Book Article

OPENING ACTS

''Clara Mayfield had always thought: I don't care how many other beauty parlors open up in Flatbush, they could never run Blanche out of business. But here it was four o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon and the salon deserted as if the customers had evacuated a stink.'' -- First lines of Joseph Olshan's IN CLARA'S HANDS (Bloomsbury UK, $26)

''One of the key sequences in [1934's] It's a Gift shows an elderly blind man laying waste to Fields' general store with his cane. Afterward, Fields sends him out into a busy street, where he is almost run down in traffic. 'I never saw anything funny that wasn't terrible,' Fields said. 'If it causes pain, it's funny; if it doesn't, it isn't.''' -- From the first chapter of James Curtis' W.C. FIELDS: A BIOGRAPHY (Knopf, $35)

Originally posted Mar 28, 2003 Published in issue #702 Mar 28, 2003 Order article reprints