Three Short Tributes to Three Talented Ladies

They say deaths happen in threes, and though it may be just an old wives’ tale, in the past few days movie lovers lost three underappreciated actresses. They may not have been mega-stars, but each contributed in her own way to the world of classic movies. In their honor, here’s three capsule looks at a trio of talented ladies no longer with us:

Gloria Jean (1926-2018) was probably the best known of the three, a Universal starlet of the 1940’s. She was signed by the studio as the next  Deanna Durbin, who’d moved on to more mature roles. Possessing a sweet soprano voice, Gloria made her film debut in THE UNDER-PUP (1939), and followed with two hits, A LITTLE BIT OF HEAVEN and IF I HAD MY WAY (both 1940), the latter co-starring with Bing Crosby. My favorite Gloria Jean part is where she plays a fictional version of herself opposite W.C. Fields in the surrealist comedy NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941) as “Uncle Bill’s” niece. Gloria’s segment in Julian Duvivier’s FLESH AND FANTASY (1943) was cut from the film, and turned into a movie of it’s own, the excellent film noir DESTINY. She spent most of the 40’s in a series of low-budget teenage musicals (WHAT’S COOKIN’?, GET HEP TO LOVE, PARDON MY RHYTHM), with Donald O’Connor and Peggy Ryan usually on board. Leaving Universal in 1945, she freelanced without much success. By the late 1950’s, Gloria Jean was out of show biz and working as a restaurant hostess, later for a cosmetics firm, but fans of 40’s musicals will always remember perky little Gloria Jean in her heyday as a star.

Carole (left) & Monica Evans as the Pigeon Sisters

CAROLE SHELLEY (1939-2018) was known primarily for one role, but it was a doozy: Gwendolyn Pigeon, one of THE ODD COUPLE’s Pigeon Sisters. Alongside Monica Evans as sister Cecily, Carole played the part in the original Broadway production, the 1968 film version, and for the first season of the TV series. Carole was mainly known for her stage work, winning a Tony for 1979’s THE ELEPHANT MAN, and creating the role of Madame Morrible in the original production of WICKED, but she did some films (two entries in the CARRY ON comedies, THE BOSTON STRANGLER, QUIZ SHOW, and as Aunt Clara in the 2005 big screen remake of BEWITCHED), and some voice work for Disney (THE ARISTOCATS, ROBIN HOOD, HERCULES).

Jacqueline Pearce with & without makeup in “The Reptile”


 JACQUELINE PEARCE  (1943-2018) is fondly remembered by horror/sci-fi fans for starring in 1966’s PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES and the title role of THE REPTILE. Jacqueline was the villainous Servalan in the British sci-fi series BLAKE’S 7, and the terrifying Chessene in the 1985 DOCTOR WHO serial “The Two Doctors”. When she wasn’t scaring the daylights out of audiences, she portrayed Jerry Lewis’s wife in the 1968 farce DON’T RAISE THE BRIDGE, LOWER THE RIVER.

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!!) 

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