Sunday, September 18, 2016

Film Review: Never Give A Sucker An Even Break

"Never Give A Sucker An Even Break"
*** (out of ****)

W.C. Fields tries to wise us up in his final screen comedy.

Long before there was a television show about nothing, the great comedian W.C. Fields gave us a movie about such a topic, "Never Give A Sucker An Even Break" (1941).

The "movie" takes place at a movie studio called Esoteric Pictures. This is an obvious joke. Esoteric means something that is only understood by a small group. Mr. Fields made his movie at Universal Pictures. The opposite of esoteric would be universal. However, esoteric may also refer to the amount of appeal a "movie" such as "Never Give A Sucker An Even Break" may find with the general public and perhaps even Mr. Fields style of comedy.

W.C. Fields created a comedy persona built on a man that drank regularly and heavily. He was married, but more often than not, in a loveless marriage, and considered his wife a nag. He didn't like children, including his own, whom usually showed him no respect (long before Rodney Dangerfield) and could not hold a steady job, preferring to go out drinking instead. And yet, the characters Mr. Fields played would win the day. Society could not change him. It would need to learn to adapt to him. It is not the ingredients to make a "lovable" comic.

Mr. Fields takes elements of this persona and has created not a movie but an excuse to show off his character to the public and give them one more opportunity to laugh at his antics. Mr. Fields goes as far as not even bothering to make up a character name instead Mr. Fields plays a variation of himself playing W.C. Fields, actor and comedian. In his opening scene he stares lovingly at a poster of his last movie, "The Bank Dick" (1940), acknowledging he is playing himself, the W.C. Fields.

Fields (the character in the movie) works at Esoteric Pictures and hopes to break his niece, Gloria Jean (played by Gloria Jean, who was actually meant to be the next Deanna Durbin) in the business at the same studio. The studio head, Franklin Pangborn (played by Franklin Pangborn, who co-starred with Mr. Fields in other comedies) is very taken by her. In the course of the same day however, he has also agreed to meet with Fields to go over a new script he has written. And that's the story. Both Fields and Pangborn read the script, as we see the story on-screen.

In the screenplay Fields and Gloria are on a plane as Fields, about to pour a drink, accidentally knocks the bottle out of the plane, as he sits in the open-air observation deck (don't ask!). In an immediate panic, Fields jumps out of the plane to catch the bottle and ends up landing in a small Russian town and meets a beautiful young woman, (Susan Miller) and her mother, (Margaret Dumont). Somehow or another (does it really matter?) Fields gets word to Gloria of his whereabouts and she rushes to him.

These scenes are interrupted by Pangborn who lashes out at Fields in disgust and confusion. These scenes actually remind me of a joke used in the Bing Crosby / Bob Hope road comedy, "Road to Utopia" (1946) where Robert Benchley plays a narrator, hired by the studio, to interrupt the movie for us, as the studio executives feel the movie is so bad, it needs to be explained. In the case of the Pangborn character, he merely says what the audience is thinking. None of this makes any sense. Finally Pangborn says he has had enough of Fields' script and demands he leave.

"Never Give A Sucker An Even Break" couldn't really be called a satire on the movie industry, as it doesn't make enough astute observations about movie making nor it is autobiographical, despite actors playing "themselves". It can be described as a faux documentary, making it years ahead of its time, though it wasn't shot in the style of a documentary, to make it more authentic. And, as mentioned, it is not really a "movie" in the tradition sense. It lacks a three act structure. There is no protagonist and antagonist. There is no central conflict. No character arch. It is right about at this point readers are asking, why watch this "movie"? The answer is simple. It's funny. You'll laugh. I can't promise you will understand it all but you will laugh and have a smile on your face.

Naturally though the movie is not for everyone, though its defenders consider it a surreal, comedic masterpiece. If you have never seen a W.C. Fields comedy before I would strongly advise against seeing this as your introduction into Mr. Fields comedy. A better introduction would be "It's A Gift" (1934), which shows Mr. Fields struggle with home life, hitting on all the targets typical for a W.C. Fields comedy.

"Never Give A Sucker An Even Break" is just for the fans, those already familiar with the Fields persona and just looking for an excuse to watch him one more time for about an hour (the movie's running time is 70 minutes). But, don't kid yourself. Yes, the "movie" lacks structure. Yes, it is surreal or absurd, ridiculous or any other word you care to use, however, it is smart in its own way. The movie comments on the audience's notion of a hero and story and what a movie is supposed to be. Something as ridiculous as this might lead someone to say, how could they release something like this in Hollywood? Good point and the joke is on us, because they did.

Many of the comedians in Mr. Fields era, didn't do well with heavily plotted stories (i.e. the Marx Brothers, Wheeler & Woolsey, Olsen & Johnson) as storylines took time away from the comedy routines, which would be the highlight of any movie they appeared in. The comedies which worked best were the ones that gave the teams or comedians plenty of room to do their comedy. Once comedies started getting bogged down with music and romance, the comedians were put in comic relief roles. "Never Give A Sucker An Even Break" is pure comedy. There is nothing else holding the "movie" together. In a certain respect we can almost look at this as Mr. Fields' "Citizen Kane" (1940), a movie in which he was nearly given complete artistic freedom to make, as movie studios often tried to censor Mr. Fields' humor, a point he makes in this movie.

The "movie" was directed by Edward Cline, who supposedly had a good working relationship with Mr. Fields, as Mr. Cline also directed "The Bank Dick" and "My Little Chickadee" (1940) with Mr. Fields and Mae West. The script was by Mr. Fields, who used the pseudonym Otis Criblecoblis. Mr. Fields had written other screenplays, using other pseudonyms as well.

I can't call "Never Give A Sucker An Even Break" a great comedy or a prime example of Mr. Fields' humor, or even say I understand everything on-screen however the movie is funny. Mr. Fields is always a pleasure to watch. So don't be a "sucker". See "Never Give A Sucker An Even Break".