NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941) – W.C. Fields, Sucker

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As W.C. Fields’ final starring movie, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break has its moments, but with its extreme non-plot and non sequitors, it is probably not the movie with which to introduce an unsuspecting viewer to Fields. An online friend of mine hit the nail on the head when he described the movie as “The Bank Dick after a few drinks.”

The main crux of the movie is Fields (who plays himself, more or less) trying to sell his movie script to the flummoxy boss (Franklin Pangborn) of a studio named Esoteric Pictures. As the boss reads Fields’ script aloud, it is presented to us in the form of a, er, non-movie-within-a-non-movie. The “real” movie’s bookends are no more than a series of vignettes. The best of them are probably Fields trying to consume a peach shake at an ice cream parlor (He prefaces the bit by telling us, directly to the camera, “This scene was supposed to be set in a saloon, but the censor cut it out”), and a wild climax of a chase scene that comes out of nowhere but is quite elaborate and pretty funny on its own.

Despite the movie’s rambling motif, its biggest debit is Gloria Jean, an ingenue whom Universal Studios was grooming to be their new Deanna Durbin (another ingenue who had outgrown her child-like roles). Fields reportedly had major battles with Universal over this movie, and one wonders if Gloria Jean’s role as Fields’ starry-eyed niece was forced upon him by the studio. In any case, with her many operetta numbers and her character’s pious loyalty to her uncle, the movie stops dead in its tracks whenever she appears.

But if you put your sense of cinematic continuity on hold, there’s a lot of fun to be had from the movie. Among other treats, Marx Brothers buffs will enjoy seeing Margaret Dumont (heavily eyebrowed) as Mrs. Hemoglobin, a widowed hermit who has her sights set on Fields. (Also, look for Fields’ real-life on-and-off mistress, Carlotta Monti, in a brief bit as a sharp-tongued receptionist.) At only 70 minutes long, the movie is quite a brief yet heady brew.

(TRIVIA: In one of his many feuds with Universal over the movie, Fields wanted to name it The Great Man, but instead, Universal knicked one of Fields’ quotes from his movie Never Cheat an Honest Man [1939] for its final title. Fields is said to have grumbled, “What difference does it make? They can’t get that on a marquee. It’ll probably boil down to Fields – Sucker.”)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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