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Fields, at right, admires the billboard for his previous movie

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break

1941. Universal. Directed by Edward Cline. With W. C. Fields, Gloria Jean, Franklin Pangborn, Margaret Dumont, Leon Errol


I hadn't seen W.C. Fields for quite a while, and I must say that removed from his '60s context as a pop culture icon, he seems very peculiar. If you hadn't seen him imitated dozens of times and grown used to that drawling delivery and fumbling business, what would you make of this unattractive, apparently brain-damaged, completely uningratiating figure? Could anyone this seedy become a major star today?

Reportedly, Fields's screen persona hardly differed from his real- life self and this movie seems designed to conflate them further. W.C. plays "W.C. Fields," screenwriter and star, first seen admiring a billboard for his movie The Bank Dick. This can't be the actual W. C. Fields, however, for the man in this movie is the uncle of the child singing star Gloria Jean (a real person, a sort of Deanna Durbin wannabe). In as close as Never Give a Sucker an Even Break gets to having a plot, he feints at managing her career at Esoteric Pictures, Inc. He pitches a script featuring "our handsome hero, Bill Fields, and his little niece Gloria Jean" to an Esoteric producer called "Mr. Pangborn," played by Franklin Pangborn.

Nothing in the movie has anything to do with giving a sucker an even break. Nothing in the movie has anything to do with anything else in the movie, either; it seems a loose, jazzy, Dadaist collage of skits and gags—some running, some one-shot—with a typical Fields aphorism slapped on as a title.

Yet the picture has a kind of logic and captures a subversive truth about movies. Early on we see a number of scenes on the lot and stages of Esoteric Pictures. The keynote is chaos and incongruity: Gloria Jean trills as electricians swear; two actors in uniform come goose-stepping through; a soft-shoe duo shuffles by. Musicians compete with the hammering of the crew. Indians greet chorus girls. Movie studios, it seems, are just big stew-pots where random elements simmer. These elements usually get turned into stories, through a process of selection and assembly, but there's nothing inevitable about this process. The sequence of shots and scenes that make up a movie can as easily be disjointed as coherent, as Never Give a Sucker an Even Break illustrates.

When he first calls on Mr. Pangborn, W.C. spins out a script idea for the producer's starlet wife. He describes how she plays in a pool tournament, joins a circus, grows a beard ("a small beard; do you know what a VanDyke is?") and then drops in at a barber shop for a shave. Mr. and Mrs. Pangborn are outraged—but, convention aside, what's wrong with the idea? In a movie, all these things can happen easily.

Then W.C. presents the script he has come to pitch. As Pangborn reads the script, the story is enacted. Gloria Jean and Uncle Bill are flying over the Himalayas. W. C. dives from the plane's outdoor observation deck, falls several thousand feet, and lands in a fairy-tale where a harridan mother has imprisoned her daughter in a mountain top "nest" to protect her from men. Meanwhile, Gloria Jean waits despairingly at a remote airport. She cheers up when the pay phone rings and it's Uncle Bill calling to arrange a reunion. In my favorite line in the movie, she asks a bystander at the airport, "How do you get to the Russian village?" (as though it were a set on the back lot, or a Disneyworld exhibit). Entering the Russian Village, where at least one of the villagers wears a sombrero, she breaks into "Ochichornya."

Subsequently, W. C. heads up and down the mountain a few times, a gorilla gets into the act, and the fairy-tale princess sings a jazzy version of "Comin' Thru' the Rye." Periodically we cut back to the producer slamming down the script and sputtering: "Marvelous! This girl's been living on a mountain since she was three months old, and suddenly blossoms out with jumping jive!" But again, why not? Movies constantly violate the laws of space and time; why insist on logic in narrative or character? Sequential story-telling may be a tradition, but it's certainly not inherent in the medium.

Thus Fields feels free to segue from fairy tale to operetta to Keystone Kops-style car chase to classic two-man vaudeville to a fairly technical view of movie-making in progress to slapstick in a hospital. The fiction underlying the Golden Age of Hollywood—that we are looking in on real people behaving naturalistically in real-life situations—vaporizes before our eyes.

This movie contains the famous line, "Do you want to grow up and be stupid, like ZaSu Pitts?" What's not often quoted is Gloria Jean's response: "She only acts like that in pictures, Uncle Bill. I like her!" What does this distinction imply about the drunken W. C. Fields, the semi-talented Gloria Jean, and the swishy Franklin Pangborn?

Another startling moment: W. C. goes into a soda fountain and orders a peach ice cream soda (this is the scene where he blows the head off the soda as though it were a glass of beer). As the soda jerk busies himself, Fields turns to the camera and confides, "This scene was supposed to be a saloon, but the censor cut it out." Having the Fields gaze turned upon us, as he tries to be ingratiating and confidential, is an uncomfortable experience. Then he turns back to the scene and mutters under his breath, "It'll play just as well. . . ," giving us a flash of his own abject capitulation and toadying. At the end of the scene you can barely hear him say, "Rather be in a saloon at that. . ." This is what people mean when they call W. C. Fields subversive; he's no hero in any conventional sense, but in his juvenile, ineffectual way he gets the last word.

(7/19/95)

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein