Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Death's Lost Stinger - NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK

"last time it was pink elephants..."
What makes booze, the scourge of human civilization--Homer's "cause of, and cure for, all life's problems"--so irresistibly funny even when unrepentantly horrible? Find out by examining the last film of W.C. Fields', the ground-patchingly surreal, meta-bizarro masterpiece Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941). As Fields says in Poppy, "Without purple bark sarsaparilla this mundane sphere of ours would be barren, bleak, and dank." And yet who made it so, Bill? Drunks, 'at's who

"Oh, Uncle Bill... but I still love him."
When I was getting sober I vowed never to lose my affinity for Fields and never to judge those who could still get plastered. Fields too tried sobriety, especially during a drying out period in the late 30s that saw the end of his Paramount days and the beginning of his Universal period. The new studio gave him free reign, he needed to tangle only with the censor, and thanks to appearances on the Charlie McCarthy Show where he traded wood alcohol-based jokes with Charlie ("go away or I'll sic a beaver onto ya") until his boozing had become a cornerstone of his schtick, which made it all the easier to cloak a relapse. Hard drinking only figured in a handful of his earlier Paramount films. He barely got to drink at all in fan favorite It's a Gift. Some flask sneaking around a fire, another swig or three during the big final deal. Drank nothing at all in The Old Fashioned Way or Poppy (in both of which he wore a ridiculous, Ziegfeld-style clown costume), nothing in Tillie and Gus, and only had a few evening apple jack nightcaps in Man on the Flying Trapeze. Just being mean to children, slickering rubes and never paying his boarding house tabs was enough to be a rogue in those days, apparently. But starting with Universal's You Can't Cheat an Honest Man Fields had full script control, the kid gloves were off and the madness begun, and it warsth chasherlesh.

Over the years I've grown comfortable with the idea of never being able to drink again (it's been 15 misera--I mean beautiful years). The sorrows of life are the joys of art, in the words of immortal drinker Ben Hecht. If you're an artist or writer then you know there is no better sorrow than strong spirits, the beautiful, wild demoness of drink. My body was just too weak in the end to keep up with her demands. I had to let her go. I still see her, sometimes, in liquor store windows, and if the song in my iPod is sad enough, (last time it was Sarah McLachlan), I stop and trace the outline of her bottle against my heart. I will remember you / will you remember me?

Fields, slowly dying of alcoholism by the time of NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941), could never shake her from his system the way I did (knock on wood). He tried. But trying isn't comedy and the eternal thirst becomes funny even at its most tragic level, the ultimate in heartbreak, through Fields' blearily-focused lens. I've used the metaphor for a life spent focused on one's marriage, work, responsibility, chores, mortgages, sobriety as climbing up a rocky, snowy mountain--too focused and tired to wonder if you're happy--and then, when you're 3/4 of the way up the snowy mountain suddenly a beautiful young free spirit, the type you were dreaming of all through your teenage years and early twenties but never met--comes sledding past, racing down the slope in the direction you just came, shouting "jump on!" You have only a split second to decide, if you had more you might have chickened out. But maybe you've had enough bickering and enduring backseat screaming matches and even though a part of you has vowed to never cheat or jeopardize your home, you just jump onto the back of her toboggan, clamp your hands around her waist and hold on.

Down you plunge! You hear your wife's angry cries fading into the background winds, replaced your wild--if strained--laughter. She's such a reckless driver, this girl, and there are so many rocks and trees around, you might easily end up with a broken neck.

Then you get to the bottom of the mountain. You wipe out and when you finally stand up, you find her boyfriend is waiting to punch you in the nose. The girl laughs, grabs her toboggan and takes the next chairlift, boyfriend at her side, while you lie there, your blood spilling all over the snow.

What do you shout to yourself, if you're me or Fields? Again! Set 'em up again.


Again... no quarter given to thy foe, thyself, that barren, bleak dank sarsaparilla -less sphere, that mountain of barren rock you were scaling called marriage, family, work, gutter and lawn maintenance. Fields' love for booze reflects a very clear need to escape all this 'obligation,' to vamoose, to disappear into the mist, down the mountain on booze's reckless sled, and thus to let the vicious roundelay of sleeping, waking, eating, shitting, working, dying, recede like the fading cries of "Harrrr--Rold!" from an outraged shrew wife.  Even if the disappearance is only temporary, just time eased from its wearying consistency for half a tick, it's worth any price, any toll on health, wealth, or sanity. As Eliot wrote "the awful daring of a moment's surrender / for this and this alone have we existed."

