A Flask of Fields: W.C. Fields in NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (Universal 1941)

I’ve professed my love for W.C. Fields before on this blog , and NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK is undoubtedly my favorite Fields flick. This inspired piece of lunacy is The Great Man’s commentary on getting films made in Hollywood his way. In fact, Fields wanted to title the movie “The Great Man”, but Universal execs nixed the idea, instead using a line from POPPY, his stage and screen hit. The change caused Fields much consternation, quipping that the movie’s overlong title would be boiled down on movie marquees to “Fields – Sucker”!!

Universal starlet Gloria Jean with “Uncle Bill”

The film’s plot (and I use that term as loosely as possible!) has Fields playing himself, delivering his latest script to Esoteric Pictures head Franklin Pangborn . The story he’s concocted may have the long-suffering Pangborn rolling his eyes, but it’ll have you the viewer rolling on the floor – with laughter! He and his niece Gloria Jean are travelling to a remote Russian village in a plane with an open air compartment in the rear when W.C. knocks his bottle out of the plane, so of course he dives after it, landing on the mountaintop home of beautiful Ouliotta Hemogloben, who’s never seen a man before.

Fields and his good buddy Leon Errol

After introducing Ouliotta to the kissing game of “squiggulum”, he then encounters her Amazonian mother Mrs. Hemogloben, played by Groucho’s favorite foil Margaret Dumont  , and her saber-toothed Great Dane (Fields calls her “a buzzard if there ever was one”). Escaping the 2,000 foot mountain via hand basket, he goes to a cantina, where he engages in drinking shots of goat’s milk with Leon Errol . Finding out the old dame is worth a ton of money, Fields and Gloria return to the mountain top so he can marry her, only Leon gets there first (thanks to Mrs. Hemogloben’s pet gorilla). The two love rivals vie for Mrs. H’s affections, until Fields gives Leon the boot (literally!), but Gloria talks him out of wedded bliss so just the two of them can hang out together…

At this point Pangborn tears up the script in utter disgust, and a dejected Fields goes to drown his sorrows at an ice cream parlor, looking directly at the camera and informing the audience, “This scene’s supposed to be in a saloon, but the censors cut it out… it’ll play just as well”, resulting in a wild ride with Fields driving a woman to a maternity hospital (she’s not even pregnant!) that’s straight outta Mack Sennett in his Keystone heyday!

WC tangling with waitress Jody Gilbert

It’s all just an excuse for Fields to engage in his peculiar brand of buffoonery: being harassed by Universal’s resident juvenile comedy brats Butch & Buddy, sparring at a diner with buxom waitress Jody Gilbert (dubbing her “blimpie pie”), croaking out the tune “Chickens Have Pretty Legs in Kansas”, and indulging in some of his best one-liners (think in your best W.C voice while reading):

When Gloria asks why ‘Uncle Bill’s’ never been married: “I was in love with a beautiful blonde once, dear. She drove me to drink. That’s the only thing I’m indebted to her for.”

“Drown in a vat of whiskey. Death, where is thy sting?”

To a stewardess asking a hungover Fields if he’s airsick: “No, somebody put too many olives in my martinis last night.”

The Great Man, some booze, and a gorilla… what more could you ask for!!

Gloria Jean, Universal’s teenaged thrush, looks like she’s having a grand old time as ‘Uncle Bill’s’ niece, and gets to sing four songs in her sweet soprano voice. Pangborn gets plenty of comic moments of his own as the sourpuss Esoteric Pictures honcho, and the cast features Familiar Faces Irving Bacon, Mona Barrie, Anne Nagel, Minerva Urecal, Dave Willock, and the skeletal Bill Wolfe. Fields’ long-time mistress Carlotta Monte, who wrote the excellent book “W.C. Fields & Me”, has a bit as Pangborn’s secretary, and you can clearly see how much she enjoys Bill’s humor. Many changes were made by Universal to the original story by Otis Cribblecoblis (yeah, that’s Fields), and the screenplay is credited to John T. Neville and Prescott Chaplin. But neither man ever wrote anything quite as funny as this (though Neville did pen the Bela Lugosi classic THE DEVIL BAT , filled with unintentional humor!), and NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK is pure, undiluted W.C. Fields, The Great Man at his surrealistic greatest!

(This post is part of Cinemaven’s Essays from the Couch FREE FOR ALL BLOGATHON , happening right now, so follow the link and have a good time!!) 


