His Lasterpiece

The final great W.C. Fields classic, 1941’s NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK, comes to Blu-Ray, thanks to the wily carnies at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios.

The follow-up work to 1940’s The Bank Dick (arguably one of the finest comedies of the sound era), NGaSaEB was likewise directed by the comedian’s pal (and former Keystone Kop) Eddie Cline, with his patented penchant for riotous slapstick precision still in full gear (Cline also helmed some of Buster Keaton’s classic silents).  Fields, who (as in the previous flick) penned the story (under the nom de plume of Otis Criblecoblis; script by Prescott Chaplin and John T. Neville), tears down not only the fourth wall, but structures numbers one, two, and three as well.

There’s intentionally little, if any, cohesion or continuity to the pic (and, in this case, that ain’t a bad thing); ironically (or appropriately), it’s about the movie business, another plus in my check column.  The scenario takes place in a quasi-real world.  Fields plays Uncle Bill or, simply The Great Man (as he’s billed), avoided by all at Esoteric Studios (or Universal), even though his last movie, The Bank Dick, was a tremendous critical and box-office hit (truth).  Uncle Bill eventually gets to take a meeting with manic studio head Franklin Pangborn (as Franklin Pangborn), who registers his trademark flustered response as readily as Edgar Kennedy (who’s NOT in the movie) did his slow burn.

With good reason, too.

The script Uncle Bill is pedaling is an unrelated, anarchic, anachronistic, live action cartoon of unstrung events (all depicted anecdotally) that would try the logic of a four-year-old.  Yet, they’re hilariously funny.  For example, a Mexican community adjacent to a Russian village surrounds the bottom of a mountain – the plateau top incorporating the manse of Mrs. Hemoglobin, a monstrous widow (and the wealthiest woman on the planet) who resides there with her hottie-tottie jive-bopping daughter, Ouilotta.  It’s guarded by a loyal gorilla, and can only be reached via a crank-operated dirigible basket, or airplane (containing an open-air observation tail that Fields conveniently falls out of whilst lunging for a dropped flask).

Biding his time waiting for the said meeting and weighing his career options, Uncle Bill partakes the pleasures of a nearby studio diner and, later, an ice-cream parlor (originally, we learn, a bar, as he tells us in wink-wing/nudge-nudge fashion); Fields also has become guardian to a teenage songstress Gloria Jean (played by teenage songstress Gloria Jean).

The movie makes absolutely no sense, and I love every frame of its 71 minutes.  Even sans Fields, the scenes of Pangborn trying to concentrate of several movies in production at once are spot-on uproarious (Nazis goose-stepping through a musical number, construction workers literally “hammering” out dialog on a soundstage, union workers demanding lunch).  It’s all in the tradition of Hellzapoppin’, the Olsen and Johnson smash made at Universal the same year (and shamefully unavailable in this country).  It’s also pure Fields, even though the comic was at odds with the front office.  Usually, I side with the artists, but in at least one narrative element, the suits were probably right.  A sequence where beauteous starlet Madame Gorgeous (played by beauteous starlet Anna Nagel), mother of the Gloria Jean character, is killed while performing a stunt, was excised (it led to Fields’ character becoming Gloria’s official guardian); all that remains is one short scene where Nagel kisses Jean goodbye and heads toward a soundstage with the dubious advice of minding “Uncle Bill.”  Truth be told, Jean could have probably been removed altogether (of course, then the final cut might have been less than an hour).

Another dispute arose over the title.  Universal was on a Fields roll, and wanted the pic to reflect his already iconic phrases, following the footsteps of 1939’s You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man and 1940’s My Little Chickadee.  Fields wanted it to simply be called The Great Man, claiming that the proposed title would never fit on most theater marquees, and throughout the country would be heralded as Fields-Sucker.

Additionally, Universal insisted on replicating the outstanding chase finale of The Bank Dick, and did so with a scene where Fields volunteers to transport a woman to the local maternity ward (before the soon-to-be frenzied female can tell him that she’s not a patient, but a visitor).  The resulting wacky and wild sight gag-laden melee that followed was so meticulously achieved (save for Fields, whose close-ups were done in the studio against rear screen) that the thrifty company would later remove and replace the comedian’s inserts with that of Abbott and Costello, and, essentially, drop the entire reel into the climax of the team’s 1944 hit In Society.

While not the flawless classic The Bank Dick was, SUCKER is a superb comedy nevertheless.  The cast is impeccable, and supporting Fields and the aforementioned thesps are Leon Errol, Susan Miller, Mona Barrie, Charles Lang, Nell O’Day, Minerva Urecal, Richard Alexander, Claud Allister, Leon Belasco, Kay Deslys, Jean Porter, Victor Potel, Dave Willock, Emmett Vogan, (of course) Carlotta Monti, Bill Wolf and brat urchins Butch ‘N’ Buddy.  It’s amazing that a scene between the comedian and the wonderful hard-boiled character actress Jody Gilbert remained censor-free; thank heaven for small miracles!

The new Blu-Ray Kino-Lorber/Universal 1080p transfer of NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK is, hands down, the version to own.  Some slight wear aside, the 35MM elements are excellent, doing d.p. Charles Van Enger justice.  Better yet is the cleaned up mono audio – not only to fully appreciate the kwazy music of Frank Skinner and Charles Previn, the singing of Jean (Universal’s  B-movie version of Deanna Durbin, who was their A-movie version of Judy Garland), but for the under-the-breath asides of the movie’s star.  One, which I’ve never heard before, had me laughing long after the platter stopped spinning.  It takes place in the earlier alluded to ice-cream parlor.  Fields, watching soda jerk Irving Bacon swat a fly on the counter, remarks in a whisper (as only he can) “It’s killers like you that give the West a bad name.”  I  fell off the sofa.

There are some nifty extras as well, including audio commentary by Eddy von Mueller and, far more enticing, an episode on Fields from the mid-1960s summer replacement show, Wayne and Shuster Take an Affectionate Look At…  It was a limited series wherein the Canadian team nicely paid homage to comedies in the Universal library.  I had never seen this one (but do remember an episode devoted to Hope and Crosby), so it’s a treat to have it at one’s fingertips (hope they release more).

NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HA MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT# K24804. SRP: $24.95.

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