Sunday, April 20, 2014

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)

Although he would make a few more film appearances in bit parts Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (made at Universal in 1941) was W. C. Fields’ last major movie and his last starring role. It is his most bizarre and outrageous movie and in some ways his best.

The screenplay is credited to John T. Neville and Prescott Chaplin, based on an original story by Otis Criblecoblis (one of Fields’ many writing pseudonyms). Given that neither Neville nor Chaplin ever did anything else comparable to this I think it’s a fair assumption that what we see on the screen is largely the product of Fields’ own imagination. It’s certainly difficult to believe that he wasn’t responsible for most of the dialogue which has all the Fields signatures.

There is virtually no plot. It’s more like an extended comedic stream-of-consciousness that pushed the boundaries of cinematic comedy further than they’d ever been pushed before.

Fields plays a screenwriter and comic actor named W. C. Fields who is trying to get his latest screenplay accepted by producer Franklin Pangborn (played by Franklin Pangborn). At the same time he is trying to further the career of his niece Gloria Jean (played by Gloria Jean). She’s rehearsing a part in a new musical. 

A large part of the movie consists of a film-within-a-film. As Fields pitches his screenplay we see it come to life. And it’s a strange and wondrous fantasy concoction that owes more to the surrealists than to Hollywood. In the film-within-a-film Fields plays a character named W. C. Fields who along with his niece Gloria Jean (played by Gloria Jean) gets into a series of wildly absurd adventures that would have done credit to Baron M√ľnchhausen. He falls out of an aircraft and lands on a bed on top of a mountain. This is the home of the very strange Mrs Hemogloben (Margaret Dumont) and her daughter Ouilotta Hemogloben. After having her heart broken Mrs Hemogloben retired to her mountaintop eyrie with her baby daughter Ouilotta who has lived there all her life and has never set eyes on a man.

There’s also an extended sequence with Gloria Jean finding herself in a fantasy Russian village. We also see Fields and Gloria Jean ascending to Mrs Hemogloben’s mountaintop home in a basket, which provides the opportunity for more comic set-pieces. There’s also a guy in a gorilla suit, a couple of monkeys and a stuffed budgerigar. Having been told that she is exceedingly rich Fields romances Mrs Hemogloben until Gloria Jean points out that even if he gets her money he’ll be getting Mrs Hemogloben as well. That brings him to his senses.

Even when we return to reality from the film-within-a-film things are just as crazy. The whole thing culminates in one of the greatest chase scenes in movie history. There’s absolutely no need whatsoever for this sequence which has no relationship to anything else in the movie. It’s there because it’s outrageous fun. Nothing in this movie has to make any sense. Fields and Gloria Jean both break the fourth wall at times to address the audience directly, which makes the movie a film-within-a-film-within-a-film.

In-jokes abound. The first scene in the movie features Field looking at a movie poster for a W. C. Fields movie. This movie is so self-referential that it makes the whole of postmodernism positively redundant.

It’s possible that Fields, then aged 61 and enjoying indifferent health, was aware that this might be his last movie. If so it can be read as an affectionate farewell to Hollywood and the magic of movies. It’s as if Fields is telling us that it’s all been fantastic fun and now he wants to go out with a blast. There are those who see this as a bitter-sweet movie but really it’s much more sweet than bitter. Fields exits the limelight at the absolute top of his form and with the most audacious movie of his career.

You don’t expect to be talking about the special effects in a W. C. Fields movie but this one is an exception. The wildly surreal nature of the movie requires some quite elaborate special effects which are executed with wit and skill.

Edward F. Cline directed several of Fields’ late movies and he knows how to handle his star - let him do whatever he wants to do. There’s no point in trying to tell a comic genius how to do comedy.

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is included in the magnificent Region 2 17-movie W. C. Fields Collection boxed set. The transfer is on the whole an excellent one. The movie has also been released individually on DVD in Region 1.

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is a wildly inventive surreal comic masterpiece. Very highly recommended.

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