Glory Daze: Peter O’Toole in MY FAVORITE YEAR (MGM 1982)

The world of 1950’s live TV gets the comic treatment in Richard Benjamin’s MY FAVORITE YEAR, a hilarious homage to those golden days of yore. Executive producer Mel Brooks had first-hand knowledge of the era, and much of the hysterical Norman Steinberg/Dennis Palumbo screenplay is based on his experiences, though completely exaggerated and laugh-out-loud funny. The film earned star Peter O’Toole an Oscar nomination for his role as Alan Swann, a dissipated movie star based on swashbuckling Errol Flynn .

Swann arrives at NBC’s 30 Rock, scheduled to be the week’s special guest on “Comedy Calvacade”, totally smashed, much to the displeasure of gruff show host Stan ‘King’ Kaiser (Joseph Bologna in a brilliant Sid Caesar parody), who immediately wants to fire him. But young comedy writer Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker, later of TV’s PERFECT STRANGERS), who idolizes the movie great, pleads with Kaiser to give Swann another chance. He does, and appoints Benjy as Swann’s personal babysitter, making sure the actor behaves… or else they’ll both get the boot!

Among the many subplots are Kaiser’s ongoing battle with gangland goon Karl Rojeck (Cameron Mitchell ), a Jimmy Hoffa-type Kaiser’s been lampooning on the show as “Boss Hijack”. Benjy’s got romantic problems with pretty young coproducer K.C. Downing (Jessica Harper, SUSPIRIA, STARDUST MEMORIES), as well as problems with his overbearing Brooklyn mom (Lanie Kazan). The writing staff is constantly at odds, with overbearing Sy (Bill Macy), cynical Alice (Anne DeSalvo), and the strangely silent Herb (Basil Hoffman in an apparent Neil Simon take-off).

O’Toole, who knew a thing or two about living la vida loca himself, was the perfect choice to portray the Flynn-like Swann. The gaunt actor may look like death warmed over, but his way with the ladies remains intact, and underneath the bravado of his screen persona lays a barely concealed vulnerability. His hard-partying ways have left him in debt and involved in scandalous behavior, but his dignity manages to shine through. O’Toole’s performance makes Alan Swann a flamboyant, funny, poignant, and all-too-human character, and he deserved the Oscar nom, but lost to Ben Kingsley in GANDHI. In fact, the actor was nominated and lost eight times in all, an Oscar record, only receiving an honorary award in 2002 for his body of work.

This was Benjamin’s first film as director, and got him off on the right foot. The actor had starred in TV’s HE & SHE and films like GOODBYE COLUMBUS, CATCH-22, and WESTWORLD before taking a seat in the director’s chair, and has made some good films since (CITY HEAT, LITTLE NIKITA, MERMAIDS, MRS. WINTERBOURNE). The supporting cast also features Adolph Green as show producer Leo Silver. Green’s no stranger to comedy writing himself, having penned the Broadway and Hollywood hits ON THE TOWN, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, THE BAND WAGON , AUNTIE MAME, and BELLS ARE RINGING with partner Betty Comden. Selma Diamond, who also wrote for Sid Caesar in the 50’s, plays the sarcastic costume matron. Familiar Faces Phil Bruns, Stanley Brock, Lou Jacobi, and George Wyner are on hand – and yes, that’s 1930’s starlet Gloria Stuart (later of TITANIC fame) as a dowager dancing with O’Toole during the Stork Club scene.

MY FAVORITE YEAR is right up my alley, a backstage pass to a show biz long gone. It’s got heart and chutzpah to spare, and never gets boring. If you’re like me, and love movies about behind the curtain shenanigans , you’re sure to love this one.

Mad Libs: Hope & Crosby on the ROAD TO MOROCCO (Paramount 1942)

Bing Crosby and Bob Hope travel the ROAD TO MOROCCO, the third in the “Road” series and by far the funniest. The plot involves two shipwrecked Americans who wind up in an absurd Arabian Nights style adventure complete with beautiful princess Dorothy Lamour and murderous desert sheik Anthony Quinn , but you can throw all that out the window as Bing and Bob trade quips, sing, and break down the Fourth Wall to let the audience know it’s all in good fun, so sit back and enjoy the zany ride.

Bob and Bing were already established superstars when Paramount teamed them for ROAD TO SINGAPORE (1940), which was a huge box office hit and followed quickly by ROAD TO ZANZIBAR (1941). By the time they made MOROCCO, the pair had their act down pat, with Der Bingle the smooth-talking crooner who always gets the girl, and Ol’ Ski-Nose the cowardly wisecracker. Scripts were just a framework as the two hired their own gagsters to punch things up and ad-libbed madly, sometimes without even letting the rest of the cast and crew in on it. Their onscreen anarchy convulsed war-weary 1940’s filmgoers with laughter, as they skewered everything in their paths, including the hand that fed them, Paramount Pictures!

