Born This Day In 1880 --- W.C. Fields
The death of Lou Costello’s toddler son is a well-known Hollywood tragedy. Less familiar, even to some of his fans, is a similar incident visited upon W.C. Fields on March 15, 1941, when the two and a half year old son of actors Anthony Quinn and Katherine DeMille (Quinn states the child's age as three in his memoirs) wandered across the street from his grandfather’s home, fell into Field’s backyard fish pond, and drowned. According to Anthony Quinn’s recollection, he and the family were visiting Cecil B. DeMille that Sunday afternoon, and somehow the boy had gotten separated from his nanny. Fields kept a little sailboat in the pond, and that was presumably the attraction. Emergency personnel worked over the child for several hours, but it was hopeless. Following the incident, Fields "went into retreat for three or four days," and wouldn’t talk to anybody (see James Curtis' outstanding Fields bio for more detail). Of course, the parents never got over it, as Anthony Quinn recounted, and this would further erode already weak underpinnings of their marriage. Fields wouldn't go near the pond again.
The still shown her was what led to recounting of this sad story, as it shows the pond very shortly before 3/15/41's incident. W.C. Fields had entered into agreement with Universal to star in a comedy based upon his screenplay entitled The Great Man. Toward that end, he was persuaded by studio executives to include parts in his story for singing ingenue Gloria Jean and a pair of particularly loathsome flash-in-the-pan moppets, "Butch and Buddy." This pact was made January 9, 1941, according to Curtis (folks, this excellent research is his, not mine!). As filming did not begin until July 7, 1941, we'll assume this publicity still was made sometime between January 9 and March 15, the date of Christopher Quinn’s death. That range seems fairly certain, as I don’t think there's any way that Fields would have submitted to this photo sitting after the drowning. The Great Man was completed that summer and released as Never Give A Sucker An Even Break. The woman in the striking portrait by photographer Eugene Robert Richie is Christopher’s mother, Katherine DeMille, who had an interesting acting career during the thirties/forties. You may remember her in Call Of The Wild, The Black Room, and several of her father’s pictures. There’s a chilling postscript to their marriage in Anthony Quinn’s book, which I'll not recount here, but suffice to say, this too is a highly recommended read, along with the Curtis/Fields volume.