Civilization has, in it's way, never been able to shake this wild demoness. Prohibition just drove the price up, and heightened the camaraderie, the shared joke, with the speakeasy passwords. Part of the charm of setting a film like International House in China was the lack of prohibition; Americans came out there to get away from the madness of sanity. Once prohibition was repealed, things went back to normal, like it does today a few months after you turn 21 and the thrill of unlimited access without need of a fake license wears off. So being sober means understanding the reality of booze, which is that it never measures up to the warm glow anticipation. The buzz is like music, ephemeral, but in trying to maintain that buzz through continued consumption one invites the fallout of hangover, sloppiness, missed deadlines, illness, depression, anxiety, amnesia, and... eventually... the 'missed launch' wherein you're so drunk you can't stand up and yet remain horribly sober, miserably conscious of how un-enraptured you are,  no matter how drunk you get. (For a great description of this horror, read the last chunk of Kerouac's Big Sur).

To down in a vat of whiskey... death where is thy sting?
Now there are people who aren't alcoholics, so they don't know the true joy of the terror of addiction, the horror of convulsions and D.T.s or the giddy ecstasy of waking up feeling like death, pouring a 50/50 gin and grapefruit juice highball, pounding it down in a single gulp, pouring another one, and sitting down to watch your favorite bender movie, SPECIES or APOCALYPSE NOW, and realizing it's only six AM on a Sunday, not six PM, like you feared when you first opened your eye. You have the whole day, hours left to try and taper off! The agony and ache of your morning hangover vanishes and is replaced by ecstasy in a matter of minutes.

Next thing it's six AM on a Monday, and you're thinking of reasons you can't come into work, putting that scratch in your voice for when you call your boss.  Godfrey Daniel!

The best way I've learned to explain it is on a scale to measure one's mood / feeling of well being / joy and contentment. Let's say a 1-10 scale: ten = ecstasy; one = being grimly depressed/ suicidal; five = the average mood of the average human on an average day.

So the average person stays in the middle, bouncing around between 4-6
Getting drunk brings them to a 7-8, then back down to a 4 for the next morning, then up to 5 again.

But alcoholics like W.C. Fields and me have an average of 2-3. And when we drink we catapult to a perfect 10, hit the bell and go sailing downwards, arriving at 1-2, one way or the other, eventually.

If we keep a steady buzz throughout the day, we can manage an extended wobble between 7-9, but the longer we keep that up the more harrowing, miserable, and lengthy our stay down at 1-2, over that toilet, beholding our skull reflection in the water, too sick to choke down the booze needed to stop being too sick to drink.

My friends, when that happens, take a break from your six hour stint hyperventilating over the toilet and lean back on the cold tiles and think, "Erich and Fields were here!" And bask in the comfort that there's literally nowhere else to go but up -- or down to zero. And zero means you're off the scale - unconscious, dead, or having a massive orgasm --neither way, salut!


Fields made it to zero, as we all must, and hasn't worked a day since, but everyone of us still bouncing up this scale and back down longs to escape it, not just to return to the dubious joy of sobriety or alcohol but to transcend the scale altogether, to die, to be really drowned in a vat of whiskey.... that must be... glorious. But since it's too hard to kill yourself, or become a vampire, drink's a fine second, a temporary respite from the abyss of addiction, which it itself engenders (to paraphrase Nicholas St. John).

"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," says Fields. It's one of Sucker's more indelible lines, and probably true and it's packed with Lacanian paradox: in ruining his life, this blonde set him free. She was coming by on that sled. She brought him down to the 1 or the 2, allowing for more velocity on the bounce back up to 10 again. And that's what we alcoholics really love, the velocity. To push up from the bottom, to shoot from a 1 to a 10 is way more awesome than going from 5-9. In fact you don't even really make 10 unless you get a good velocity going. To savor the rush of the climb you need the bungee-style chance to press your face against the mortal coil Boiinnng, even sneer at it as it almost grabs you in its skeletal claws, and then suddenly you're bouncing back up again, the skeletal hands close below you, the skull grumbles in defeat, and all one's minor problems--debt, bad marriages, legal troubles, unemployment, bad reviews--recede-- DING! A winna!



