Thursday, June 16, 2016

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (Universal, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I didn’t get to run a movie until late in the evening, but it was a great one: Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, made by Universal in 1941 and the last film in which W. C. Fields played a starring role. After it, age and alcoholism caught up with him and he only played bit parts and short scenes in films like Tales of Manhattan (1942 — his scene wasn’t in the original release but it survived and has been dredged up as a DVD bonus item), Follow the Boys (1944), Song of the Open Road (1944) and Sensations (1945). Never Give a Sucker an Even Break was written by John T. Neville and Prescott Chaplin from an original story by “Otis Criblecoblis” (do I have to say who that really was?) and is essentially W. C. Fields’ 8 ½. He plays himself — well, sort of himself; his character is listed in the script merely as “The Great Man” but he’s addressed as “Bill Fields” on screen — and he’s just finished making The Bank Dick at “Esoteric Studios.” A couple of obnoxious kids who work at the Esoteric lot (billed only as “Butch and Buddy,” though gives their real names: “Butch” was Billy Lenhart and “Buddy” was Kenneth Brown) look at the billboard and offer their critical comment on the film: “What a bupkie!” (The word comes from Bupkis, Yiddish for “nothing.”) Fields is about to present to Esoteric studio head Franklin Pangborn (playing what’s possibly the best role of his career; though he doesn’t act that differently than he did in all his other parts, somehow it seems funnier when he’s supposed to be in a position of authority over an entire movie studio rather than just playing a hotel desk clerk or a bank examiner) the script for his follow-up movie. He’s also trying to get his niece, Gloria Jean (whose name throughout is pronounced in a portentous manner indicating her real-life status as the latest cute girl in her early teens with a spectacular coloratura voice Universal was trying to build up as a replacement for Deanna Durbin now that la Durbin had aged out of these sorts of roles; alas, after casting her in this Universal gave her a vehicle whose horrible title, The Underpup, drove movie fans away en masse and killed her career stone-dead), an Esoteric studio contract.

Gloria Jean’s mother, Madame Gorgeous (Anne Nagel), makes a brief appearance early on as she and Gloria’s “Uncle Bill” (i.e., her brother) meet on the Esoteric lot and Uncle Bill warns her to be careful when she doubles for a major Esoteric star doing a high-wire act for a circus picture. If this plot line sounds familiar, it should; in his previous Universal film You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man Fields had wanted to use the “Madame Gorgeous” character as his wife, a star high-wire performer until she’s killed in an accident doing her act. The death was supposed to bring more pathos to Fields’ characterization and also be the reason while Fields’ formerly prospering circus was now desperately in debt — but Universal’s executives didn’t think a death was the right way to begin a comedy, so they made Fields take it out. Fields tried to get the Madame Gorgeous plot line into this film, too — though this time she was going to be his sister, not his wife — and the warning was supposed to set up a scene in which there’d be an accident while she shot the high-wire sequence and she would die, leaving Fields to raise Gloria Jean himself as a single parent. Once again, though, Universal’s “suits” ordered Madame Gorgeous’s death cut from the script, so we see the cue for it without the scene itself — and Gloria Jean’s slavish devotion to her uncle (according to an trivia poster, Fields had always wanted to make a movie in which a young woman would love him unconditionally) becomes harder to understand dramatically. But what’s left of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is so utterly brilliant the missing scene really doesn’t matter: it’s the sort of film that would now be called “post-modern,” a brilliant story that simultaneously exploits and sends up Hollywood clichés. The film cuts back and forth between Fields’ and Gloria Jean’s “real” story and the script of the film Fields is trying to peddle to Pangborn, which features an airplane with an open-air observation platform at the rear; Fields and Gloria Jean are flying to an unnamed destination, sharing a series of Pullman-style berths with a huge Turk (Jack “Tiny” Lipson) who doesn’t get any sleep because he’s spent the entire night trying to unwind the huge sash around his midriff, and an Englishman (Claud Allister) who recounts being bitten by a dog. (This was a holdover from a time in which a lot of people thought that airliners would be laid out like trains, complete with sleeping compartments — though an open-air observation deck in an otherwise state-of-the-art streamlined plane was ridiculous even in 1941.)

