Tuesday, January 29, 2013

`Why Did Nancy Feel Any Loyalty to Bill Sykes?'

Songwriter, littérateur and “Apostle of Pep” Eddie Cantor (1892-1964), Edward Israel Iskowitz, writes in the second of his two autobiographies, Take My Life (1957):

“A few nights after we got to Boston he started talking to me about literature. Books were the keys to another world; you didn’t know anything until you’d start to read. He went over to one of the big trunks and flipped back the lid. Not a thing in it but books! What he was looking for wasn’t in that trunk, so he flipped back the lid of the next one, fished out a copy of Oliver Twist and gave it to me. The next night when we got back after the show and had ordered up some food, he sat and questioned me about what I’d read. `Just why did Nancy feel any loyalty to Bill Sykes?’”

Cantor’s tutor in 1917 is W.C. Fields. The student announces “Night school had begun,” and outlines the syllabus: Les Misérables, more Dickens, Dumas and George Eliot, accompanied by “discussing them with Professor Fields.” One of Fields’ biographers, Simon Louvish, describes the comedian as “a diligent autodidact” and reproduces a speech by Mr. Micawber, the role Fields played in George Cukor’s 1935 film of David Copperfield:

“`Under the impression,’ said Mr. Micawber, `that your peregrinations in the metropolis have not as yet been extensive, and that you might have some difficulty in penetrating the arcana of the Modern Babylon in the direction of the City Road, in short,’ said Mr. Micawber, in another burst of confidence, `that you might lose yourself—I shall be happy to call this evening, and install you in the knowledge of the nearest way.’” 

Pure Fieldsian persiflage, of course, spoken in 1850, thirty years before the comedian was born William Claude Dukenfield in Darby, Penn. Cantor reminds us that Fields “never had formal schooling,” and was working in vaudeville as a professional juggler by age fifteen. For him and millions of others, the novels of the nineteenth century contributed to his moral education. No one is more reliably, consolingly funny than Fields. Go here and here for clips from his best film, It’s a Gift (1934). And go here to read a story I wrote almost twenty years ago about Paul Kuhn, who did the best impression of Fields (and Oliver Hardy, among others) I’ve ever seen.
Fields was born on this date, Jan. 29, in 1880, and died on Christmas Day 1946. Another great comedian, Anton Chekhov, was also born on this date, in 1860.


seraillon said...

Very nice appreciation of Fields; I knew of his reputation as being a highly cultured person behind his usual flamboyant, alcoholic screen presence, but did not know of his deep appreciation of literature. I'll use your post as a good excuse to re-watch International House tonight.

Roger Boylan said...

Thanks, Patrick. I always loved W.C. These clips made my day.