In that moment, just being alive and relatively uninjured is the cherry on a grand cake; all real life problems are as minor little mosquito bites on a man running for his life from wild boars.

I loved Never Give a Sucker an Even Break even before I had my first drink. It aired at four AM on a local TV station one early Saturday morning in 1983, when I was 16, the morning before I had to go to my very first-ever day of work. I was tired, of course, having gotten up so early on a Saturday (our VCR timer was unreliable, so I'd get up early and sneak downstairs while my parents still slept, to edit out commercials and musical numbers, purist that I was). All that day I had to operate a creaky, noxious-fume spewing (pre-Xerox) copier... nonstop for six hours, my chain-smoking boss lady stapling next to me, leaping down my throat at the first pause in the clanking of that old machine. I was way too shy to ever ask for my breaks, presuming she would just tell me to go on them at the appropriate time. She didn't. Just kept stapling and smoking and I got hungrier, dizzier, and wearier, though the coffee was always free.

But Fields had prepared me for just such a baptism of misery. All through the day his magic song echoed through my mind...

Chickens have pretty legs in Kans-assss.

I started smoking that very day.

When you're falling, dive.


Thinking about the cozy airplane in SUCKER and Fields' comforting song through that noxious Sunday afternoon created a soft warm feeling that resisted the crushing dehumanization of the copier. It was my happy place, that open air rear observation compartment. Looking back, that whole sequence and its frame-within-a framework meta groundedness couches that airplane in layers of comforting safety. Let's examine the layers:

"couldn't stand the noise..."
 LEVEL ONE: 
The Magic Drunk (oblivion) - altitude of cozy ecstasy

It's no coincidence that my two favorite films of Fields involve copious drinking and air travel of a uniquely Fieldsian character: the autogyro (in International House) and a giant airliner with an open air rear observation compartment and berths like a sleeper car in Sucker. For being 'up in the air' offers its own unique freedom - high in the clouds, free of all responsibility (the same with being deep deep down, as in a secret underground lair- another happy place of mine). One is essentially in heaven, that '10' bell I spoke of, Eden, free to drink into oblivion while surrounded by clouds which "look just as fleecy as... clouds" and being waited on by beautiful adoring women, a kind of second infancy.

Chickens have pretty legs in Kansas.... (2x)

Chickens lay eggs
big as nutmegs

Oh chickens they lay eggs in Kansas

Fields sings this awesome song while still in his berth after being woken by the stewardess, a vision of wartime loveliness if ever there was one. We see his niece, Gloria Jean, and a random blonde in earshot in another berth, smiling wistfully at his song, as though he's Frank Sinatra, with the rush of the airplane in the background it becomes a scene of prenatal bliss, a mirror to the earlier scene of Gloria Jean's gypsy folk song with reaction shots of adoring lambs and donkeys.

 LEVEL 2: 
The Plummet (after a bottle of golden nectar)

This thirst for freedom, the ferocity of chasing your dreams, even if the dream is destruction, even if it pulls you from the forward movement of time into a vertical plunge, this is the definition of America being pulled out of its isolationist stance into the war in Europe. Here, Fields jumps out the window and is taking a chance, that's the point, as he tells Og Oggilby in his previous film, The Bank Dick (1940): "My uncle, a balloon ascensionist, Effingham Hoofnagle, took a chance. He was three miles and a half up in the air. He jumped out of the basket of the balloon and took a chance of landing on a load of hay."

"Golly! Did he make it?" Oggilby asks.

"Ah, no... no he didn't, Og. Had he been a younger man he probably would have made it. That's the point. Don't wait too long in life."