Some of their best gags are in this film: riding a camel through the desert while singing “The Road to Morocco” (“Where we’re goin’, why we’re goin’, how can we be sure/I’ll lay you 8 to 5 that we’ll meet Do-ro-thy La-mour”), Bob trying to get a free meal by acting like an idiot (not a stretch!), Bing selling Bob into slavery (which is how he ends up as Lamour’s concubine), trying to pull the old “pat-a-cake” routine on Quinn without success (he must’ve seen the previous movies!), stranded in the desert by Quinn’s army and seeing mirages, including one of Lamour where the trio sing “Moonlight Becomes You” in each others voices. The song, written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, became a #1 hit for Bing that year, and is a standard today in The Great American Songbook:

The highlight comes when Bing and Bob attempt to rescue Lamour and handmaiden Dona Drake (who’s hot for Hope!) from Quinn’s clutches by sabotaging his party honoring a rival chieftain with whoopee cushions, a dribble glass, the old hot foot, and gunpowder-loaded cigarettes (as Crosby laces the tobacco, Hope quips “Hey, whaddaya doing, making reefers?”!!), all while being kibbitzed by a pair of talking camels! They escape for America, and all’s well that ends well, until bungling Bob goes for a smoke in the ship’s powder room and blows it to smithereens, an excuse for Hope to crack an Oscar joke to cap the shenanigans off.

From Hope playing dear, departed “Aunt Lucy” in drag to this exchange: Bob: “First, you sell me for two hundred bucks. Then I’m gonna marry the Princess, then you cut in on me. Then we’re carried off by a desert sheik. Now we’re gonna have our heads chopped off!” Bing: “I know all that”. Bob: “Yeah, but the people who came in the middle of the picture don’t”. Bing (flabbergasted): “You mean they missed my song!?!”, ROAD TO MOROCCO is tons of foolish fun, an enjoyable romp through the desert sands with two of the 20th Century’s greatest entertainers at the top of their game. If you’ve never travelled down the ROAD with Bing and Bob, this one’s a great place to start.

Goats and Nuts and MILLION DOLLAR LEGS (Paramount 1932)

Hail, hail Klopstokia! MILLION DOLLAR LEGS is  total  movie anarchy, a throwback to the halcyon days of Mack Sennett. It’s a comedy cornucopia filled with sight gags and verbal nonsense, led by legendary W.C. Fields as president of the mythical country of Klopstokia, about to default on its loans until itinerant brush salesman Jack Oakie comes up with a plan to enter the hale and hearty Klopstokians in the 1932 Olympics and win the huge cash prize being put up by his employer!

Klopstokia is noted for “Goats & Nuts”, their chief exports, imports, and inhabitants! All political disputes are settled by arm wrestling, and President Fields is the strongest of all, though he’s constantly being challenged by his Secretary of the Treasury Hugh Herbert. Presidential daughter Angela (Susan Fleming, future wife of Harpo Marx) and brush salesman Migg Tweeny (Oakie) “meet cute” and immediately fall in love. When asking for her hand, Angela tells her dad she calls Migg “Sweetheart”, which the Prez mistakes for Migg’s real moniker! (Migg: “Listen, my name’s Tweeny” Prez: “You’ll always be ‘Sweetheart’ to me” Migg: “I know, I know, but there’s talk already…)

Secretary Herbert and his traitorous cabinet (including Keystone veterans Irving Bacon, Vernon Dent, and Billy Gilbert , who performs his comical sneeze routine) plot to put Klopstokia’s athletic team out of commission by hiring super-spy Mata Machree, “A Woman No Man Can Resist”! She’s played by luscious Lyda Roberti, parodying Garbo (who starred in 1931’s MATA HARI) and sings the risqué “When I Get Hot in Klopstokia”. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen lithe Lyda slink and wiggle her way to a man’s… err, heart.

You all know what a sucker I am for punny wordplay, and MILLION DOLLAR LEGS is loaded with it, thanks to screenwriters Henry Myers and future Oscar winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz . Here’s a couple of examples:

Migg: “You know what? I love you!”

Angela: “In Klopstokia, we have another way of saying that”

Migg: “In public??”

Then there’s this: Angela: “All the girls in this country are named Angela, and all the men are named George”

Migg: “Why?”

Angela: “Why not!”