Then Fields knocks over his whiskey bottle and dives after it — without a parachute or anything to break his fall — only he’s safe because he lands on a giant outdoor bed in the home of Mrs. Hemogloben (Margaret Dumont, in what’s probably the best film she ever made without the Marx Brothers — though she’s playing essentially the same part: a rich single woman, raising a teenage daughter as a single parent and with a male comedy suitor who alternately wants to run away from the sight of her and embrace her for her money) and her daughter, Ouilotta Delight Hemogloben (Susan Miller) — though I don’t recall hearing her addressed by her first name during the film itself. In a plot twist anticipating Forbidden Planet 15 years later — though in Forbidden Planet the girl had a single father, not a single mother, and the gimmick was supposed to be taken seriously — Mrs. Hemogloben took her daughter to an isolated villa on top of a 2,000-foot-high mesa when she was just three months old. Determined not to allow her daughter’s life to be ruined the way hers was when Ouilotta’s father abandoned her when she was just three months old, Mrs. Hemogloben has made it her mission in life to make sure her daughter not only grows up away from all males but never even hears the word “man” (a separatist-feminist’s wet dream!) — until Fields drops from the plane and teaches her a kissing game called “squiggelums,” whereupon Mrs. Hemogloben comes upon them (leading a vicious watchdog outfitted by Universal’s makeup department with larger-than-realistic fangs) and wants to play too. This leads Fields to jump into the windlass-controlled basket that’s the only connection between the Hemogloben villa and the rest of the world, descending 1,000 feet (the script isn’t consistent as to whether the mesa is 1,000 or 2,000 feet up, but Never Give a Sucker an Even Break isn’t the sort of movie you go to for plot consistency) as fast as gravity can take him, whereupon he lands in the middle of a Russian village at the foot of the mesa (“played” by all those mittel-Europan sets Universal built for their horror movies) and tells the story of the Hemoglobens and their redoubt. This attracts the attention of a couple of gold-diggers, a hunky young guy for Ouilotta (who in the middle of all this turns on a radio and sings a swing version of “Comin’ Through the Rye”!) and British comedian Leon Errol (the owner of the real bar in Los Angeles called “The Black Pussy Café” that Fields had wanted to put into The Bank Dick, though the Production Code Administration insisted on calling it “Black Pussy Cat Café” instead) who ends up with Mrs. Hemogloben after Gloria Jean insists that she doesn’t want her uncle marrying just for money. Producer Pangborn rejects Fields’ script as “an insult to a man’s intelligence — even mine,” and Gloria Jean virtuously insists that if Fields doesn’t work for Esoteric anymore, neither will she.

They end up in the middle of a viscerally exciting and brilliantly funny car chase that kicks off when an elderly woman (the cast of this movie includes quite a lot of heavy-set females to pester Our Hero) asks Fields for a ride to the maternity hospital. She’s actually the head of a charity bringing baby clothes to new mothers who can’t afford them themselves, but Fields and just about everyone else misinterprets and thinks she’s about to have a baby, so Fields guns his car through the streets of L.A. in a vividly staged and impeccably driven sequence showing director Eddie Cline’s slapstick chops (he began his career as a Keystone Kop and a stunt driver for Mack Sennett, then took Buster Keaton’s graduate course in film comedy and co-directed the marvelous Sherlock, Jr.). I was familiar with this sequence long before I saw Never Give a Sucker an Even Break “complete” through a three-minute silent digest of it released by Castle Films in the 1950’s and called Hurry, Hurry!, and never forgot the scene’s highlight — the hooks on the ladder of a passing fire truck dig into the roof of Fields’ car and lift it up high above the city, taking it with them as its crew turn around in circles because they’re confused as to just where the fire they’re supposed to be on their way to fight is. Eventually the car crashes just outside the maternity hospital — we don’t see the impact but we hear it on the soundtrack as Cline cuts to a giant sign that reads, “Maternity Hospital — Quiet” — and orderlies snatch the woman out of the back seat of Fields’ car and drag her kicking and screaming onto a gurney. This piece of inspired lunacy, wisely unaccompanied by the usual bright, bouncy music we’d expect — instead Cline “scored” it only with realistic sounds of cars being pushed past their limits, ramped up to levels that suggest Josef von Sternberg had decided to do a slapstick film — was recycled almost frame-for-frame in the 1944 Abbott and Costello movie In Society (and no doubt some people who saw In Society in 1944 thought something along the lines of, “Hey, this looks familiar! Didn’t Bill Fields do this three years ago?”), and I was tempted to get out the DVD of In Society and run the two sequences back-to-back to see how artfully the makers of Abbott and Costello’s film (including director Erle C. Kenton) edited the footage to fit their plot line.

