered a bicycle accident on the set of 1936's POPPY, and with myriad physical problems and addiction to alcohol finally catching up to him, W. C. Fields was hospitalized. At Christmas of that year, his paramour Carlotta Monti gave him a radio to help him pass the time during his convalescence, and he quickly became a fan of the progams starring his own friends and colleagues such as Jack Benny and Burns and Allen. In 1937, he even contributed to an all-star tribute to Parmount head Adolph Zukor, right from his hospital bed. His health was touch and go for many months, and making a movie was out of the question. Instead, Fields took to the radio.
In one of those moments of serendipity from which classic show biz legends are born, it was around the time of Fields's recovery that ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his soon-to-be famous wooden alter-ego Charlie McCarthy became the new stars of radio's The Chase and Sanborn Hour. Fields was offered a job as a cast member and eagerly accepted. The show was typical of much that was on radio at that time. It had its stars - Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, and an all-purpose master of ceremonies, announcer and cast member, in this case movie and radio star Don Ameche. There was a house orchestra, lead first by Warner Janssen and later by Robert Armbruster, and regular singers, including Dorothy Lamour and Nelson Eddy. The show usually began with a musical number and/or some comedy by Bergen and McCarhy, followed by a short dramatic piece to highlight a guest star. Fields had his own comedy segment each week throughout the summer of 1937, with Ameche, Bergen, Charlie McCarthy and occasionally other guest stars in support. The show premiered on May 9th of 1937, and was a huge success, owing in part to Fields's contribution, and his obvious chemistry with Edgar Bergen. Even in an era where so many stars were blessed with distinctive voices, Fields's bombastic, nasal delivery stood out. While he was a success in the movies, it was radio, with its built-in audience of millions, that made W. C. Fields a household name.
The combination was magical. At some point during the second half of each program, Don Ameche would floridly introduce Fields and begin with a simple question like "Well, Bill, how's every little thing?". From there, Fields would begin to spin some long-winded, long-winding and often muddled tale, filled with side trips, side bars and side swipes, while Ameche attempted to get Fields back on track with his questions. Ameche always seemed to be on the edge of completely breaking up at Fields's jokes, ad-libs and mistakes. There were moments when a Fields ad-lib causes Ameche to lose it completely. Although he rarely if ever got a laugh line in the Fields segments, it is hard not to appreciate the enthusiasm and professionalism that Ameche brought to the mix whenever Fields was around. 1
After a while, Edgar and Charlie would join in, and Fields and the
sharp-witted dummy would trade insults. Few performers could
stand toe to toe with Fields and come off looking like anything but a
second fiddle but Edgar Bergen could hold his own against "The Great
Man". He may not have been the world's
greatest ventriloquist, but he created one of the greatest
ventriloquist dummy characters in little Charlie and had the
joke-writing skills, and a great team of writers, to back up
that character with classic lines. Charlie, despite his incongrous
monocle and tophat, was a feisty, quick-witted Huckleberry Finn of a
kid, always ready with a great joke or a topper.
Charlie would lob lines at Fields, Fields would lob insults
and the result was one of the great "radio feuds" of all time.
Charlie made make endless jokes about Fields's large nose
drunkeness, and Fields would counter with endless variations of jokes
about Charlie being made of wood.
There's really no reason why all this worked, except that the three talents involved (Fields, Bergen and Ameche) made it work. Fields and Bergen respected each others abilities and looked forward to springing surprises on each other. Bergen knew he had a good thing in Fields as a guest and gave him all the room he needed to weave his wandering tales. Fields, who despite his anti-social image always appreciated working with equally funny performers, never minded Charlie getting the best toppers ("He admired anybody who could give him a good fight," said Edgar Bergen on a 1956 radio tribute to Fields). Don Ameche rarely tried to be funny during Fields's part of the show but instead acted as a traffic director, attempting, often failing, to keep the jokes, lines and situations flowing smoothly. Once in a blue moon - perhaps once in every ten blue moons - Ameche would get the best of Fields with a one-liner, at which point Fields would mutter "I'm beginning to like Charlie McCarthy!". Given the confidence Fields and Bergen had in their ability to ad-lib, periodically someone would get lost in the script, such as in this exchange:
DON: Bill, you were telling me what a powerful
man your father was.
FIELDS: Oh, yes, yes... Father had a very little chest, but his stomach expansion was about seven and a half feet. Don, stomach muscles stuck out to here... (seemingly losing his place)
DON: (knowing Fields has more to say) Yeah?
FIELDS: Yeah, and he had a sh... head like... shaped like a rocky ford canteloupe... I don't know what's the matter up here. (audience realizes Fields is lost and laughs)
DON: (trying to bring Fields back to the script) Was he?
FIELDS: "Was he?"... oh, yes, that doesn't fit but it's okay... (more laughter as audience realizes both men are lost - when the laughter dies down, Bergen and McCarthy immediately get the ball rolling again)
The loose nature of the Fields segments of The Chase and Sanborn Hour are exemplified by a moment when Field walks on, Ameche asks him how he's feeling, and Fields replies "Well, I have to look first," referring to that week's script. Although Fields would only be a regular from May through August of that first year on the air, he would often return to Bergen's show and pick up right where he left off with Charlie McCarthy, or as Fields's would call him, "the woodpecker's pin-up boy."
