WC Fields’ final starring vehicle is notably raucous and ramshackle.
In the hilarious and ingenious Never Give a Sucker an Even Break portly carouser WC Fields – the great comedian and affable antagoniser – takes aim at the Hollywood which both celebrated and censored him. As ever, he doesn’t mind giving himself a thorough ribbing while he’s at it. Sometimes satirical, other times fantastical and always wilfully disobedient, this 1941 gem is a must-see for the mischievously minded.
Directed by Edward F Cline, the original screenplay was penned by Fields himself, writing under the jovial pseudonym Otis Criblecoblis. However his script was subjected to a number of rewrites at the insistence of the studio, Universal. It also attracted the ire of the MPPDA censor board, one objection being: "any and all dialogue and showing of bananas and pineapples is unacceptable" (Fields retaliated by getting a dig at the censor into the final film). In defiance at this meddling and in solidarity with his creative partner, Cline reportedly went ahead and shot it based on Fields’ original script.
As the opening credits roll, we’re left with no doubt what we’re in for and whose company we’ll be in. A cartoon drunkard with a bulbous, discoloured nose puffs on a cigar before his belly inflates to gargantuan proportions, revealing the title 'Never Give a Sucker an Even Break'.
In this modern-minded film of champion cheekiness Fields plays himself or, as he’s branded jestfully in the closing credits 'The Great Man' – also a reference to the film’s original title. His previous film The Bank Dick, is derided by a couple of scallywags in an early sequence.
Sucker features Gloria Jean as his niece – a loyal moppet, with the voice of an angel; to her he’s her uncle Bill, a calamitous dipsomaniac for sure, but one who’s kind and devoted. It’s a relationship that’s genuinely rather heartrending.
At one point Fields is called in for a meeting with a producer from the fictional and brilliantly named Esoteric Studios, Mr Pangborn (Franklin Pangborn). Fields begins describing a nonsensical story which would involve the female lead (Pangborn’s increasingly horrified wife) wearing a beard.
When Panborn seizes the script and begins reading himself we cut into the action – the film within a film – and again we’re in the company of Fields and Gloria Jean, who are flying out to an unnamed Russian village.
During the flight Fields knocks a bottle of booze out of the plane and, without a moment’s hesitation – and plausibility be damned – he flings himself after his treasured tipple, catching up with it to take a swig before he comes bouncing to a halt on a divan situated in a mountain-top garden. It’s the home of a naïve young woman (Susan Miller), an imprisoned maiden who has no concept of men.
She’s watched over by her ghoulish mother – Mrs Hemogloben (the great Margaret Dumont) – who is enough to send Fields hurtling over the edge. It’s at this point that we rejoin ‘reality’ to find Fields being reprimanded by the producer: "This script is an insult to a man’s intelligence. Even mine."
Unsurprisingly, it’s a film rammed with sparkling one-liners, such as when Fields tells Gloria Jean: "I was in love with a beautiful blonde once dear. She drove me to drink. That’s the one thing I’m indebted to her for." Or try this one: "Drown in a vat of whisky? Death, where is thy sting?"
In Ronald J Fields’ biography of his grandfather he describes how there was little difference between WC and any one of his alter egos: "What made this comic mirror of himself more than a banal self-indulgence, however, was the honesty and clarity of his vision. He dug deeply into himself and brought to light something we all recognised, and that made it art."
Fields was commonly and keenly self-effacing, routinely portraying himself as a bum; yet he was emphatically someone to root for, a welcome counterpoint to impossible Hollywood glamour, a believably flawed scruff-bag of a man. He was a character to laugh both at and with – a celluloid conspirator whose mumbled asides have real potency, as it’s with them that he takes us into his confidence.
Never Give a Sucker an Even Break takes some cracking shots at the Hollywood studio system and its production line style of movie-making. When Pangborn first enters one of the stages, it’s a ludicrous hive of disparate activity; he’s walked into by soldiers, then blown back by a wind machine, before a light nearly takes him out.
Musicals in particular come in for a thorough dressing down. The improbability of the mountaintop recluse breaking into a sophisticated song and dance routine is explicitly commented on and Gloria Jean’s slick musical numbers are in comical contrast to Fields’ shabby anti-establishment antics. While the film highlights how daft such sequences are, their inclusion presumably satisfied the studio that forked out the dough.
This fractious production was unfortunately Fields’ last picture with Universal – and his last starring role – but ultimately it’s a fine way for him to be remembered. As he tells his waitress adversary (Jody Gilbert) during a pricelessly fraught encounter, "You take things too seriously". We could all learn a lesson from that.