Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Theater has declined, everywhere in the western world. But in Philadelphia, even today if you attended every new play you would keep pretty busy.

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Falstaff Without Prince Hal

{W. C. Fields}
W. C. Fields

William Claude Dukenfield was born in Philadelphia in 1880, the eldest of five children of Cockney immigrant parents. He spent four years in school, was roundly abused by his parents, and left home at the age of 11 after being hit on the head with a shovel. During a self-taught adolescence, W.C. Fields slept in jail many times but learned to be such an accomplished pool player and juggler that he became the toast of Vaudeville. When silent movies made their appearance, he was successful in a second career, and then again when talkies came along. He was one of the ten or twenty most famous actors of the golden age of motion pictures, and, following the legend of the Great Depression, lived in a Hollywood mansion in great style.

Although he was a great natural comic, and had a sharp piercing wit, the image he was destined to project was that of the great alcoholic reprobate, during the period of national Prohibition. It was wicked that he was so lovable with his unashamed praise of gin martinis. And, of course, his outrageous defiance was a very thinly disguised symbolism of the growing public feeling that perhaps the Volstead Act had been a mistake.

It has not been made clear whether his repeated insults aimed at Philadelphia were fundamentally bitter or fundamentally just rough expressions of affection for a home town that never welcomed him. He constantly insulted just about everything and everybody. If it was a bitter war, he probably won it. His jibes and caricatures of the hometown have endured, long after his death in 1946.

"I once spent a year in Philadelphia. I think it was on a Sunday."

" I can love almost anything, except children and small dogs."

Hangman: "Any last words?" W.C.: "Yes, I'd like to see Paris before I die. (Pause) Philadelphia will do."

His famous recommendation for an epitaph: " On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."

Originally published: Monday, June 26, 2006; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 08, 2019