Nov. 19, 2007
Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)
Grade: 84/100

Director: Edward F. Cline
Stars: W.C. Fields, Gloria Jean, Margaret Dumont

What it's about. The plot is hardly the point of a W.C. Fields vehicle, but here goes. Fields is a washed-up Hollywood screenwriter, and the ward of his adoring teenaged niece, Gloria Jean. Jean is a talented singer and a rising star at a studio run by pompous Franklin Pangborn.

Meanwhile, Fields is flogging his latest screenplay, nonsensical fluff involving Fields' trip with young Jean on a plane with other eccentric characters, followed by Fields' encounter with hottie (and man-hungry) Susan Miller. But Fields decides to romance her unappealing mother (Margaret Dumont) instead, once he learns she is wealthy.

Remaining screen time is consumed with skits involving a surly waitress, a fake-looking gorilla, an uncompliant milkshake, and a spectacular series of motor vehicle stunts.

How others will see it. Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is W.C. Fields' most accomplished feature, and it is beloved by most classic film enthusiasts fortunate enough to discover it. It is also the highlight of Gloria Jean's career, as her only other film of interest is Copacabana, a middling Marx Brothers effort. How I felt about it. Sucker is so loose that it makes Fields' preceding movie, The Bank Dick, look like a model of plot construction. But close study demonstrates some continuity between scenes, and the most outrageous moment (Fields jumps out of an airplane to recover his alcohol flask) occurs within the context of Fields' unsold screenplay.

Sucker is undeniably a great comedy, but what is its secret? That is, why is it so funny? To the degree that it has a foundation, it would be the character of W.C. Fields. Fields is a scoundrel with innumerable weaknesses. He's incompetent, a drinker, and an opportunist. He even pushes a romantic rival off a cliff. He's funny because we can identify with him. His many setbacks and humiliations, petty and otherwise, salvage our own daily lives, which are filled with less intense letdowns. Likewise, his frequent resort to unethical behavior is also forgivable, since we ourselves would like to have done the same thing in the same situation.

For a comic actor, Fields has little facial or vocal expression. Compare him with the mellifluous Pangborn, who expresses delight and outrage with his voice and face. Fields instead relies upon timing, and the circumstances of the gag. His lines, which he wrote under the pseudonym Otis Criblecoblis, don't seem so hilarious on paper. When he observes that "somebody put too many olives in my martini last night," it's funny not because of the line itself, but because of the context, that of a drunkard whose hungover morning will soon be resolved by further drinking.