Have a Fields day

W.C. Fields Comedy Collection, Vol. 2

Five of W.C. Fields’ more obscure comedies have just been released to DVD as Volume 2 in The W.C. Fields Comedy Collection, and his 1941 swan song Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is not only the best of the bunch, but one of the best of his career (the other movies in this set are Man on the Flying Trapeze, You’re Telling Me!, The Old Fashioned Way and Poppy).

Edward Cline’s comedy is an absolutely bonkers slapstick romp starring Fields and ingénue Gloria Jean as W.C. Fields and his niece Gloria Jean, who are trying to sell a ludicrous Mexican adventure script about … W.C. Fields and his niece Gloria Jean. The threadbare “story” is just an excuse for a brilliant stream of insults, pungent satire, inspired sight gags (including an airplane with a sun deck and a giant ape playing post office), and, of course, the great drunken reprobate himself, besieged by women, children, animals, waitresses, cops, and nearly everyone else he meets.

Fields, who contributed the story under the name Otis Criblecoblis, was at his best when his films were completely disconnected from any sense of logic or reason. In his everyman unpleasantness and extreme focus on minutiae, Fields was a comedic prototype for both Woody Allen and Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David.

As good as Fields is here, he isn’t even in the film’s funniest scene, which features the always flummoxed Franklin Pangborn as a studio head attempting to rehearse an execrable musical number on a chaotic soundstage. Never Give a Sucker an Even Break culminates with one of the greatest comedy car chases in film history, featuring stunts that remain impressive to this day. The 1934 classic It’s a Gift is still the best Fields film, but this manic, episodic comedy provides a steady stream of belly laughter.