324. NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941)

“If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.”–attributed to W.C. Fields

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Edward F. Cline

FEATURING: , Gloria Jean, Franklin Pangborn, , Susan Miller, Leon Errol

PLOT: W.C. Fields (playing himself) is pitching a new screenplay to Esoteric Pictures, while serving as temporary guardian to his niece, an up-and-coming actress. He describes his story—which begins with him falling out of an airplane and landing in a secluded mountaintop garden where he finds a beautiful virgin and her wealthy mother, and just gets stranger—to an increasingly skeptical producer. After the producer passes on the script, Fields and his niece leave the business, and he ends up rushing a woman to a maternity hospital.

Still from Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was W.C. Fields’ final featured role. Both his health and his performances were suffering due to his alcoholism. In addition, Fields had long argued with Universal Studio executives, seeking more creative control over his projects. They finally granted his wishes in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. Just like the producer within the film, they hated the result. Universal gave Sucker little promotion and decided not to renew Fields’ contract. He made a handful of smaller appearances in movies until 1944, then died on Christmas day in 1946 at the age of 66.
  • Fields didn’t write the screenplay, but is credited for the “original story” under the pseudonym Otis Criblecoblis.
  • The title is taken from a line of dialogue from Fields’ play (later movie) Poppy, where he played a con man. Universal rejected his proposed title for the movie, The Great Man. Fields is listed as “the Great Man” in the credits.
  • The Hays office rejected Fields’ original script, objecting to  “jocular references to drinking and liquor,” the word “pansy,” scenes of Fields ogling women, and suggestive shots of bananas. A scene in a saloon was absurdly revised to take place in an ice cream parlor, which gave Fields an opportunity to make a jokes at the censors’ expense.
  • Despite promising Fields creative control, Universal reportedly re-cut the film and even reshot scenes.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Fields’ free-fall when he jumps off the airplane’s open observation deck (!) after accidentally knocking over his bottle of whiskey.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Plummeting drunkard; fanged dog; pet mountain gorilla

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Considered in isolation, the middle section of Sucker—Fields’ fevered film-within-the-film—is as strange a comedy short as was ever greenlit by Hollywood in the studio system era. Interference from censors, both in the Hayes office and Universal boardrooms, resulted in the already stream-of-consciousness script being further chopped up into something that approached incoherence. Sucker was Fields’ “screw you” to the suits, a poison pill of bitter satire dissolved in a pint of gin, served on the rocks with a twist of absurdity. By a man in a gorilla suit.


Fan-made trailer for Never Give a Sucker an Even Break

COMMENTS: In the early days of Hollywood, comedians established a persona and stuck to it, essentially playing the same character in movie after movie. While most comics adopted sympathetic personas a la ‘s Tramp, W.C. Fields cast himself as an antihero: a degenerate conman and sarcastic blowhard. Audiences were tempted to love to hate him, but he was saved by the fact that, no matter how many chumps he fleeced onscreen, the biggest butt of every joke was always Fields himself. A self-educated runaway from a hard luck carny background, Fields defiantly embraced his reputation as a misanthrope, scoundrel, lech, and, most prominently, proud alcoholic. He turned his personal failings into cinematic virtues via comedic self-caricature. A trained juggler and gifted physical comedian, he was also a quick wit. Along with and Mae West, he ranks in the top tier of quotable comedians, juggling words like ping pong balls. (Sucker gives us one of his greatest quips: “I was in love with a beautiful blonde once. She drove me to drink. That’s the one thing I’m indebted to her for.”)

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break came as Fields’ career was winding down; it was the last in a four movie deal with Universal, and in fact turned out to be his final feature. Realizing that he had little time remaining in the spotlight, he tried to unleash himself on screen in a flurry of unfettered Fieldsisms, but met with resistance from the studio, who found the undiluted comic too bracing for a commercial picture. Sneaking as much as he could past the censors, and defying the suits—Fields later claimed that he and director Cline filmed as much of the original, rejected script as they could, correctly assuming that the studio wouldn’t notice—he turned out one last movie that was defiantly original, while still remaining true to the prickly persona audiences had come to love. Sucker is a stream-of-consciousness series of gags that builds on the anarchic, surreal comedy of Duck Soup and looks forward to the endlessly digressive and reflexive postmodern comedy of . The studio cut up the final product, so we’ll never know how strange the movie might have been if Fields had gotten his way. But on his way out, at least the Great Man got his jabs at the producers who frustrated him: producer Pangborn, who rejects Fields’ proffered script and receives a punch in the nose for his poor taste, is a vicious parody of the kind of Philistine Fields would have feuded with through his entire career.

The central bit of the picture, and the part that secures its reputation as a weird film, is the thirty minute shaggy dog story-within-a-story the Great Man pitches to his incredulous producer. It begins with Fields diving out of an airplane to catch the whiskey bottle he’s carelessly knocked off. He lands in a mountaintop aerie, somewhere in the Mexican part of Russia, where he discovers a beautiful songbird who’s never laid eyes on a man before. He teaches the naive lass a kissing game—squidgulum—until they’re caught by her “buzzard” of a mother (the always game dame Margaret Dumont) and her terrifically fanged Great Dane. Rather than share a kiss with the homely dowager, Fields jumps into a basket and plummets to the valley, where he eventually enters a village bar, drinks fermented goat milk, and discovers that Mrs. Hemogloben is in fact a fabulously wealthy recluse. As Gloria Jean makes her way to his side, singing a Russian folk tune along the way, the race is on between the Great Man and a rival for the hand of Mrs. Hemogloben. Then they meet the gorilla… “This script is an insult to a man’s intelligence—even mine!” protests the producer, interrupting. “And as for the continuity, it’s terrible.”

