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!

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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!!) 

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!!

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 8: All-Star Comedy Break

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Tonight I’ll be watching the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, but for those of you non-baseball fans, here’s a look at five funny films from the 1930’s & 40’s:

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IT’S A GIFT (Paramount 1934, D: Norman Z. McLeod) The Great Man himself, W.C. Fields , works his magic in this delightfully demented domestic comedy about hen pecked grocer Harold Bissonette, who dreams of owning an orange grove in California. His wife (Kathleen Howard) is a domineering battle-axe, his kid (Tommy Bupp) an obnoxious, roller skating brat, and daughter Mildred (Jean Rouveral) doesn’t want to leave her “true love”. This sets the stage for some of Fields’ funniest surrealistic scenes, including his grocery store being demolished by blind Mr. Mickle and perennial nemesis Baby Leroy; poor W.C. trying to get some sleep on the porch while being constantly disturbed by noisy neighbors, a wayward coconut, a man looking for “Carl LeFong”, and Baby Leroy dropping grapes through a hole in the porch (“Shades of Bacchus!”); and a wild picnic on private property. One of Fields’ best movies, an absurd comic classic! Fun Fact: Kathleen Howard was a former opera singer who costarred in three of W.C.’s films.

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GENERAL SPANKY (MGM 1936, D: Fred Newmeyer and Gordon Douglas) Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, and the “Our Gang” kids star in this Civil War era comedy that plays like a few shorts strung together. There’s not really any overt racism, as some critics claim; except for the use of the derogatory term “pickaninny” early on, it’s simply a product of its era. The story is told from the Southern POV, making it sympathetic to their cause. In fact, the slaves are treated with more dignity by the Southerners than the invading Yankee army! The warm relationship that develops between the two orphans Spanky and Buckwheat rarely gets mentioned. Still, this ain’t GONE WITH THE WIND; if it sounds offensive, just don”t watch. Fans of Our Gang/Little Rascals shorts will want to catch it, though. Fun Fact: Irving Pichel, who I’ve discussed here in past posts , plays the mean Yankee captain at odds with Spanky and friends.

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TURNABOUT (United Artists 1949, D: Hal Roach) Gender-bending screwball comedy about a constantly bickering couple (John Hubbard, Carole Landis) that have their wish to swap bodies granted by a Hindu idol come to life. Ultimately the film tries a little too hard at being wacky and is a letdown considering it’s groundbreaking theme. Adolphe Menjou, William Gargan, Mary Astor, Joyce Compton, Verree Teasdale, Franklin Pangborn, Marjorie Main, and especially Donald Meek head a game supporting cast. Based on a novel by Thorne (TOPPER) Smith. Fun Fact: One of a handful of feature films directed by comedy pioneer Roach.

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BLONDE INSPIRATION (MGM 1941, D: Busby Berkeley) Minor but amusing screwball comedy concerning an idealistic unpublished writer (John Shelton) who’s conned out of $2000 by two broke publishers (the unlikely but funny comedy team of Albert Dekker and Charles Butterworth !) to write Western pulp fiction when their drunken star scribe Dusty King (Donald Meek again!) quits. Shelton’s bland in the lead,  but the rest of the cast makes up for it, with a wisecracking script by Marion Parsonnet and swift direction from musical maestro Berkeley. Virginia Grey plays the publisher’s cynical secretary who ends up falling for the dopey, naïve Shelton. Reginald Owen, Alma Krueger, Byron Foulger, and Charles Halton all add to the fun. Fun Fact: Marion Martin, former Ziegfeld showgirl, is the “blonde inspiration” of the title, playing the dumb-blonde companion of Butterworth.

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WHO DONE IT? (Universal 1942, D: Erle C. Kenton) Abbott & Costello play two soda jerks (emphasis on “jerks”) and wanna-be radio mystery writers who get caught up in a real-life murder mystery at the station. This was Bud and Lou’s first effort without the usual musical interludes (no Andrews Sisters, no swing bands, etc), and allows them to unleash their comic mayhem uninhibited. The radio setting gives them good material to work with, like their “watts are volts” wordplay riffing (they even have a bit disparaging their classic ‘Who’s On First?” routine). There are some genuinely scary touches between the slapstick from horror vet Kenton (ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN ), and a solid supporting cast featuring William Gargan and William Bendix as a pair of dopey detectives, Mary Wickes as Lou’s love interest (!!), and Universal’s Familiar Face Brigade: Patric Knowles, Louise Allbritton, Thomas Gomez, Don Porter, Jerome Cowan, and Ludwig Stossel. Cadaverous Milton Parsons even shows up as the coroner! Fast and fun entry in the A&C catalog. Fun Fact: The page boy constantly getting over on Lou is Walter Tetley, a radio actor known to TV affecianados as the voice of Mr. Peabody’s favorite boy, Sherman!

Curiouser & Curiouser: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (Paramount 1933)

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Lewis Carroll’s 1865 children’s classic ALICE IN WONDERLAND was turned into an all-star spectacular by Paramount in 1933. But the stars were mostly unrecognizable under heavy makeup and costumes, turning audiences off and causing the film to bomb at the box office. Seen today, the 1933 ALICE is a trippy visual delight for early movie buffs, thanks in large part to the art direction of William Cameron Menzies.

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Menzies’ designs are truly out there, giving ALICE the surrealistic quality of the books themselves. He actually storyboarded his ideas right into the physical script, earning a co-writer credit along with Joseph L. Mankiewicz . Menzies was the cinematic wizard whose art direction brought the magical 1924 THE THIEF OF BAGDAD to life. He was co-director and special effects designer for 1932’s CHANDU THE MAGICIAN, and the title of Production Designer was invented for him on the classic GONE WITH THE WIND. Menzies also directed a few films; especially of note are the science fiction entries THINGS TO COME and INVADERS FROM MARS.

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You all know the story: young Alice is snowed in and bored, daydreaming away the time. She falls asleep, and dreamily takes a trip through the looking glass, where everything is backwards, and the chess board comes to life. Alice goes outside and follows the White Rabbit (Skeets Gallagher) down the hole, where she encounters a strange world inhabited by Caterpillar (Ned Sparks), Frog (Sterling Holloway ), The Duchess (Alison Skipworth) and her baby (Billy Barty), The Cheshire Cat (Richard Arlen), The March Hare (Charlie Ruggles ), The Mad Hatter (Edward Everett Horton), The Doormouse (Jackie Searl), The King and Queen of Hearts (Alec B. Francis, May Robson), Gryphon (William Austin), The Mock Turtle (Cary Grant), The Red Queen (Edna May Oliver), The White Queen (Louise Fazenda), Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Roscoe Karns, Jack Oakie), Humpty Dumpty (W.C. Fields ), and The White Knight (Gary Cooper ) on her madcap journey through Wonderland.

Alice In Wonderland (1933) | Pers: Alison Skipworth | Dir: Norman Z. (M) Mcleod | Ref: ALI012AJ | Photo Credit: [ The Kobal Collection / Paramount ] | Editorial use only related to cinema, television and personalities. Not for cover use, advertising or fictional works without specific prior agreement

Nineteen year old Charlotte Henry stars as  twelve year old Alice, and she’s perfect in the part. In fact, she was too perfect, as she became so closely identified with Alice it was tough for her to get other roles. After costarring as Bo-Peep in Laurel & Hardy’s BABES IN TOYLAND (retitled MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS), Henry appeared in CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA (with Boris Karloff) and the Frank Buck serial JUNGLE MENACE before retiring from film at the age of 28.

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Film fanatics will be able to recognize many of the stars by their distinct voices. Grant, Cooper, and Fields (who’s my personal favorite) are easy, but true movie afficianados won’t have trouble finding Oakie, Ruggles, Horton, Holloway, or Oliver. Leon Errol Roscoe Ates , Baby LeRoy, and Mae Marsh also take part in this hallucinogenic fantasy directed by Norman Z. McLeod. The director was a comedy specialist, working with greats like Fields (IT’S A GIFT, IF I HAD A MILLION), The Marx Brothers (MONKEY BUSINESS , HORSE FEATHERS), Bob Hope (THE ROAD TO RIO, THE PALEFACE), and Danny Kaye (THE KID FROM BROOKLYN, THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY), and helming the classic ghost comedy TOPPER.

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Besides the Fields and Cooper segments, one part of the film I really enjoyed was when Tweedledee and Tweedledum relate the story of The Walrus and The Carpenter to Alice. Here the movie veers off into animation by Hugh Harman and Rudoph Ising, a pair of Disney veterans who’d later inaugurate Warner’s Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. It’s a cute little vignette done by the animation pioneers, who later created such characters as Bosko and Barney Bear. ALICE IN WONDERLAND probably won’t appeal to those who’re enamored of CGI, but it was way ahead of its time, and is historically worth a look. After all, it isn’t every day you get a chances to see Cary Grant as The Mock Turtle or W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty, now is it?

 

“I can’t get celluloid out of my blood”: W.C.Fields in THE BANK DICK (Universal, 1940)

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W.C. Fields was a one of a kind genius. Fields’ unique brand of comedy was born in vaudeville, polished on Broadway, and reached perfection on the screen. There’s nothing to compare him to, his singular skewed worldview is that distinct. He made his firrst movie 100 years ago, the 1915 silent short POOL SHARKS, and today still has legions of loyal fans. I’ve just finished watching THE BANK DICK, and though it’s impossible to describe the lunacy, I’ll give it a whirl.

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Egbert Souse’ (“accent grave over the E”) is a henpecked husband who spends most of his time at The Black Pussy Café. After taking over directing a movie for the drunken A. Pismo Clam, he inadvertently captures a bank robber and becomes a local hero. Souse’ is given a job as a “bank dick”, working alongside his daughter’s beau, Og Oggilby. A con artist selling shares in a “beefsteak mine” has Souse’ persuade Og to “borrow” five hundred dollars from the bank’s coffers. The bank examiner, J.Pinkerton Snoopington, comes to go over the books, and Souse’ has the Black Pussy’s bartender Joe slip him a “Michael Finn”. It looks like the jig is up until the beefsteak mine strikes a bonanza. A second crook then robs the bank and kidnaps Souse’, leading to a wild car chase. All ends well as Souse’ once again nabs the crook, gets a Hollywood contract, and moves his family into a beautiful mansion, where they can all live happily while Souse’ spends even more time at his favorite watering hole!

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Yep, that’s the story. The rest of THE BANK DICK is filled out with Fields’ trademark craziness: slapstick silliness, sight gags, mumbled asides, and nonsense wordplay (“Don’t be a luddy-duddy. Don’t be a mooncalf. Don’t be a jabbernowl”). Character names like J.Frothingham Waterbury, Mackley Q. Greene, and Mrs. Muckle abound, thanks to screenwriter Mahatma Kane Jeeves (one of Fields’ many aliases). A supporting cast of Una Merkel, Grady Sutton (Og is probably his best role), Franklin Pangborn, and Shemp Howard add to the fun, all under the direction of comedy vet Edward Cline. But it’s W.C. Fields’ show all the way, and The Great One is at his best in THE BANK DICK. Like I said, it’s hard to describe with mere words. The only way to appreciate W.C. Fields is by watching. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll head down to The Black Pussy…..