Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)

Out of all the famous early 20th century black and white Hollywood comedy acts, due to whatever idiosyncratic reason, I grew up only watching Laurel and Hardy and Chaplin movies, so it was only very recently, after seeing an episode of Columbo that happened to feature the iconic pool cue stick that W.C. Fields used in his movies, that I sort of started to become aware of Fields and his work as a comedian and actor. And as it so often is with my interests, it took forever for me to get around doing anything with it, which is why this is actually only the second  movie (and the first talkie) I’ve ever seen from Fields, the first being from the 1920s silent era, called Sally of Sawdust. Now ff there’s one thing that’s become abundantly clear after watching Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, it’s that Fields’s vaudevillian slapstick comedy is very timeless and funny, highly enjoyable even 75 years later. It has not lost its edge. The appeal of the casual violence in slapstick so rarely does.

Now, with the pleasantries out of the way, let’s just take the bull by the horns and come out with it: though quite funny at times, the movie is unquestionably a complete disaster structurewise. It makes almost no sense when you try to summarize it into a coherent form and there is no real overarching story to be found, it’s a bunch of comedy skits glued together with a very vague underlying pretense presented at the beginning that it is actually leading to something, which it ultimately does not. In hindsight, it’s almost as if they just tried to salvage whatever old, unused footage of Fields they could get their hands on and then pasted them together in attempt to assemble some kind of a Frankenstein monster of a film by luck and chance. Granted, initially there is a resemblance of an idea for structure with a beginning, middle and an end, when we are presented with the idea that the movie is about Fields playing himself, W.C. Fields the Hollywood star, trying to pitch a new movie to the studio, with the outlandish scenarios from his screenplay as the basis for all the comedy scenes shown to you, the audience, as Fields reads the outline of his story to the studio executive. But then, around the last third of the movie remaining, out of nowhere, that set-up gets unceremoniously dropped for no apparent reason, not to be mentioned again. After this, you get a very brief intermission scene at a ice cream parlor where Fields tries to drown his sorrows, and you get probably the best gag  in the whole picture, where Field looks at the camera and quips “This was supposed to be a saloon, but the censor cut it out!”The remainder of the movie that follows is entirely centered around a rather chaotic race sequence that is not really connected to anything that happened before, and then it just kinda ends, presumably because they had  no ideas left.

Now, after all this grumbling, it might sound like the movie is awful, one might een say an incomprehensible trainwreck. But surprisingly enough, it’s not. Sort of. There’s a decent amount of genuinely good comedy around to make you ignore all the blatant structural flaws, for the most part at least, and the very last ten minutes of the movie end up delivering such a staggering amount of marvelous gags through the course of the frantic climax, which consists of Fields trying to deliver a woman to a hospital with his automobile with disastrous effect on the surrounding traffic, that the movie ends up being somewhat decent as a whole. I can’t really praise the climax enough. The entire race sequence is filled up to the brim with amazing comedy, featuring  a motorcycle police escort,  numerous car crashes, Fields racing along a one-way street to the wrong direction in a tunnel, turning at tight corners with wheels screeching with electrifying urgency, and for the grand finale you get an eye-boggling finishing gag involving the crane of a firetruck getting stuck to Field’s car, with the firetruck and Field’s car causing even more mayhem on the road. It’s wonderfully over the top and chaotic sequence, simply the perfect source for pure comedy gold.

To sum it up, you cannot walk into this movie and expect anything particularly great storytelling without ending up massively disappointed. It’s simply a complete mess. But it’s a highly funny mess when you judge it on a gag by gag basis.

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