 LEVEL THREE: 
The Aerie - The Buzzard's Nest

The nest is the ideal halfway point between the uninhibited surrealism of International House and the average family man yarns of Fields' earlier Paramount days - Margaret Dumont is much cooler and more fun as a foil than either Jan Duggan (whose nonetheless pretty great) and Kathleen Howard, whose one-note shrillness can turn off potential fans of Man on the Flying Trapeze and It's a Gift. Dumont connects it to the Marx Brothers and has her own weird sense of gravitas. As Molly Haskell says "the poise and unruffled splendor with which (Dumont) graces (the Marx) films is ample testimony to her place in their hearts and in film history." (67) After Ouilatta looks over his shoulder smiling innocently, "why, mother!" Fields beholds a giant, fanged Great Dane, implying that her mother is in fact the dog --like in The Omen!! "Romulus and Remus!" 


The normal act of the 'old reprobate' is to make moves on the young daughter while making a feint at wooing her mother (The Graduate in reverse) and here in this surreal 'nest' there's nowhere else to go on the mesa but down so it's not like mom goes to the salon or church all that often. There's no time to be free of Mrs. Hemoglobin and her fanged great dane. The mesa top is small and we can see the whole thing in detail (above), the round bed on which Ouilatta Hemoglobin (Susan Miller) reclines, looking up in calm astonishment. But just as there's no man around, there's no escape from her mother, "a buzzard if ever there was one," as he later explains to visiting engineers Charles Lang and Emmett Vogan (below). So down again he plunges.

On a subtextual level, the daughter and mother (and dog) are inescapably joined. Just as Sue Lyon in Lolita inevitably turns into Shelly Winters (see Lyon in Winters) there's no freezing Ouilatta in time. She will become a great dane-Hemoglobin hybrid. His best bet is celibacy, to avoid the Humbert Humbert trap and stay in the 'good uncle' role with Gloria Jean. It's his one redeeming trait.

LEVEL FOUR:
The Russian Village 

Director Cline and Fields incorporate one of Gloria Jean's Russian peasant songs via a miraculous scene in the Russian village bar. Fields is told that the buzzard who lives on the mountain top is rich, causing him to immediately have a moment of clarity about his undying love for her. As the music swells slow and mysterieux in the background, he notes, eyes a-twinkle, "she seems to have a good heart, too... in fact she seems like an awfully nice woman to me.... now that I come to think of it." The romantic music of the gypsy chorale underwrites his change of approach, and next we see Gloria Jean joining in the peasant song as her wagon rides up to the gypsy camp ("How do I get to the Russian village?" - as if there's only one, like going to someone in New York and saying how to I get to the American town?). Gypsies walk alongside her wagon, keeping up the unearthly but achingly gorgeous vibe of their song, Gloria Jean now wailing over the top in long sustained filling-rattling notes like a theremin, or a Duke Ellington lead cornet.


LEVEL FIVE:
Esoteric Studios - Mr. Pangborn's Office (Reality)

It's always a bit of a wrankler when Pangborn slams the script down because we never get to learn what happens next (after Fields and Gloria Jean go  up to the aerie and she kaboshes the idea of marriage - "but she'll be with us!" indicating Ms. Hemoglobin; it continues the fantasy result of Fields self-induced chastity, as he doesn't need to be possessive of Gloria Jean, as she is of him, wanting it to be just the two of them, forever, singing to and hiding drinks from, one another. Even her mother, a stunt double, seems just an extra in their lives. So Pangborn's slapping down of the script is an affront to her as well as him (she kicks him in the shin after he disparages Fields in her presence). 

Certainly the binding clauses of Hollywood and censorship seem to plague Fields in this earthly realm, to the point he's expected to hide his drinking from the camera as well as the neice: "This scene was supposed to be in a saloon but the censor cut it out" he says while popping into an ice cream shop for a drink. It is allegedly true, but the only real gag in the whole thing is basically just Fields trying to get a scoop of ice cream into his mouth while his straw keeps wilting at the last possible second and the ice cream vendor guy tries to swat a fly. "It's killers like you that give the west a bad name." One wonders what the original gag was like. Was Fields playing with an olive, or trying to get a drink to his lips but his hands were shaking so bad he kept spilling the shot? Man, that would have been hilarious. I've had to lower my lips down around a Martini glass, sipping off the top until my shakes wore off, but oh what a glorious feeling when they did (that rocket up to 10).  


