Never Give a Sucker an Even Break

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (known in some foreign releases as What a Man!) is a 1941 Universal Pictures comedy film starring W. C. Fields. Fields also wrote the original story, under the pseudonym "Otis Criblecoblis". Fields plays himself, searching for a chance to promote a surreal screenplay he has written, whose several framed sequences form the film's center.

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break
Theatrical poster
Directed byEdward F. Cline
Produced byJack Gross[1]
Screenplay byJohn T. Neville
Prescott Chaplin
Story by"Otis Criblecoblis" (W. C. Fields)
StarringW. C. Fields
Gloria Jean
Music byCharles Previn
Frank Skinner
CinematographyCharles Van Enger
Edited byArthur Hilton
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • October 10, 1941 (1941-10-10) (U.S.)
Running time
70-70.5 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States

The title is derived from lines from two earlier films. In Poppy (1936), he tells his daughter, "If we should ever separate, my little plum, I want to give you just one bit of fatherly advice: Never give a sucker an even break!" In You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939), he tells a customer that his grandfather's last words, "just before they sprung the trap" were, "You can't cheat an honest man; never give a sucker an even break, or smarten up a chump."

Fields fought with studio producers, directors, and writers over the content of his films. He was determined to make a movie his way, with his own script and staging, and his choice of supporting players. Universal finally gave him the chance, and the resulting film, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), is a masterpiece of absurd humor in which Fields appeared as himself, "The Great Man".

Fields hand-picked most of the supporting cast. He chose Universal's young singing star Gloria Jean to play his niece, and got two of his favorite comedians, Leon Errol and Franklin Pangborn, to play supporting roles. Margaret Dumont, familiar as the Marx Brothers' matronly foil, was cast as the haughty "Mrs. Hemogloben".


At Hollywood's Esoteric Pictures studios, W. C. Fields, playing himself, is seen admiring a billboard advertising his previous film, The Bank Dick (1940). He encounters various hecklers and minor calamities, including a rude, sassy diner waitress (Jody Gilbert). His devoted niece, Gloria Jean, is on her way to rehearse some songs at the studio, where she demonstrates her classically trained coloratura soprano. Fields himself is also there to pitch a script to Esoteric producer Franklin Pangborn.

Fields and Pangborn read through the script, which comes to life in a series of scenes: Fields and Gloria Jean are flying to an exotic location on an airplane, which Fields specifies has an open-air rear observatory platform. Fields has run-ins with a couple of eccentric characters in which he tangles with a large, angry man in the lower berth and manages to hit him with a mallet and convince him that someone else did it. At one point Gloria Jean asks Uncle Bill why he never married, and he answers, "I was in love with a beautiful blonde once, dear. She drove me to drink. That's the one thing I'm indebted to her for." Fields then jumps out of the plane after his flask falls out the open window, and his niece cries out in horror. But he lands safely in a "nest" high atop a cliff, a home populated by a beautiful, young, naive girl (Susan Miller) and her cynical mother (Margaret Dumont). Meanwhile, the plane lands, and Gloria Jean sings a traditional Russian song to a group of peasants. She reunites with Fields in the village, and they return to the "nest" when Fields learns the older woman is wealthy. Fields is about to marry her when Gloria Jean takes him aside and convinces him that this is a bad idea, and they make a swift exit.

At this point, Pangborn has had enough of the absurdity of the script and tells Fields to leave the studio. Fields goes to an ice cream parlor to drown his sorrows. In a rare aside to the camera, Fields remarks, "This scene is supposed to be in a saloon, but the censor cut it out!"

At the studio, when Gloria Jean learns Fields has been sent away, she tells the flustered Pangborn that if her uncle is fired, then she quits. She and Fields make plans to travel, and she goes into a shop to buy some new clothes. Fields is illegally parked and had also banged into the bumper of a police car. Just then, a middle-aged woman (Kay Deslys) asks for help getting to the Maternity Hospital, where her daughter is about to give birth. Fields volunteers, the woman gets into his car, and Fields speeds through the streets and expressways of Los Angeles, where he tangles with pedestrians, cars, and a hook-and-ladder fire truck. When his passenger passes out, Fields drives even more urgently. He arrives at the hospital, wrecking his car in the process, and his passenger is shaken but unhurt. Gloria Jean, who has just arrived by taxi, asks Uncle Bill if he's all right. He replies, "Lucky I didn't have an accident. I'd have never gotten here." Gloria Jean smiles and says to the audience, "My Uncle Bill... but I still love him!"


