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W. C. Fields' legendary battles with the top brass at Universal Studios were well documented so it was only appropriate that his final film for them, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), was his most problematic production. Conceived as a freewheeling vaudeville act that lurches from slapstick routines to musical numbers to sight gags to blackout sketches, the film is really a thinly disguised attack on the Hollywood studio system. Virtually plot-less, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break presents a basic premise of Fields trying to peddle a script to the non-existent Esoteric Studios. But the film quickly veers off into a comical alternate universe with side trips to a Russian colony in Mexico and a bizarre mountaintop retreat presided over by the man-eating Mrs. Hemogloben (Margaret Dumont) and her Great Dane.
When Fields first delivered the script for Never Give a Sucker an Even Break to Universal under his pseudonym Otis Criblecoblis, it was 12 pages and entitled The Great Man, his original title for The Bank Dick. The script was rejected as too short so he expanded it to 96 pages. The studio still demanded a longer screenplay so Fields hired two writers, John T. Neville and Prescott Chaplin, to pad the script to 156 pages with descriptive material like "Beautiful girl adorned in blue fox and in a gown styled by the Rye de la Paix." When this version was submitted to Joseph Breen, the head of the MPPDA censor board, he exploded with a torrent of outrage and demanded changes. Breen took particular offense to the "vulgar and suggestive scenes and dialogue" and "jocular references to drinking and liquor." His six-page memo, which crosses over into Theatre of the Absurd territory, noted sixty scenes set in a cocktail lounge as well as countless sexual innuendos: "Fields is shown looking at girls' legs or breasts and reacting thereto." He even saw lewd intentions in the most nonsensical details: "The name 'Fuchschwantz,' because of its sound....should be deleted or changed. The line 'tighter than Dick's hat band' is questionable...any and all dialogue and showing of bananas and pineapples is unacceptable, by reason of the fact that all this business in the dialogue is a play upon an obscene story."
At this point, Universal commandeered the screenplay and hired numerous writers to rework it. Fields later commented, "They produced the worst script I ever read. I was going to throw it in their faces when the director (Eddie Cline) told me not to. He said, 'We'll shoot your own script. They won't know the difference.' We did - and they didn't." However, the original title, The Great Man was replaced with Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, leaving Fields to remark, "They can't get that on a marquee. It will probably boil down to W.C. Fields - Sucker."
Although Fields' contract was not renewed with Universal after Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, he had the last laugh. The film is brimming over with his trademark humor, particularly in regards to the bottle, and in one scene, he directly addresses his nemesis. Walking into an ice cream parlour, he tells the soda jerk, "Give me a drink, I'm dying."
Soda jerk: "What'll it be?
Fields: "Jumbo ice cream soda."
Soda jerk: "What flavor?"
Fields: "Oh, I don't care, spinach, horseradish.....anything you've got there."
At which point, Fields turns to the camera and says, "This scene was supposed to be in a saloon, but the censor cut it out. It'll play just as well."
Director: Edward F. Cline
Screenplay: Prescott Chaplin, John T. Neville
Cinematography: Charles Van Enger
Editor: Arthur Hilton
Music: Frank Skinner
Cast: W.C. Fields (The Great Man), Gloria Jean (His Niece), Leon Errol (His Rival), Billy Lenhart (Heckler), Kenneth Brown (Heckler), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Hemogloben).
by Jeff Stafford