Fields is a riot, as always, whether having troubles with his top hat, juggling clubs to stay in shape, or performing as a one-man band. Cross-eyed silent comedian Ben Turpin keeps popping up (for no reason!) as a cloak-and-dagger spy, Andy Clyde as Fields’ Major-Domo could give The Flash a run for his money, and little Dickie Moore steals whatever scenes he’s in as Angela’s brother Willie – apparently the only male in Klopstokia not named George!! All this absurdity is expertly handled by director Edward F. “Eddie” Cline, who went back to Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops, and worked with nearly every great comic in history, from Chaplin and Keaton, to Wheeler & Woolsey and Olsen & Johnson, to the Ritz Brothers and the Andrews Sisters!

MILLION DOLLAR LEGS is sheer nonsense, and I mean that in the best way possible. Predating the Marx Brothers’ DUCK SOUP by a year, the film shares its anarchic spirit, and the two together would make a great double feature when you need to just cut loose and laugh. And we all need that in this day and age!!

12 Days of Random Christmas Songs: “Santa Claus and His Old Lady” by Cheech & Chong (Ode Records 1971)

Like yesterday’s “Green Chri$tma$”, “Santa Claus and His Old Lady” isn’t technically a ‘Christmas song’. Instead, it’s a far-out piece of comedy as Cheech Marin explains to Tommy Chong all about Santa Claus… and his “magic dust”.  From 1971, enjoy America’s favorite stoner duo doing “Santa Claus and His Old Lady”, man!:

Confessions of a TV Addict #5: Aaron Ruben, Man Behind the Laughter

So what could a Jewish kid from Chicago possibly know about life among rural Southerners or the black experience in Watts? Probably not a whole heck of a lot, but if that kid’s name is Aaron Ruben, there’s one thing he  does know – funny! For Aaron Ruben was the producer/writer behind such classic sitcoms as THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and SANFORD AND SON, who used his comedic talents behind the scenes keep America laughing while glued to the boob tube for over forty years!

Milton Berle in his radio days

Ruben was born on Chicago’s West Side in 1914, and after service in WWII began his show biz career writing for comic Wally Brown on Dinah Shore’s radio show. He was soon hired by Burns & Allen for their program, and then wrote for Milton Berle alongside Nat Hiken, who would play an important role in Ruben’s later career. Berle brought Ruben on board for his smash TV series TEXACO STAR THEATER for the 1953-54 season, marking the writer’s first efforts on the small screen. They wouldn’t be his last!

(clockwise from top) Carl Reiner, Howard Morris, Nanette Fabray, and Sid Caesar in “Caesar’s Hour”

Ruben’s next gig found him in heady comedy company indeed. Sid Caesar returned after his smash YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS in a new variety hour titled, appropriately enough, CAESAR’S HOUR, bringing back sidekicks Carl Reiner and Howard Morris along with newcomer Nanette Fabray (replacing Imogene Coca, who went out on her own). Aaron was added to a writing team that included Mel Brooks , Selma Diamond, Larry Gelbart, and Mel Tolkin, as well as Caesar, Reiner, and Morris, producing a live hour of mirth on a weekly basis! The show lasted three seasons, following which Ruben went to work for his old friend Hiken writing and directing THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW, subtitled YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH but better known to TV fans as SGT. BILKO.

Ruben with Don Knotts & Andy Griffith

In 1960, Ruben got in on the ground floor for a true comedy classic, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. He was a producer/writer/director on the series set in the quaint little town of Mayberry, North Carolina, and did some of his finest work on the show. Among his many contributions are a few standouts: “Barney Mends a Broken Heart”, which introduced The Fun Girls from Mount Pilot (Joyce Jameson and Jeanne Carson), who returned in the Ruben-penned “The Fun Girls”. “Floyd, The Gay Deceiver” gave series regular Howard McNear a chance to shine. Ruben left the show after the final episode of 1964, but returned in 1968 with “Barney Hosts a Summit Meeting”, the improbable tale of Barney Fife trying to negotiate détente between the U.S. and Russia, which turned out to be Don Knott’s series swan song.

Frank Sutton and Jim Nabors in “Gomer Pyle USMC”

That last episode in ’64 was the pilot for GOMER PYLE, USMC (1964-69), a spin-off starring the late Jim Nabors as Mayberry’s hayseed gas station attendant, now in the Marine Corps, opposite apoplectic Frank Sutton as the beleaguered Sgt. Vince Carter. GOMER PYLE was Ruben’s baby all the way, played strictly for laughs despite the raging war in Vietnam at the time. The formula was simple; Gomer’s naivety constantly gets him in trouble, and Sgt. Carter usually takes the fall. GOMER was popular with both audiences and the Marines themselves, proving the Corps really does have a sense of humor. Semper Fi!