Gloria Jean sings the following songs in this film:

  • "Estrellita" ("Little Star") - in Spanish, music and lyrics by M. M. Ponce[1]
  • "Voices of Spring"
  • "Hot Cha Cha"
  • ""Очи чёрные" ("Ochi chyornye" or "Dark Eyes") - in Russian, traditional Russian folk song


Fields' preferred title for the film was "The Great Man", which had also been his original title for The Bank Dick, but this title was once again rejected by Universal.[2][3] When the title was changed, Fields was afraid that "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break" would not fit on theater marquees, and it would be abbreviated to "W. C. Fields - Sucker".[3]

Fields' first version of the script was only 12 pages long, so the studio told him to expand it, which Fields' did, to 96 pages. This was still not enough, so Fields hired screenwriters John T. Neville and Prescott Chaplin to expand it. This version came in at 156 pages. [3] This was the version of the script which was rejected in April 1941 by the Hays Office because it was "filled with vulgar and suggestive scenes and dialogue" and had "innumerable jocular references to drinking and liquor," the producer was referred to as a "pansy", and Fields ogled women's breasts and legs.[1] The censors also objected to "all dialogue and showing of bananas and pineapples" which they felt was "a play upon an obscene story."[3] A revised script was approved two months later.[1] The studio hired a number of writers to continue work on the script, none of them billed, but Fields hated their version, calling it "the worst script I ever read." He was inclined to "throw it in their faces", but director Edward F. Cline told him not to, that they would shoot Fields's own script, and the studio would be none the wiser, which turned out to be the case.[3]


Fields was paid $125,000 for his performance, and $25,000 for his original story. The film Fields delivered was so surreal that Universal recut and reshot parts of it, changed the title from The Great Man back to Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, and quietly released both the film and Fields. Universal had already scheduled the film as one of its major features of the year, to be released during the holiday season of 1941, but the studio heads considered the film so hopeless that they grouped it with some B pictures and distributed it in October. [4] The outrageously zany film played to mixed reviews but is today considered one of Fields's classics. It has been called "a thinly disguised attack on the Hollywood studio system."[3]

Upon release, columnist Ted Strauss in The New York Times said, "We are not yet quite sure that this latest opus is even a movie no such harum-scarum collection of song, slapstick and thumbnail sketches has defied dramatic law in recent history. We are more certain that at its worst the film is extravagantly bad, no less that William Claude is wonderful," further stating, "Yes, some parts of the film you will find incomprehensibly silly. Probably you also will laugh your head off."[5]

This was Fields's last starring film. By then he was 61 years old, and alcohol and illness had taken their toll: he was much heavier than he had been six or seven years earlier, when he was reasonably fit and had made eight films in the space of two years. Fields's health was in decline due to a lifetime of heavy drinking, and he often had to recuperate in his dressing room between takes.[2] Fields was already planning his next film for Universal, with Gloria Jean and Anne Nagel from the cast of Sucker rejoining him,[4] but after the lukewarm performance of Sucker the studio dropped him. Universal had Abbott and Costello under contract and no longer needed Fields, who was unpopular at the studio.[6]




Cast notes:


  1. Never Give a Sucker an Even Break at the American Film Institute Catalog
  2. Mankiewicz, Ben {January 3, 2018) Intro to Turner Classic Movies presentation of the film
  3. Stafford, Jeff (ndg) "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)"
  4. Scott MacGillivray and Jan MacGillivray, Gloria Jean: A Little Bit of Heaven, iUniverse, Bloomington, IN, 2005
  5. Staff (October 27, 1941) "W.C. Fields Opens Here in 'Never Give a Sucker an Even Break' -- New Soviet Film Seen" The New York Times
  6. Mankiewicz, Ben {January 3, 2018) Outro to Turner Classic Movies presentation of the film
  7. Deschner, Donald (1966). The Films of W. C. Fields. New York: Cadillac Publishing by arrangement with The Citadel Press. p. 154. Introduction by Arthur Knight
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