Author James Curtis, in his 2003 biography of Fields, postulates that Fields became angry during a guest appearance on Bergen's show on June 5th, 1938 when Charlie McCarthy slyly asks him why he was no longer at Paramount Studios - Fields having been dropped from Paramount's roster after the failure of the tedious All-Star revue THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938. According to Curtis, Fields was so livid at the question, he cut his appearance short. However, having listened to the surving recording many times in my life so far, this seems more like conjecture than fact, as the sketch seems well-scripted and the only evidence of Fields's supposed anger would be his little injerjections to Charlie of "Shut up, will ya?" when Charlie repeatedly asks the question.
In 1938, Fields appeared on an episode of Lux Radio Theater, playing in a one-hour adaptation of his stage and film success POPPY. He found the work more relaxing than weekly stints on the Bergen show, as he already knew the dialog and scenes, and only had to do a couple of rehearsals before going on the air. Early in 1939, Fields guested on Dick Powell's Tuesday Night Party. Although trying to piece together Fields's radio career entails some guess work, I believe that it is from this show that the recording of "Tales of Michael Finn", a rewrite of the title song of his short film The Fatal Glass of Beer comes from. 2
Fields would move to the popular music show Your Hit Parade in 1939, but it was not a successful fit for the comedian, even though the show was temporarily rechristened Your Hit Parade With W. C. Fields. The recordings that have come down to us known as "Swimming To Catalina Island" and "Strike Up The Band", in which Fields yammers away to an announcer while an orchestra is playing a popular tune of the day, seem to be from this short-lived period of Fields as the show's host. He also superbly adapted his classic stage and movie sketch known as "The Pharmacist" for another episode. It seems, though, that both the producers and Fields agreed that the combination of the comedian and popular music was not working, and Fields was released from the show after a month. 3
He would return to guest star on Bergen's show once or twice a year until his death in 1946. The Fields - McCarthy feuds were brought to film in both 1939's YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN and 1944's SONG OF THE OPEN ROAD, though neither film could capture the loose, anything goes feeling Bergen and Fields created on radio.
In his later guest appearances with Bergen, Fields used a slower, more languid delivery, perhaps an early sign of his failing health. Nevertheless, the exchanges between he and Charlie McCarthy were just as funny as ever. In fact, the February 1944 episode contains one of the best exchanges of the entire feud:
BERGEN: You know, I thought you didn't like children.
FIELDS: Oh, not at all. I love children. Why, I can remember when, with my own little, unsteadly legs, I toddled from room to room.
CHARLIE: When was that, last night?
There was also this classic bit, reprised from an earlier episode:
FIELDS: Tell me, Charles, is it true your father was a
CHARLIE: If it is... your father was under it!
In another program later that year, Fields plays golf with Charlie as his caddy, leading to even more classic McCarthy retorts, such as when Fields asks about his score:
FIELDS: How do I stand?
CHARLIE: I often wonder!
In Fields's final appearance with Edgar Bergen in March of 1946 he sounds slower and more hesitant than ever. Of course, he has several jokes about alcohol, which are funnier if you are not aware that the lifetime abuse of "demon rum" would ultimately lead to his death nine months later.
Fields's final performance in any medium was tangentially radio-related. In 1946, he made commercial recordings of two sketches he had written for radio: "The Temperance Lecture", which he had performed live in November 1944 on the Armed Forces Radio Network, and "The Day I Drank a Glass of Water". Recorded at Les Paul's new multi-track studio, they reveal the same slowness and hesitancy that marked his last appearances with Edgar Bergen.
1. Several volumes of Fields on radio, including classic segments from the Fields - McCarthy feud, became commercially available in the 1970s on Columbia Records and other lesser known labels. Columbia released three albums under the banner of "W. C. Fields Festival"s: The Further Adventure of Larson E. Whipsnade, which was comprised of several Fields and McCarthy sketches plus a handful of non-Bergen sketches from other programs; The Great Radio Feuds, comprised entirely of Fields and McCarthy material; and the Lux Radio Theater adaptation of Fields film and Broadway play POPPY. Another volume, titled "W. C. Fields on Radio" contained several more excerpts from The Chase and Sanborn Hour, and several other non-Bergen Fields bits, incuding the adaptarion of "The Pharamcist" he did for Your Hit Parade. These LPs were a revelation to fans who had previously only known Fields as a movie comedian.
As of this writing (3/11/12), The Internet Archive has 48 episodes of The Bergen and McCarthy radio shows available for download, many of them having previously unreleased guest appearances by Fields. The full broadcast of POPPY is also available. Well worth seeking out, especially the Bergen-McCarthy stuff.
2. James Curtis mentions in his book W.C. Fields: A Biography that Fields sang "A Fatal Glass of Beer" on Dick Powell's show. The song "Tales of Michael Finn", found on the Columbia album The Further Adventures of Larson E. Whipsnade, has the exact same melody but with completely different lyrics. With nothing else to go on, I will assume that this is what Curtis is referring to, and that "Tales of Michael Finn" is from Dick Powell's Tuesday Night Party. Although still lacking some important details, Curtis's book, along with The Internet Archive and Jerry Haendiges Vintage Radio Logs site, was tremendously helpful in trying to sort out what Fields did and when during his radio career.