W.C. Fields’s Last Starring Role Fails to Demonstrate What Made Him Great.
DIRECTED BY EDWARD CLINE / 1941
BLU-RAY STREET DATE 7/14/20 / KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
W.C. Fields is one of those giants of the golden age of Hollywood of whom I’ve seen more often as a caricature in Warner Brother cartoons than in any live-action movie. Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray release of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, his last starring role, features a TV special from 1965 called Wayne and Shuster Take an Affectionate Look at W.C. Fields. I’m so glad it did. The clips shown in that special reveal Fields’s gifts as a comedian- his timing and physicality- that led him to becoming a household name. On the other hand, Never Give a Sucker, despite the occasional clever bit, is a rather tired mess.
The plot, such as it is, concerns Fields, playing himself, pitching a movie to the head of Esoteric Pictures (played by Franklin Pangborn). The story by Fields (that is, the character in the movie and not the actor) is meant not only as a vehicle for himself, but as a movie that will launch the career of his young ward, a talented singer played by Gloria Jean. In the movie-within-the-movie, Fields and Gloria take a plane ride to Russia. Fields falls out of the plane, and lands in a mountaintop castle. Here he finds a lovely young woman who’s been sheltered from men all her life (Susan Miller, who’s credit list is filled mostly with roles named ‘Singer”). He also meets her mother, a battle axe named Hemoglobin and played by Margaret Dumont. Dumont is best known for her work playing Groucho Marx’s foil in 7 of the Marx Brothers’ movies.
And that’s pretty much the film right there. There’s some business in a diner and a soda fountain, and a madcap car chase at the end, but none of these are really connected to the main story. The film is just a collection of unrelated, and half-formed, mildly amusing sketches broken up by clumsily inserted musical numbers. It’s like a latter-day Saturday Night Live (Hey-Yooo!).
That’s not to say that there’s nothing worthwhile about the film. There are some funny gags and clever wordplay. When asked about his wife, Fields admits “She drove me to drink- it’s the one thing I’m grateful to her for.” He breaks the fourth wall one time to tell us that the soda fountain scene was supposed to have been set at a saloon, “But the censor wouldn’t allow it.” There’s a saber-toothed great dane in the mountain fortress, and no movie like this would be complete without a guy in a cheesy gorilla costume. The crazy chase at the end is full of sight gags as it seems everyone in town becomes involved in it. The director, Edward Cline, was a veteran of the old Keystone Cops films, so he knew a thing or two about madcap car chases.
Never Give a Sucker fails to add up to more than the sum of its parts. It’s not completely without its charms, but it can’t help but feel like one of those movies that’s just made from discarded bits of other, better movies. Jokes like the kissing game Fields teaches the young maiden, or the producer’s attempt to quiet a noisy film set, are driven into the ground. The pacing is slow, and the sketch-like nature of the story doesn’t allow for a satisfactory narrative drive. As his last feature role (he would play supporting parts the rest of his career), fans of Fields will want to have this in their collection, and if you’re curious about it, there are worse ways to spend 80 minutes. It’s just not Fields’s best work by a longshot, and makes a pretty poor introduction to the man and his talent.
Luckily, Kino Lorber has included Wayne and Shuster Take an Affectionate Look At W.C. Fields on their Blu-Ray. Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster were a Canadian comedy duo who were almost always on North American TV in one form or another throughout the 60’s. One of their series of TV specials was their Affectionate Look At series, where they examined the careers of classic comedians such as Mae West, the Marx Brothers, and W.C. Fields.
(Fun aside here: the show was scored by a guy named Johnny Williams- yes, that John Williams).
The clips from Fields’s various features and shorts shown on the special highlight the elements that made Fields a legend. He’s a curmudgeon, a scoundrel, and a cheat, but always acts with such a mischievous twinkle in his eye that we love him for it anyway. Wayne and Shuster also make sure to show us how gifted Fields was as a physical performer. He was a talented juggler, and used that coordination to great effect in many of his funniest bits. This is a rare case of a Blu-Ray extra that outshines the feature it is attached to.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray also comes with a feature-length commentary track by film historian Eddy Von Mueller. Von Mueller’s track, like the best of the Kino Lorber’s commentaries, provides ample historical context for the film and its feature players. It’s a robust defense of the film’s loose structure, and while it failed to convince, it was well worth a listen. There’s also the usual collection of related film trailers.