Never Give a Sucker an Even Break
|Never Give a Sucker an Even Break|
Theatrical poster to Never Give a Sucker an Even Break
|Directed by||Edward F. Cline|
|Starring||W. C. Fields
|Music by||Charles Previn
|Cinematography||Charles Van Enger|
|Edited by||Arthur Hilton|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is a 1941 Universal Pictures comedy film starring W. C. Fields. Fields also wrote the original story, under the pseudonym "Otis Criblecoblis". Fields plays himself, searching for a chance to promote a surreal screenplay he has written, whose several framed sequences form the film's center.
The title is derived from lines from two earlier films. In Poppy (1936), he tells his daughter, "If we should ever separate, my little plum, I want to give you just one bit of fatherly advice: Never give a sucker an even break!" In You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939), he tells a customer that his grandfather's last words, "just before they sprung the trap" were, "You can't cheat an honest man; never give a sucker an even break, or smarten up a chump."
This was Fields's last starring film. By then he was 61 years old, and alcohol and illness had taken their toll: he was much heavier than he had been six/seven years earlier when he had made eight films in the space of two years and was reasonably physically fit.
Fields hand-picked most of the supporting cast. He chose Universal's young singing star Gloria Jean to play his niece, and got two of his favorite comedians, Leon Errol and Franklin Pangborn, to play supporting roles. Margaret Dumont, familiar as the Marx Brothers' matronly foil, was cast as the haughty "Mrs. Hemogloben". The zany film played to mixed reviews in 1941 but is today considered one of Fields's classics.
At Hollywood's Esoteric Pictures studios, Fields is seen admiring a billboard advertising his previous film, The Bank Dick, and encounters various hecklers and minor calamities. His doting niece, Gloria Jean, is on her way to rehearse some songs at the studio, where she demonstrates her classically trained soprano. Fields himself is also there to pitch a script to Franklin Pangborn.
Fields and Pangborn plow through the script, which comes to life in a series of scenes: Fields and Gloria Jean are flying to an exotic location on an airplane (a mix of a Martin M-130-type and a Stratoliner) with an apparently open-air rear observation deck. Fields has run-ins with a couple of eccentric characters in which he tangles with a large, angry man in the lower berth and manages to hit him with a mallet and convince him that someone else did it. At one point Gloria Jean asks Uncle Bill why he never married, and he answers, "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." The next day, Fields jumps out of the plane after his flask falls out the open window, and his niece cries out in horror. But he lands safely in a "nest" high atop a cliff, a home populated by a beautiful, young, naive girl (Susan Miller) and her cynical mother (Margaret Dumont). Meanwhile, the plane lands, and Gloria Jean sings a traditional Russian song to a group of peasants. She reunites with Fields in the village, and they return to the "nest" when Fields learns the older woman is wealthy. Fields is about to marry her when Gloria Jean takes him aside and convinces him that this is a bad idea, and they make a swift exit.
At this point Pangborn has had enough of the crazy script and tells Fields to leave the studio. Fields goes to an ice cream parlor to drown his sorrows. In a rare aside to the camera, Fields remarks, "This was supposed to be a saloon, but the censor cut it out!"
At the studio, when Gloria Jean learns Fields has been sent away, she tells the flustered Pangborn that if her uncle is fired, then she quits. She and Fields make plans to travel, and she goes into a shop to buy some new clothes. Fields is illegally parked and had also banged into the bumper of a police car. Just then, a middle-aged woman (Kay Deslys) asks for help getting to the Maternity Hospital, where her daughter is about to give birth. Fields volunteers, the woman gets into his car, and Fields speeds through the streets and expressways of Los Angeles, where he tangles with pedestrians, cars, and a hook-and-ladder fire truck. When his passenger passes out, Fields drives even more urgently. He arrives at the hospital, wrecking his car in the process, and his passenger is shaken but unhurt. Gloria Jean, who has just arrived by taxi, asks Uncle Bill if he's all right. He replies, "Good thing I didn't have an accident. I'd never have gotten here." Gloria Jean smiles and says to the audience, "My Uncle Bill... but I still love him!"
- W. C. Fields as The Great Man, W. C. Fields/Uncle Bill
- Gloria Jean as His Niece, Gloria Jean
- Leon Errol as His Rival, Leon
- Billy Lenhart as Heckler (as Butch)
- Kenneth Brown as Heckler (as Buddy)
- Anne Nagel as Madame Gorgeous
- Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Hemogloben
- Susan Miller as Ouliotta Delight Hemogloben
- Franklin Pangborn as The Producer, Mr. Pangborn
- Mona Barrie as The Producer's Wife, Mrs. Pangborn
- Carlotta Monti (Fields' real-life girlfriend/companion) as Receptionist
Uncredited cast members:
- Irving Bacon as the soda jerk
- Leon Belasco as Gloria Jean's accompanist
- Dave Willock as Johnson, the movie director
- Jack Lipson as the Russian plane passenger
- Minerva Urecal as Mrs. Pastrami, the cleaning woman
- Emmett Vogan and Charles Lang as engineers
- Kay Deslys as the matron visiting the hospital
- Michael Visaroff as a Russian peasant
Gloria Jean sings the following songs in this film:
- "Estrellita" ("Little Star") - in Spanish
- "Voices of Spring"
- "Hot Cha Cha"
- ""Очи чёрные" ("Ochi chyornye" or "Dark Eyes") - in Russian
Upon release, The New York Times said, "We are not yet quite sure that this latest opus is even a movie—no such harum-scarum collection of song, slapstick and thumbnail sketches has defied dramatic law in recent history. We are more certain that at its worst the film is extravagantly bad, no less that William Claude is wonderful," further stating, "Yes, some parts of the film you will find incomprehensibly silly. Probably you also will laugh your head off."
- Deschner, Donald (1966). The Films of W. C. Fields. New York: Cadillac Publishing by arrangement with The Citadel Press. p. 154. Introduction by Arthur Knight
- The New York Times, October 27, 1941. "W. C. Fields Opens Here in 'Never Give a Sucker an Even Break'"
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