Is W.C. Fields Still Funny?

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in June of 2011.

It would be really, really easy for me to offer my opinion about whether or not the Marx Brothers are still funny. In fact, here’s that opinion: Oh, yeah.

While I was a latecomer to Marxism, and hadn’t really watched any of their features in full until I was just edging into adulthood, I can tell you the exact moment I became a devout Marx fan: when Harpo opens his coat in Duck Soup and the dog comes out of his stomach and barks. Slack-jawed with amazement at how bizarre the joke was, I laughed out loud uncontrollably. Before that gag, certainly the snappy patter had me grinning and chuckling, but it was exactly at that moment I realized the Brothers had lost none of their pioneering pizzazz (at least for me) all these decades later.

I grew up much more knowledgeable about Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, and I continue to enjoy their films—but today their work inspires more gentle smiles and admiration for their craftsmanship (and, in Chaplin’s case, his tenderness and daring) than outright laughter. But then, I’ve seen their films many times already, so I may not be the best judge.

That’s why I chose W.C. Fields and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break to see if an “old-timer” could still deliver the juice. Because I not only Never Saw That Classic Movie (click on this link to see other greats I have shamefully missed), I really was not familiar with Fields. At all.

Well, I suppose that’s not entirely true. I knew he was one of those “tall and fat” stars (Is 5’8” considered tall? Shorter than me, but I just checked out some charts and it would seem to be so, and I like the reference to Rodney Dangerfield and Back to School, so there it stays); I knew his shtick involved alcoholism and being nasty to children; and I own an old edition of his “intended” autobiography—which, as you may deduce from the previous paragraph, I haven’t read yet. Maybe one day it’ll become one of my Favorite Movie Books. Or not, depending on how this screening turns out.

I picked Never Give a Sucker an Even Break because it’s been described as the star’s last great masterpiece, and the film over which he had the most control as writer of the original story (though he did not credit himself onscreen, instead using the pseudonym Otis Criblecoblis) and informal casting director, choosing most of the supporting players himself. The film is described as heavy on the absurd and surreal, traits I’m particularly interested in at the moment; and, I now read that Fields plays “himself” in the story, and what little I note of the plot synopsis (I don’t want to give away so much to myself before watching the film) makes it sound a bit like Stardust Memories, with Fields perhaps making some sort of oddball “commentary” on his fame and/or past career.

Now, it’s time for me to step away from the blog and watch the movie. See you in 71 minutes. Here, take this poll while you’re waiting:

Who’s Funniest?

View Results

Wow, it’s like time travel, isn’t it? 71 minutes passed for me, but you’re back this very instant. Guess I’d better get to it:

You know how they say comedy is really subjective? The old “you either laugh, or you don’t” rule? That old saw about one man’s hilarity is another man’s…

Aw, forget it. Let’s just open with this: I did not laugh a single time. Not once.

Maybe I’ve started with the wrong movie. Passion projects can be trouble, less disciplined than when a major talent’s every whim is kept in check by the mastery of a fine director. I’m thinking here (as I often do) of Klaus Kinski, whose Paganini biopic was a project long dear to his heart—but that didn’t stop it from being a nearly unwatchable bore. And that doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s pure genius in many other movies, so you would never want to judge his career based solely on that picture.

I went into this film from its initial moments with high hopes, believing I was about to be exposed to a screen legend I’d wrongfully ignored for so very long. The opening seconds set my expectations high with that cartoon depiction of Fields during the credits, his stomach ballooning outward to reveal the title. It was his bombastic and telling statement right out of the gate: this movie is bursting out of me. That first image promised, to me, that what was to follow would be a riotous farce of Rabelaisian proportions, a sharp (if perhaps affectionate) attack on the madness of showbiz blending vaudevillian routines into lunacy worthy of Alfred Jarry.


Quickly, I was deflated, and never recovered.

There’s not much more to the story than I got from checking out that brief plot summary online. I found it to be more a forerunner to Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation. than a precursor to Stardust Memories (as I’d first suspected), dealing with Fields (again, playing a version of himself) pitching his surreal comedy script to the head of Esoteric Studios. The project is meant to serve as a vehicle for him—fresh off his success with The Bank Dick—and his niece (Gloria Jean, not a real-life relation), a budding actress also working on the lot.

Never-Give-a-Sucker-an-Even-Break-WC-Fields-Susan-Miller-Margaret-DumontAs the cranky producer (Franklin Pangborn) begins reading scenes from the script, we cut away and see them dramatized, and it’s here that Fields works just about all of the film’s reality-bending bits. At about the halfway mark, it departs from rationality entirely when “Uncle Bill” leaps out of an airplane (sans parachute) to catch his falling whiskey flask only to land unscathed in a magical location resembling a giant bird’s nest, where he meets a beautiful young woman (Susan Miller) who has “never seen a man” and her witch-like mother (Margaret Dumont).

Fields coaxes the pretty girl into playing a game of “squidgilum” (I’m not sure this is how it would be spelled, but that’s how it sounded), which of course, ends up with him kissing her while her eyes are closed. When she actually likes it, and asks him to share the game with Dumont, Fields gets squirmy and jumps off the nest into a gondola basket that falls thousands of feet down (again, leaving him unharmed). Then, from inside a sort-of-Russian/Mexican colony, two other men he meets (played by Leon Errol and Charles Lang) return to the nest. Errol attempts to marry Dumont once Miller woos the handsome Lang with the kissing game, only to have Fields do an inexplicable turnaround into jealousy, pushing Errol off the nearest cliff to his demise.

