W.C. Fields, a/k/a The Great Man, is pitching his new story to Esoteric Pictures, but producer Franklin Pangborn is having none of it - Bill Fields is the handsome hero who jumps out of an airplane and lands on a mountain villa run by a nasty old lady who hates men and her gorgeous daughter. Bill and his niece, lovely Gloria Jean, are tossed off the lot and take solace in Fields helping a fat lady who isn't pregnant rush to the maternity hospital.
My favorite Fields picture and certainly the daffiest, Hellzapoppin with a big red nose. Fields had hopes of lampooning all the studio executive nincompoops who'd slashed what he thought was sure-fire comedy from his earlier films and actually include the scenes in a movie called The Great Man, which didn't work out that way. Universal seemed oddly receptive this time - they did, after all, finally film the lady trapeze artist's death scene, on Fields' third attempt to include it in a picture - but the censors howled at this one, perhaps tired of Fields' act. They thought there was too much drinking, disapproved of sequences in a saloon, and warned that if Pangborn came across as a "pansy" (the Hays Office's word) there'd be heck to pay. After the critical success but box office failure of The Bank Dick, Universal insisted on Gloria Jean and Butch & Buddy in the picture, and maybe having the kids around is what sent the censors into a tizzy. In any case, Fields was finally able to get what he wanted, and it was only after a sneak preview that generated only pedestrian laughs that the film was cut, shorn of the death of Mlle. Gorgeous on the trapeze and some of the other bits. The studio had wanted to cut the sequence with Fields and the hefty waitress (probably the best scene in the picture), but relented. They DID insist on a chase scene for a climax, and that sequence is highly memorable. All in all, Fields and Universal were both satisfied with the picture.
Producer Pangborn, slamming down the script: "Marvelous! Wonderful! Amazing! The girl has been living up a mountain top since she was three months old, and for no reason at all suddenly BLOSSOMS out with jumpin' jive! Do you actually think I'm a DOPE? Now don't you answer that!"
Ah, yes, the mountain top: scary as hell Margaret Dumont, her saber-toothed Great Dane, and daughter Ouliotta; the daughter does indeed break out in a musical number, in between rounds of a post-office game called "Squidgellum". Leon Errol is on his way up to woo the wealthy Miss Dumont, but ends up meeting her pet gorilla first, and SAY, I told you this was silly stuff. (Fields tried but failed to get the gorilla cut out, plus some of what he called "Mack Sennett stuff" during the chase scene.)
A film that never fails to delight me, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break didn't find its audience, unfortunately, at the end of 1941. In places where Fields fans were clustered, it did socko - Portland and New York, to name two - but elsewhere, it was lucky to get a week as a B-movie supporting some other Universal property. At 61, Fields was done at Universal and many of the film's (generally favorable) reviews read like obituaries.
So why do I love this movie so much? Probably because it breaks all the... no, make that it HAS no rules. Pangborn's description of the film is pretty much right on the money, one of the things that makes the whole works so wacky and hilarious. Even with the singing and the gorilla and Gloria Jean in a Russian village(!) the film still holds together as complete Fieldsian, and while it's not as "good" a movie as The Bank Dick or It's a Gift, it is sheer nuttiness and if I could keep only one Fields picture, this would be the one. Why, I even like Gloria Jean in this picture!
The new Blu-ray from Kino looks great and includes a vintage documentary on Fields and interesting commentary by film historian Eddy Von Mueller.
I'm greedy and want more Fields on Blu-ray, but thanks to Kino for starting with this one. It's not a bupke.