Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (Kino Lorber, NR)

This will sound like a trivial comparison, but W.C. Fields and Chris Farley share an undeniable kinship. Both were blustering, bombastic clowns of delightful rotundity whose thirst for laughter exceeded their avoidance of pain. No one made an art out of falling on one’s face like these two men. They even correlate in tragic ways. Both drank to excess, and in their later years the damage that alcohol wreaked on their bodies could be readily seen. Watching Never Give a Sucker an Even Break feels akin to seeing Farley’s final Saturday Night Live performance in which he’s undoubtedly funny but also looks tired, far heavier, and flushed. Fields even inserts a number of jokes into his films about this vice and its consequences, particularly concerning his improbably large nose which was believed to be a result of drinking.

It tinges the hilarity with a drop of sadness, as the great Fields can still mutter a priceless underhanded comment or do a pratfall, but he’s slower about it, less gung-ho, if you will. Despite its very short 70-minute runtime, Fields took longer to make this film than many of his others, having to recuperate between takes. This results in a film with less energy than his older works (You’re Telling Me!, It’s a Gift, The Old Fashioned Way, and The Man on the Flying Trapeze being the prime examples), and consequently a less engaging viewing experience overall. Still, Fields refuses to disappoint, and despite his growing illness and age, he manages to insert a number of unforgettable slapstick gags.

The premise has Fields playing himself and pitching a surreal and outrageous script to a bewildered producer, a script which mostly consists of individual comedic scenes barely strung together by a plot. One of the greatest bits of the film may be considered a classic among W.C. Fields fans. In a ludicrous setup, Fields sits out in an open-air observation deck on the back of an airplane. He elbows his glass of whiskey over the edge and immediately dives after it. A hilarious rear projection effect has him falling through the clouds and catching up to his bottle. His fall is broken by an enormous bed situated on a secluded mountain top castle, and he bounces for an absurd amount of time in an animation so rudimentary that it makes the visual that much funnier.

Fields populated this film with a number of his favorite comedians and actors, but none are as striking as Gloria Jean as Fields’ niece and Margaret Dumont (a regular Marx Brothers foil referred to by Groucho as “practically the fifth Marx Brother”) as Mrs. Hemoglobin. The former sings a number of songs that range from annoying to delightful, and the showstopper is the traditional Russian folk song “Dark Eyes,” which she sings with a group of villagers. Dumont rivals only Fields himself in terms of the film’s comic figures, her hammy delivery and exaggeratedly homely appearance a staple of these kinds of surreal farces.

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break was W.C. Field’s last starring vehicle. For fans of his, picking up this release will be an easy decision to make. For those unfamiliar, I suppose this film is as good as any for a start. Still, I’d recommend any of his first five feature films before this one. | Nic Champion

The release contains a commentary by film historian Eddy Von Mueller.

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