While its narrative is discombobulated to the point of absurdity, Edward Cline’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break contains the quintessential W.C. Fields in his last starring movie role.
The Production: 3.5/5
The great W.C. Fields played his last starring role in Edward Cline’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, the fourth and final of his starring vehicles for Universal Studios. The film has always had a checkered history; it wasn’t at all the film Fields envisioned when he first wrote it, but regardless of the changes brought upon it by outside screenwriters and Universal production personnel, much of it is quintessential Fields with deliriously great set pieces inevitably becoming the wackiest and least well-constructed of all of his movies. But its zaniness is part of the fun.
Fields had wanted to call the film The Great Man since he plays himself in the film: a star comedian at Esoteric Pictures who presents his latest story idea to the studio’s credulous head of production (Franklin Pangborn). It’s a bizarre tale of a man and his niece (Gloria Jean) stumbling on a remote escarpment in Mexico where lives a wealthy widow (Margaret Dumont), her innocent daughter (Susan Miller) who has never seen a man before, and their pet gorilla. Fields is enamored of the beautiful young blonde, but her mother has all the money so he tries to go through with a wedding to her, but his niece objects and they make their escape. Needless to say, the studio chief finds the story absurd and kicks Fields off the studio lot where he has one final adventure.
Fields’ story written under the pseudonym Otis Criblecoblis and refined into a script by John T. Noville and Prescott Chaplin (among other hands) doesn’t hope to make any sense. In a way, the movie is Fields’ own version of Hellzapoppin’ with its string of Fields set pieces facing off against a panoply of nemeses: a belittling waitress (Jody Gilbert), a bewildered soda jerk (Irving Bacon), the studio head and his wife (Mona Barrie), a clueless cleaning lady (Minerva Urecal), a rival comic (Leon Errol), and, of course, mischievously bratty child stars Butch and Buddy (Billy Lenhart, Kenneth Brown), all of whom make his life a misery along with four Gloria Jean song numbers (the gypsy song “Little Star” which appears to be a screen test Gloria is filming, “Dark Eyes,” “Hot Cha Cha,” and a lengthy rendition of the aria “Voices of Spring,” the latter of which is supposed to be a rehearsal on a soundstage which includes such surreal moments as Nazi Stormtroopers goose-stepping through the venue, a couple of chorus boys buck-and-winging it (and carrying Pangborn along with them), and Butch and Buddy pelting Pangborn with spat out cherry pits. And the surrealism doesn’t end there. In his film story, Fields and Gloria Jean fly on an airplane with sleeping berths and an open air observation tail area which Fields leaps from in order to retrieve a fallen pint of liquor and survives, Ouilotta Hemogloben who is supposed to have been removed from civilization her entire life swings a jived-up rendition of “Comin’ Through the Rye,” and finally there is a wild climactic chase scene in which Fields’ car is more his enemy than his friend. By the end of the movie, it’s clear this film is to Fields as John Masefield’s novel ODTAA was to him: “One Damn Thing After Another.”
Due to his heavy drinking and lack of exercise, it’s clear that in this movie, Fields is sadly showing his age, moving more slowly and is a little less quick on the uptake during the film. He can still dexterously manipulate with some straws a cherry and a scoop of peach ice cream in a soda fountain sequence, and he can still deliver wonderfully snide asides when the spirit moves him, but he’d make only three more movie appearances before his death, all brief cameo bits in others’ films. Gloria Jean was brought to Universal as a Deanna Durbin clone with the same coloratura voice and girl-next-door looks, and she makes a charming and sincere partner for Fields (she genuinely seems to care about him). Franklin Pangborn gets to do double and triple takes to his heart’s content as the put-upon studio producer while Jody Gilbert browbeats the hapless star as a glib diner waitress who stands for none of Fields’ shenanigans. Susan Miller is lovely as the innocent Miss Ouilotta Hemogloben, but Margaret Dumont as her mother is wasted playing her usual wealthy dowager at the mercy of mercenary suitors. Leon Errol as Fields’ rival for Mrs. Hemogloben and Charles Lang as the romantic interest for Ouilotta are present without making stupendous impressions. Look fast at the receptionist outside Franklin Pangborn’s office: she’s played by Carlotta Monti who was Fields’ mistress at the time.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 is presented in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. While the image is sharp and clear, there are some micro-scratches that show up on occasion that distract temporarily. None of them are major anomalies, but they prevent the image from being pristine. The grayscale is quite impressive: solid black levels and crisp whites abound. The movie has been divided into 8 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is very typical of its era. Dialogue and song lyrics have been professionally recorded and are always clear and distinct. Sound effects and the background score by Frank Skinner have been combined with the dialogue and singing into a solid single channel. There are no age-related problems with hiss, crackle, pops, or flutter.
Special Features: 3/5
Audio Commentary: film historian Dr. Eddy Von Mueller presents a nicely researched and professionally organized commentary for the movie.
Vintage Documentary (51:52, SD): Canadian comedians Wayne and Shuster present a documentary featuring some of Fields’ greatest set pieces from some of his most memorable movies including If I Had a Million, It’s a Gift, Poppy, Mississippi, You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, My Little Chickadee, and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.
Kino Trailers: The Great McGinty, Murder, He Says, Road to Utopia.
While its narrative is discombobulated to the point of absurdity, Edward Cline’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break contains the quintessential W.C. Fields in his last starring movie role. Fans of the great comedian won’t want to miss this new Blu-ray release of one of his craziest and most surreal movies.
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