If Pangborn thought that continuity was bad, he’d hate the finished version of Sucker, which is about as plotless a comedy as you’ll find in 1941 Hollywood. It begins with Gloria Jean dumped by her actress mother on the Esoteric Pictures lot. Then we see the Great Man admiring his own poster for The Bank Dick, before getting into dustups with a couple of juvenile detractors and a man defending the honor of his date from the dirty old reprobate. Fields then goes to a diner to trade barbs with a hefty waitress—who gives as good as she gets—an exchange that’s interrupted by Gloria Jean’s big campfire number for an upcoming Esoteric musical. Later producer Pangborn arrives on a chaotic set, fighting his way through a wind machine and goosestepping Nazis, to find Gloria Jean singing an uptempo number with a kid bassist and an accordionist who looks hypnotized; he puts an end to the fun by forcing her to sing Johann Strauss, a capella. These preludes before Fields’ big pitch allows the comic to work through a number of standalone comic sketches, including a bit with a broken hat and the chance to deliver lines like “I didn’t squawk about the steak, dear. I merely said I didn’t see that old horse that used to be tethered outside here.” After being kicked out of the producer’s office, he saunters off to an ice cream parlor (a stand-in for a saloon, which causes Fields to break character for a joke at the censors’ expense) before skipping town with Gloria Jean in tow. It ends, unnaturally, with a wild car chase (later remade almost beat for beat in Abbot and Costello’s 1944 comedy In Society) as Fields races a not-at-all pregnant woman to the maternity hospital.

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is well-reviewed today—at least, by those who remember or notice it—but there’s one element that draws a lot of unnecessary criticism: Gloria Jean. Universal was grooming then 15-year-old ingenue as a singing star, along the lines of Judy Garland. She’s cute, and she can actually sing (she was an operatically trained soprano). In the role of Fields’ niece, she inherits some of her screen uncle’s saltiness: she throws rocks at obnoxious whippersnappers (after taking the avuncular advice to count to ten first, in order to improve her aim) and punches the yahoo producer in the nose. She is also given funny lines (Fields: “Don’t you want to be smart?” Jean: “No, I want to be like you.”) Gloria Jean never became the big star Universal was banking on, and today is most remembered for Sucker. Not that she’s fondly remembered: Pauline Kael called her a “horror,” and cattily remarked “You can’t just close your eyes because she sings.” The hate was over the top, but probably came because Gloria Jean was the most unlikely character type to grace a grumpy Fields film: the lovable moppet. (You could also complain that her subplots take too much of the focus away from the Great Man.) Grouse about her you might, but Gloria Jean’s function in the film is central to its conception: she unconditionally loves and accepts Fields, and allows him to reveal a tender side that imparts a sentimental dimension missing in his usual caricature. In a movie that Fields conceived as a swan song, Gloria Jean stands in for the Great Man’s audience. Her adoration reveals that, despite his carefully constructed persona as a rapscallion, Fields was as desperate to be loved as anyone. There is a point in the film where the Great Man warbles a nonsense tune—“chickens have pretty legs in Kansas”—and every female character in the scene turns and smiles directly at the camera, enraptured. This transparent self-promotion is part and parcel of Fields’ boastfulness, and yet it’s also touching. It’s as if his all of his studied boorishness is simply a defense mechanism for his fear of rejection—all he really wants is to be loved, to make people smile. As Fields climbs out of the wreck he’s caused through his foolishness, the last lines of the film go to Gloria Jean: “My Uncle Bill. But I still love him.” We do too.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“We are not quite sure that this latest opus is even a movie—no such harum-scarum collection of song, slapstick and thumbnail sketches has defied dramatic law in recent memory.”–The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“…native American surrealism—comic book foolishness and then some.”–Pauline Kael

“…remains one of the strangest things ever to emerge from the Hollywood studio system…”–Video Hound’s Complete Guide to Cult Flicks and Trash Pics

IMDB LINK: Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) – Overview – Turner Classic Movies’ Sucker page is a little thin, with only a brief essay and the usual notes and quotes

AFI Catalog | Never Give a Sucker an Even Break – Background information courtesy of the American Film Institute

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) – AMC’s Filmsite has an extensive plot synopsis

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break: W.C. Fields’s Classic Film Turns 70 – Brief appreciation by Encyclopædia Britannica’s Gregory McNamee

The “Never Give A Sucker An Even Break” Car Chase – Part 1 – A tour of locations seen in the climactic car chase, including interesting notes from Fields himself about editing the scene

HOME VIDEO INFO: Ironically, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, which often makes the rounds on classic film channels, never got a fair break on home video. It has never been officially released on a standalone DVD, and is not available on Blu-ray or streaming services at all. The film can be found on two Fields box sets. The more definitive is the 2013 release “W.C. Fields Comedy Favorites Collection” (buy), which includes pretty much every significant Fields feature-length talkie (including hits It’s a Gift, My Little Chickadee and The Bank Dick alongside Sucker and six others). If for some reason that set’s not an option, an earlier 2007 release split Fields’ oeuvre into two (non-chronological) volumes, with Sucker appearing on Vol. 2 (buy) alongside You’re Telling Me!, The Old Fashioned Way, Man on the Flying Trapeze, and Poppy. On either set, the only extra feature of any significance is comedians Wayne and Schuster’s dated but insightful TV filmography of Fields (labeled simply “Vintage Documentary” on the menu), which runs for an informative and entertaining 50+ minutes.

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