Producer Pangborn has heard enough of this nonsense (and frankly, so had I) and calls a halt to the pitch, kicking Fields out of his office and trying to persuade his niece for forget about him and embrace her future singing chirpy and banal songs in the movies. She punches him in the face and rejoins her Uncle Bill, who has been drowning his sorrows in a soda shop. A mixup ends the film with a wacky car chase to a hospital maternity ward, where Gloria Jean declares her love for the sour inebriate as he crawls out of his wrecked automobile.

The difficulties I had enjoying the movie were all-encompassing, but I’ll detail a few. First and foremost, I had trouble engaging Fields as a protagonist. Chaplin rightfully observed that audiences love to see a simple man give a good kick in the backside to rich people and authority figures. This story is like taking the object of Chaplin’s frequent ridicule and making him the hero.

And we do see him taken down many pegs (children throw rocks at him, he gets slugged in the kisser after making an unwise flirtation) during the course of the movie, and I can see why in theory I’m meant to side with him as an antihero as he dishes out well-aimed barbs at those not as gifted nor as, uhm, glamorous as “The Great One” (as he’s billed in the film), but Fields himself lacks charisma in this outing, and we’re given no decent or clear reasons to get on his side. The episodic story he pitches is simply not that funny in incident nor performance, and in the “real world” segments, he doesn’t have the go-getting attitude of, say, an Ed Wood—or even the happy enthusiasm of a Dangerfield when he delivers the joke about his wife driving him to drink, “…the one thing I’m indebted to her for.”

I’d hoped it would go so much farther with the reality-fantasy angle, but the truth is, as a “surreal” comedy, the picture contains its outlandish situations fairly well within the confines of the story-within-the-story. Yes, Fields goes all Keystone Kops and Hal Needham at the end with an out-of-nowhere car chase, but it would have been so much more entertaining to see the script carry over the surrealism into the world of the regular story, especially after Fields’ crazy screenplay is rejected and he is unceremoniously booted out by Pangborn.

The mug-to-the-camera bit where Fields is in the soda shop and complains the censors wouldn’t allow a saloon? The script could well have cemented its avant-garde bragging rights then and there, maybe instead having Fields walk up to the exterior of a bar, only to walk in and find a soda shop. Double take, out the door—it’s a saloon; back in, soda shop! The film could have followed this Duck Amuck conceit (with Fields bemoaning these comic, universe-altering shakeups as the work of the idiot Pangborn) until any semblance of internal logic exploded apart and rattled the rafters of movie houses.

But, you know as a viewer you’re in trouble when you’re spending more time second-guessing how you felt it should have gone than being held captive by whatever invention is actually being presented onscreen.

At various points throughout, I found myself thinking:

Hmm, an early scene where the protagonist encounters a rotten waitress who won’t give him what he wants? This sure is a hell of a lot funnier in Five Easy Pieces.

This stuff involving the behind-the-scenes action? A lot richer in Singin’ in the Rain, where you actually learn things about Hollywood history while you’re laughing at how the film is busy ingeniously skewering it. And the moronic, uncreative producer stifling creative expression? Robert Altman has it all over this movie in The Player.

His mug to the camera about the censors? Groucho achieved this sort of thing much better (and much earlier) in Horse Feathers when he stomped towards the audience to declare “I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason why you folks shouldn’t go out into the lobby until this thing blows over,” let alone the unforgettable scene in Annie Hall when Marshall McLuhan is marched out onscreen.


And speaking of the Marxes, some of their films suffer a bit now from that once-fashionable device of the musical interlude that stops a film dead in its tracks, but at least you can occasionally revel in the performance itself, especially when Chico is at the piano, say, or Harpo is working the strings. The songs in this film contain no such novelty. And there are Just. Too. Many. Of. Them.

Fields’ relationship with his niece? Not nearly as rewarding and affecting as Rodney’s bond with Keith Gordon in Back to School.

Call them unfair comparisons if you will, but that’s the whole point of the title question. It’s not the movie’s fault (nor the star’s) that some who will come to it will have already seen everything it may have “inspired” decades down the road, but to the extent that older films fail to maintain their own singular identity or content that uniquely resonates somehow, they become increasingly likely to be regarded as historical artifacts rather than movies that continue to live and breathe on their own. And as much as they may (thankfully) be preserved for home video, they are also likely to get less and less “play” for succeeding generations. They may not (and should not) be forgotten, but they will begin to be ignored.

As disappointed as I was by the movie, I nevertheless cracked open my Fields book—titled W.C. Fields By Himself: His Intended Autobiography—to look over it a bit before sitting down to write this review.

The book has an amazing selection of art and photos from Fields’ vaudeville past as a juggler, and many photographs of Fields and his children, made especially moving inasmuch as they strongly contrast with his scabrous onscreen persona. I skipped ahead to the final pages to glance over the details about his decline and death, which are indeed sad. His alcoholism was not just a cinematic device (something I already knew), and looking more deeply into how it affected the latter part of his life and decline cannot help but complicate how funny that element of his iconic performances might remain.

Woody Allen said Fields was one of only six comic geniuses—along with Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Groucho and Harpo Marx, and Peter Sellers. That is rarefied company, and based on my experience with this film alone, I’m in no position to challenge that estimation.

In fact, I could watch every single one of Fields’ movies, and I’d still be in no real position to actually challenge Woody’s praise. If you laugh, you laugh. And while Fields was around, he offered that gift to admiring millions. So, all I can say is, I went in hoping for the best—and got what felt like the worst.

Sorry, Uncle Bill.