“The Comic” (1969) with Dick Van Dyke & Michele Lee

After GOMER’s run, Ruben cowrote the film THE COMIC (1969) with director (and former CAESAR’S HOUR cohort) Carl Reiner. This dramedy starred Dick Van Dyke (another TV icon) as a washed-up, alcoholic silent comedian, and costarred Mickey Rooney, Michele Lee, and Cornel Wilde. While it didn’t do well at the box office when first released, it’s well worth rediscovering for fans of classic comedy, of which Ruben was definitely one (he wrote some skits for the 1965 TV special A SALUTE TO STAN LAUREL, hosted by Van Dyke and featuring, among others, Lucille Ball, Danny Kaye, and the great Buster Keaton).

Ruben with Redd Foxx & Demond Wilson on the set of “Sanford & Son”

1972 found Ruben working for Norman Lear as producer/writer on a new sitcom, SANFORD & SON. The misadventures of junkyard proprietor Fred G. Sanford, played to perfection by cantankerous comedian Redd Foxx, and his hip son Lamont (Demond Wilson) was yet another feather in Ruben’s comedy cap, writing the first episode aired, “Crossed Swords” (with the Sanfords trying to raise the price of a porcelain piece they procured at an auction), and twenty others, including the classic “The Piano Movers”. Ruben stayed with the show for two seasons, and was a big part of its early success.

Aaron Ruben didn’t slow down, but the hits seemed to stop coming. His military sitcom CPO SHARKEY, starring Don Rickles , lasted two seasons (1976-78). Other attempts (THE STOCKARD CHANNING SHOW, TEACHER’S ONLY) failed to move the ratings meter. Old pal Andy Griffith hired Ruben as a creative consultant on his hit series MATLOCK, adding some comedy bits from 1990-92 to brighten things up. It was his last TV credit; soon Ruben settled into a comfortable retirement with his wife, actress Maureen Arthur. He was lauded for his work with abused children in the Los Angeles area, which he continued until his death from pneumonia in 2010 at the age of 95. Aaron Ruben will always be remembered by TV fans for his comedic talents, but it’s his work with children he was most proud of.  Most importantly, he helped put smiles on people’s faces, and when it’s all said and done, isn’t that what life’s all about? Thanks for the smiles, Aaron!


Quirky Jerky: Jerry Lewis in THE BELLBOY (Paramount 1960)

The late, great Jerry Lewis was not just a funny man, he was an innovative filmmaker whose talents behind the cameras matched his onscreen antics. Paramount Pictures gave him carte blanche on THE BELLBOY, his first film as producer/director/writer/star, a film with “no story, no plot, just a series of silly sequences” following the misadventures of Stanley, the world’s most inept bellboy. To the best of my knowledge it is the first of its kind… even W.C. Fields’ bizarre NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK and Olsen & Johnson’s wacky HELLZAPOPPIN’ had some semblance of loose plot foisted on them by nervous studio execs!

Lewis was doing his nightclub act at Miami’s Fontainebleu Hotel at the time, and already had CINDERFELLA in the can. Paramount wanted a summer release, but Lewis thought the film would do better in the Christmas season, so he concocted this loose, madcap romp done in blackout style, and filmed during the day at the hotel. He rounded up stand-up comics playing the area (Bob Clayton, Sonnie Sands, Herkie Styles, Jack Durant) to play minor parts, even corralling Milton Berle to play himself in one funny sequence.

Comedian/impressionist Bill Richmond pops up amidst the chaos as Stan Laurel , and that’s no coincidence. Lewis had long been a fan of Laurel & Hardy’s humor, and he asked Stan to work as a gag writer on THE BELLBOY. Laurel refused the request, but went over the script for Jerry, making notations and suggestions which Lewis diligently followed. Lewis even named his character after the comic giant, and THE BELLBOY is a love letter to the kind of silent slapstick Laurel did best, a tribute to the man’s generosity toward younger comedians.

The movie featured another first: Lewis came up with what’s now known as Video Assist, a device where the director could watch the footage being shot to assure he’s getting the scene he envisioned. Today the system is used on virtually every movie made, and Jerry Lewis is to thank for that. THE BELLBOY is a unique film in the Lewis canon, and I think it’s among his best. It’s pure, unadulterated Jerry Lewis zaniness that defies description, full of wacky sight gags that’s sure to please fans of inspired lunacy. Even non-fans of Lewis’s films will get a kick out of this if they give it half a chance.

(This post is respectfully dedicated to the memories of Jerry Lewis and Stan Laurel, both of whom brought so much needed joy and laughter into the world!)