W.C. Fields ‘Meets’ Robert Benchley?


Brian A. Thomas, Ph.D. (2012)

            A W.C. Fields – Robert Benchley connection? Was the Great One a fan of the brilliant actor/humorist? Was there perhaps some mutual admiration between the two of them? Well, there does appear to be some evidence of a connection between these two talented giants. There was at least a professional connection of admiration for each other’s work. However, one does have to dig a bit to find the proof – but proof there is indeed.

            During a recent visit to the fabulous Fields memorabilia display at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, I was fascinated by several original letters included in the collection. The letters had one thing in common –they were all written by Fields to professional critics. In each instance they contained W.C.’s heartfelt and gracious gratitude to the critic for something they had written about Fields or a review of one of his performances. In some instances, there was an exchange of letters on the topic. In all cases, the letters were quite pleasant and showed Fields genuine interest in acknowledging his supporters. Apparently, this was a practice that W.C. had conducted his entire professional life and it is quite commendable that he was so conscientious in this manner. I suspect that there were/are few others in Hollywood that would go to the trouble that Fields did to acknowledge their critical accolades.

            There are two reasons for finding these letters so fascinating. One was simply the fact that Fields cared enough to be so responsive to his critics. I think this observation says a great deal about his true character even though it may run counter to his reputation. The other was that I am in possession of a handwritten letter from Fields to Robert Benchley on the same topic. The letter is dated August 3, 1921- Globe Theater-  and is hand addressed to Robert  Benchley in care of Life Magazine, 598 Madison Avenue, New York.  The hand written letter reads:

Dear Mr. Benchley:

Many thanks for the nice things you said about me three weeks ago in Life. You were very kind to me and I greatly appreciate it.

                                                            Very Sincerely,

                                                            W.C. Fields

            So here we have what appears to be the first connection between these two great men. At the time, Benchley was a critic for Life Magazine in New York and Fields was performing on Broadway at the Globe Theater in the Ziegfeld Follies. We all know of Fields career trajectory from this point on, but we may not know as much about Robert Benchley. Benchley had a varied career as a writer, critic, actor and humorist. Most often the title humorist seems to be used to describe Benchley. He was a longtime writer for both Life magazine and the New Yorker Magazine. As time progressed he started doing some radio work and ultimately, film work in Hollywood. His film work included approximately forty-eight short comedic films in a “How to” series that mostly demonstrated how the inanimate world was plotting against him. His perennial character was Joe Doakes. His 1936 short entitled,” How to Sleep” in which he does everything but, won that year’s Academy Award for best short subject. Benchley also appeared in numerous feature films and was a sought after character actor (Altman, 1997). While in Hollywood, Benchley was a frequent resident at the Garden of Allah hotel/apartment compound along with several other Hollywood stars of the era. Here he was involved in more than one outlandish story of high jinks among the stars (Wallace, 2001).

Benchley is regarded by many as one of America’s finest authors and humorists. He was also a founding member of the famous Algonquin Round Table in New York along with Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott. Many contemporary writers/humorists including Dave Barry, attribute Robert Benchley’s work as their inspiration. This author finds Benchley the actor and Benchley the author to be positively hysterical! No one could turn a humorous phrase quite like him and his facial expressions coupled with his stammering witticisms on film were priceless. Fortunately for us, and posterity, Benchley thought enough of Fields to keep this letter safe all these years.

            To find the next Fields –Benchley connection we have to fast forward to 1933. Apparently, Fields was not only very courteous to his supporters, but also had an extraordinary memory for such acts of kindness. In The Pharmacist (1933, Sennett) Fields puts in a plug for Benchley’s work – bear in mind that Fields wrote the script. It is notable that this film had its genesis as The Comic Supplement back in January of 1925 as a Ziegfeld show starring Fields. This would place its birth a mere three and a half years after the initial Fields-Benchley communication above. There is a scene where a very stoic gentleman enters Fields pharmacy and simply stands at the counter. In an awkward moment, Fields tries to interest the man in a purchase. Fields nervously holds up various items and plugs them to this man to no avail. At one point he holds up a paperback book and proclaims, “Have you read ‘The Sex Life of a Polyp?”

            The Sex life of the Polyp” (1928, Fox Movietone Entertainment) was Robert Benchley’s second short film. He made it in 1928 and it was one of the very first talkie films. In 2007 this film was honored by being preserved in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant (www.wikipedia.com).” Obviously, Fields could have used countless works, both factual and fictional, in this scene of the film. Yet he specifically chose to acknowledge Benchley’s work. One just has to believe that it was to repay Benchley’s kindness from 1921. I firmly believe that this is the case and that Fields had a sense of loyalty like few others. This is an extraordinary character trait of an exceedingly extraordinary man…. And that is how W.C. Fields ‘met’ Robert Benchley.

Robert Benchley, left – the letter in question – and Fields.

Our hero, left – the letter in question – and WC Fields.



Altman, B. (1997). Laughter’s Gentle Soul: The life of Robert Benchley.  New York: Norton.

Chalmers, T. (Producer/Director). (1928). The sex life of the polyp {Motion picture}. United States: Fox

Movietone Entertainment.

Curtis, J. (2003). W.C. Fields: A biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Wallace, D. (2001). Lost Hollywood.  New York: St Martin’s Press.

Rosemond, B. (1970). Robert Benchley: His life and good times. New York: Doubleday.

Sennett, M. (Producer). (1933). The Pharmacist {Motion picture}. United States: Mack Sennett Comedies.