Never Give a Sucker an Even Break

Year 1941

W.C. Fields as  The Great Man
Gloria Jean   as His Niece  
Leon Errol as His Rival
Margaret Dumont   as Mrs. Hemogloben  
Franklin Pangborn as The Producer
Nell O'Day as The Salesgirl
Jody Gilbert as The Waitress
Director - Edward F. Cline
Screenwriters - John T. Neville
  - Prescott Chaplin
Original Story - Otis Criblecoblis
(W.C. Fields)

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is W.C. Fields' last starring feature. Sort of like Roseanne's last season on TV, Fields indulged himself as much as the Universal Pictures studio allowed. For the most part, it's entertaining. Some of the jokes fall flat, some of the scenes go on too long, and there's too much singing. But when it hits, it knocks 'em out of the park.

From the studio's perspective, this picture had two assignments. One, to be a comedy starring Fields. Two, to showcase the singing talents of Gloria Jean. Although it succeeds with both, together they really don't make for smooth viewing. If you watch it for the comedy, which is what I did, then the singing gets in the way and breaks the comedic momentum...

...I think. Even if you took out the singing, this movie is still all over the place. There are scenes on a sound stage, a movie producer's office, a diner, an airplane, a Russian village in Mexico, a Greek estate atop a mesa, an ice cream parlor, and the whizzing by streets of Glendale, CA. Most of the locales involve Fields and his unique combination of jokes and sight gags.

The full repertoire of Fields' abilities is not on display here. His sense of the absurd and surreal is, though.

The plot is that Fields is Fields and not a character with a funny name and he is trying to help his niece (Gloria Jean). She's a newly burning movie star. To help her financially, Fields writes a script and tries to sell it to the producer. The producer rejects the script and Fields and his niece leave town.

Half of the movie is Fields' script being acted out. The script involves an uncle and his niece as they come across a rich lady and her daughter living atop a mesa in Mexico. Fields intends on marrying the woman because that's what he does; he shamelessly chases money. As much as he loves his niece, though, Fields cannot go through with the wedding. Margaret Dumont, never a beauty to begin with, wears makeup that makes her scary ugly in her role as the rich lady.

I've never heard Fields take the abuse he receives in this movie. It's almost as if he's doing penance of some sort. He gets heckled by young boys, (justifiably) dismissed by a waitress, insulted by the producer and his wife, and lovingly put down by his niece. Even as the cops are giving him an escort in the chase scene, one of them tells Fields, "Okay, Tomato Puss, follow me."

Reasons to watch this movie include the sight gags. They include Fields trying to get a cherry out of a milkshake using two straws, lighting a cigar without taking off the cellophane, sharing a shaving compartment with someone twice his size, the classic "hit him with a mallet and let the person who took the mallet away catch the heat" (previously used in The Old Fashioned Way), racing a lady to a hospital (a series worthy of Buser Keaton), the trip on the airplane (which resembles a railroad car complete with observation deck), and drinking goats milk.

Why is the goats milk scene funny? Not only does Fields treat it like medicine where his head moves away from the oncoming glass of liquid but then there are the flammable aftereffects of the potent, "Nanny goat's milk. It's very sweet."

It Hasn't Killed Him...Yet
If you're wondering about the costumes, remember Fields is in a Russian village in Mexico.

There are a number of verbal plays on words, although not as many as in some of Fields' earlier films. Here're some of the high points.

Fields: 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.

Fields: Is there Goulash on the menu?
Waitress: It's beef gravy. (And she wipes it off)

Receptionist on the phone: Some day you'll drown in a vat of whiskey!
Fields: Drown in a vat of whiskey. Death, where is thy sting?

Fields: You're about to fall heir to a kitten's stocking.
Heckler: What's a kitten's stocking?
Fields: A sock on the puss.

Fields gets hit in the head with a brick and his niece is ready to hurl it back at the heckler.
Fields: Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah. Hold your temper. Count ten.
Niece: (Silently counts to ten and loses her anger.)
Fields: Now let 'er go. You got a good aim.
Niece: (Pegs the heckler.)
Fields: A beauty.

Niece: But I don't want you to go away without me, Uncle Bill.
Fields: But the enterprise in which I'm about to embark on is fraught with imminent peril. Much too dangerous for a young lady of your tender years. And another thing, I promised your mother I'd look out for you.
Niece: How can you look out for me when I'm up here and you're down there in...
Fields: You want to go to school, don't you? Do you want to grow up and be dumb like Zasu Pitts?
Niece: She only acts like that in pictures. I like her.
Fields: Don't you want to be smart?
Niece: No. I want to be like you.
Fields: Don't you think I'm smart?
Niece: Not very. I don't like teachers anyhow.
Fields: Well, no sense arguing with a woman. You go with me...

The final scene as Fields races a woman to a maternity hospital probably has the most car crashes ever filmed to that point. Probably. There are some clever sight gags. Fields is speeding towards a crosswalk of pedestrians. They scatter.

The Crosswalk after Fields Races Past

Nell O'Day...Just Because She's the Only Attractive Woman in the Film

No profanity, nudity, or blasphemy. Fields has his moments and there are some classic scenes.

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