Picks and Pans Review: W.c. Fields: a Biography

updated 04/07/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/07/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by James Curtis

This life of the comedian once known as the Great Man (a nickname coined by his maid) is thorough, informative, scrupulous and wholly at odds with Fields's sensibility, which was expansive, shambling, scornful and defiantly peculiar. His one-of-a-kind patter—a low, steady rumble of asides and jokes—seemed to wheeze up from a punctured bagpipe. Curtis moves at a perfectly readable pace through Fields's early days as a juggler and on to his film career, which was ruined by booze. (Fields's major films, from It's a Gift to Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, spanned only 1934 to 1941.) But Fields deserves better than to have his classic short The Fatal Glass of Beer dismissed as "an acquired taste." That's the 1933 gem set in the wilderness, where Fields hitches a dachshund to a dogsled and growls the line, "It ain't a fit night out for man nor beast." This book suffers from a fatal lack of humor. (Knopf, $35)

BOTTOM LINE: Misses the point

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