Celluoid Cocktails

How W.C. Fields Helped End Prohibition

The groundbreaking comedian, who died 70 years ago, has arguably become the face of drinking in America.

In 1933, W.C. Fields starred in his first major Hollywood film. It was called International House, and Fields played professor Henry R. Quail. In it, the professor was flying his autogyro (a strange hybrid of plane and helicopter) to Kansas City. Then he got drunk and confused and ended up in China. Hijinx ensued.

The film was released only months before Prohibition ended. And the film more or less put W.C. Fields on a singular trajectory. He would become famous not for his acting chops or his one-liners or his brand of physical comedy—all of which were well above par—but for his overall persona. W.C. Fields became a brand, and that brand was of the irascible, misanthropic drunk. As the critic Wilfred Sheed put it, “The persona itself was the work of genius.”

And through that persona, W.C. Fields would do much to reshape the American public’s view of drinking in the 20th century. Through comic alchemy, he flipped the tragedy of drink on its head, turning it into pure comedy gold.

Among the favored tropes of the temperance movement were that drink ruined lives, making beasts of husbands and fathers, with widowhood and orphanages the likely denouement. An 1844 temperance play (called The Drunkard, which, frankly seems a bit on the nose), for instance, screeched that drink would “mildew the bright hopes of youth… fill the widow’s heart with agony… curse the orphan… steal the glorious mind of man… cast them from their high estate of honest pride.”

This was, essentially, the core of Field’s humor, although viewed through the wrong end of the telescope, distorting everything. “Fields was a professional droll who defied all conventions and soaked himself in hard liquor,” wrote novelist and screenwriter J.B. Priestly. Fields performed in an era when the little guy always won out, and love always prevailed. Yet this never happened in his films. Fields celebrated drunkenness, misanthropy, selfishness and getting the short end of the stick. Fields lifted the scratchy, grey shawl that Prohibition had draped heavy-handedly over distilleries, saloons and much of American life.

Fields came by his role as advocate for tippling later in life. He was born in Philadelphia in 1880, lived above a bar with four siblings and an alcoholic father. He fled his difficult home life at age 14, aiming to become a world-famous juggler. Remarkably, he succeeded, winning acclaim as the “world’s greatest burlesque juggler”—and let us pause for a moment to give thanks that we live in world where such a title once existed. Vaudeville houses both at home and abroad clamored for his act.

Fields shifted to acting in plays and dabbled in silent film, with middling success. He finally moved to Hollywood at the age of 51, and landed in a series of the newly arrived talking films, some of which he wrote. His persona was cast in durable celluloid.

The actor was soon famous for his double-takes—hands fluttering about his throat when confronted with something unexpected or untoward—but more so for his wry comments about drink, usually delivered out of the side of his mouth, often in overwrought language, with a voice like a rusty hinge.

“Now don’t say you can’t swear off drinking; it’s easy. I’ve done it a thousand times,” he once said. Or: “I never dine on an empty stomach.” Or: “Some weasel took the cork out of my lunch,” as he groused in the 1939 film You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man. Or: perhaps his most famous line, explaining why he didn’t drink water: “Fish fuck in it.” (This, sadly, is unsubstantiated, although it’s likely he made this remark to reporter over lunch.)

Another favorite line: “I exercise extreme control. I never drink anything stronger than gin before breakfast.” And here we find a bridge between Fields the actor and Fields the man. He didn’t drink very much earlier in his career—drinking and juggling don’t mix—but he greatly enjoyed liquor starting in his fifties, as his movie career took off.

“By the middle of his movie period his need for alcohol had crystalized into a habit pattern from which he deviated only slightly until the end of his life,” wrote one biographer.

Breakfast Martinis weren’t just a throwaway line. One biographer wrote that later in Hollywood he began each day rising about nine o’clock, talking a shower, and then slowly sipping two Martinis on the terrace if the weather was agreeable.

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By most accounts, Fields detested drunks—they made for lousy company, and those who got visibly soused at his house weren’t invited back. (Also, Fields was famously parsimonious, and didn’t like guests drinking all his liquor—notwithstanding that he maintained a locked room with hundreds of bottles.)

He drank often and well, mostly Martinis, (“I work better with them inside me,” he said), but he was not unfamiliar with Irish whiskey, bourbon, Scotch, rye, red wine and sherry. He was also fond of rum and Coca Cola. His staff estimated that he drank about two quarts of liquor a day.

But he was always an amiable drunk, and he wore his alcoholism well, like the askew top hat for which he became famous. He drank at home and he drank on the set. He would often bring a cocktail shaker filled with gin to work, which he referred to as his “pineapple juice.” When a studio employee once refilled it with actual juice, Fields took a sip and bellowed, “Somebody’s been putting pineapple juice in my pineapple juice!”

His fondness for drink didn’t impair his acting, and may have improved it. “His timing was better when he was drinking,” said legendary director Mack Sennett, who certainly knew about comedy, since he was responsible for the Keystone Kops. “He was terrified of speaking lines too fast, which he sometimes did if he was sober.”

Toward the end of Field’s life, his drinking became less funny, his nose larger and redder. (Fields suffered from roseacea, did little to treat it, and helped cement a link between excess drink and scarlet snouts.) Yet he always maintained his ability to function appearing in his last film, Sensations of 1945, 72 years ago next week. “He keeps on drinking and keeps on being funny,” said one colleague of that era, “so whose business is it except his own?”

W.C. Fields died 70 years ago. He had been a bridge between the dour temperance era, and the boozy, goofy humor of Dean Martin, Joe E. Lewis, Foster Brooks, Jackie Gleason, and Red Skelton. His Los Angeles tombstone was famously engraved with the droll line, “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”

A reasonable alternative: “He made it safe to drink again.”