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Screwball Triple

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break

The New Beverly's triple feature of classic screwball comedies presents a chance to consider two different approaches to comic rage. Monkey Business is the most cheerful of the three: As ship stowaways, the Marxes delay the token plot for a good 20 minutes, the better to wreak havoc without impediment. Gangsters are no match for the ethnically chameleonic siblings: Jewish Groucho, Italian Chico, blue-blood Zeppo and mute blond cherub Harpo can impersonate anyone they want at a moment's notice. They're all the white colors of the American rainbow, which lets them skate by.

W.C. Fields wasn't nearly as mobile, physically or in terms of identity: The Great Man, a slovenly alcoholic who talked almost as slowly as he moved, asked for nothing more than to be near his whiskey and kept away from children. Fields, who became the uncredited director of Man on the Flying Trapeze, produced one of the cheapest-looking studio comedies of the 1930s. Cycling through hate for himself, his wife and this oppressive world of workaday drudgery, the sheer rage of Fields' "memory expert" just manages to stay funny.

Fields' final salvo was at the studio itself. With Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, Fields — the original hard-drinking, people-hating Greenberg — deliberately delivers a truly radical product: a plotless, often surreal grab bag. As always, tech values are shoddy; Fields conspired with trusted collaborator Edward F. Cline to ignore the cleaned-up script Universal had produced by committee. "It's impossible, inconceivable, incomprehensible," fumes Franklin Pangborn's studio head. "And as for the continuity, it's terrible." True enough: Sucker's wild and full of metasniping that's no joke, like Fields complaining to the camera how the censor had stripped the original saloon setting from the scene he's in.

The joke, as always, was on him, but Fields knew it, his screenplay giving a waitress his ultimate obit: "You're as funny as a cry for help." Compared to the wink-nod coziness of later industry satires like The Player, Sucker is one big, stream-of-consciousness fuck you. (Oct. 17-18, New Beverly Cinema)


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