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break was a title Fields hated even though it came from his first starring musical, Poppy (1924), which he filmed twice. He wanted to call the film The Great Man (the “official” script designation of his character) and, when the Universal “suits” insisted on the eventual title, Fields snarled, “What does it matter, they’ll never get that on a marquee. It’ll probably boil down to ‘W. C. Fields — Sucker.’” Most of Fields’ movies had been disjointed; The Bank Dick had approached making disjointedness an art form in itself, and in Sucker (to copy Fields’ own abbreviation of the title) he achieved a sort of unwitting pre-postmodernism as well as the sort of genre-bending Preston Sturges would have given Fields if they’d ever had the great fortune to work together. James Agee gave the film a mixed review in Time magazine, wishing (as many other critics of Fields’ time did) that he’d confine his comic genius within the bounds of a plot that made sense. He called Sucker “strong drink for cinemaddicts who believe that the Great Man can do no wrong, small beer for those who think that even a Fields picture should have a modicum of direction.” Oddly, the sheer disconnected zaniness of Sucker is what makes it seem up-to-date today; the lack of any connection between its various plot elements, its references to other celebrities of the time (in an early scene, when an aggressively ugly woman — the cast of Sucker is full of aggressively ugly women and one wonders where Fields dug them up, and why — waves a huge broom with black bristles in front of Fields’ face, he snarls, “Get that Groucho Marx away from me,” and later he tells Gloria Jean, “Do you want to grow up and be dumb like ZaSu Pitts?,” whereupon she explains that Pitts isn’t really dumb but just plays dumb in her movies) and above all Fields’ and Cline’s willingness to do anything for a laugh seem quite au courant even though most modern comedians, freed from the untender mercies of the Production Code, take that freedom into tastelessness.

The “Groucho Marx” reference occurs in an early sequence in which Fields is having breakfast — or attempting to — in a café near the studio, and the woman who runs the place is so unremittingly hostile to him she crosses off every item on the menu he might want and essentially gives him the order. Thirty years later Jack Nicholson pulled the same gag in the “chicken salad sandwich” sequence in Five Easy Pieces — and people thought he and director Bob Rafelson were being so-o-o-o-o original. Also noteworthy is the sequence in which Fields repairs to a soda fountain for refreshment, and just when we’re wondering what the hell a legendary boozer like W. C. Fields is doing in a soda fountain, he turns to the camera and says, “This scene’s supposed to be in a saloon but the censor cut it out. It’ll play just as well this way.” It doesn’t, and according to an trivia poster Fields and his collaborators did write the scene to take place in a bar and the real-life censors indeed made them change it. One of the quirkier parts of Production Code enforcement was that mention of the very existence of movie censorship was itself censorable — though Groucho Marx had got away with it in At the Circus two years earlier when he saw the villainess (Eve Arden) slip something down her bosom and turned to the camera and said, “There must be some way of getting that without getting in trouble with the Hays Office” (the enforcement arm of the Code, named for Will H. Hays, former Harding administration Cabinet member, whom the major studios hired in 1922 to ward off government censorship of movies by censoring them themselves). Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is arguably Fields’ greatest film (though for sheer demented pathos I’d give that honor to Man on the Flying Trapeze — directed by another former Keaton collaborator, Clyde Bruckman) and was certainly a great way for Fields to finish his career in starring roles; it’s the sort of movie almost no one else could have made and yet it’s also a film filmmakers have been consciously or unconsciously drawing on for inspiration ever since.