Part of the earthly realm is Carlotta Monti (above) as Pangborn's receptionist (and Fields' real-life long time paramour --author of WC Fields and Me) who's speaking to presumably her boyfriend on the telephone when she says "You big hotty-doddy... you smoke vile cigars all day and drink whiskey half the night," which Fields presumes is about him--and metatextually really is (since he is her boyfriend, more or less). We know he does do the things she surely griped about in real life. Typical then, that Fields would include copious post-modern witticism understood perhaps only by himself and people who know him, something I try to do in this blog! She's semi-cute with little Norma Shearer arms, but it's sad that she wound up an eternal mistress helper to the man and all she got was this part, which only enabled her to complain through the wire-bars of a metatextual prism. I've not read her book or seen the movie with Rod Steiger as Fields as I'm afraid of losing even a gram of my love for the man. As you know from my 'first day ever of work' story, I need him.

And I still love him.


CODA:
HIS LITTLE NIECE, GLORIA JEAN 

In the end, despite being all about the pursuit and abandonment of illusion, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break remains extraordinarily clear-eyed about the moment-by-moment inevitability of mortality. There's no delusion of a happy ending, except that Fields and his niece are going down south for awhile (maybe to Brazil like Orson Welles, on a 'good will' tour). The whole film occurs basically over a day at the studio, from the mom and niece separating for the day's work and talking about Uncle Bill. "Your uncle Bill is too good," the mom says and ending in a car wreck in front of the emergency room, dropping off a woman he's mistakenly assumed is pregnant.


Of course Bill's had cute girl daughters and charges before: Poppy, Sally of the Sawdust, It's a Gift, You're Telling Me,  Man on the Flying Trapeze and You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, a less loyal one in The Bank Dick. But this is the first time they haven't been of marriageable age. Mostly (Una Merkel in Bank Dick aside) they've always been 'good' to him, whereas very young girls and boys, such as Buddy and Butch, Gloria Jean's stand-up bass and accordion accompanists, are little shits.


But she's also there to add something no comedy could escape in the 40s: songs. What idiot decided comedy needed long musical breaks? Whomever he was, Fields thought he was an idiot too. That said, Cline and Fields refuse to just waste comedic or metatextual opportunities during the numbers. One of the songs, presented as a lengthy rehearsal on a busy under-construction set, is targeted by everyone but Pangborn for being insufferably bourgeois, even within the film itself, as all concerned groan about the corniness of the lengthy, tediousness of the song. Hollywood's desire for respectability is here in full flower, what Shaw calls the Englishman's "mistaking virtue for being merely uncomfortable," going to see classical music concerts because they like the idea of themselves liking classical music. That kind of stuffed shirt petit-bourgeois squareness was usually the purview of MGM but Universal wanted to at least go through the motions. Nuts to that. Fields and Cline are way too hip for any such airs, reflected in shots of Gloria Jean's, the pianist's, and Buddy and Butch's boredom, and their revenge via spat out cherry pits in Pangborn's general direction as he conducts, after squashing the boogie woogie song "Uncle Bill wanted me to sing." In other words, Fields may not be able to get the songs he wants for Gloria Jean, or be allowed to go singer-less, but he can damn sure express his contempt for Universal's bourgeois aspirations. And he invites all concerned in on the conspiracy against the Pangborn effigy, even the singer herself joins against the song.


But there's some genuine human affection there, too: Fields may resent her studio-enforced presence but nonetheless loves Gloria Jean anyway, or certainly doesn't hold her accountable, and loves Carlotta Monti, and even, still, the beautiful blonde who drove him to drink, and doesn't even bear ill will to them or even to Pangborn's uptight head of Esoteric Pictures. In fact, he hasn't an enemy in the world (in his eyes at least) and at least none that cause him undue concern no matter how hostile, ugly, annoying, and sickeningly faux-homespun they are ("there's something awfully big about you, too"). Life's too short.

But he's still going down fast, like a plummeting anchor, to that final and eternal level, to the base of the mountain with the waiting boyfriend's fist, the kitten stocking, where 10 and 1 are just as fleecy as... clouds, where there is no longer a difference between sky, buzzard nest, mountain, village, movie, reality, all roils down to the noxious huff of copier fumes and menthol Virginia Slims as a 16 year-old kid begins his first day of work, dreaming of some future vat of whiskey drowning, a paycheck oblivion depth bomb fit for a king, a scoundrel, or a punk poseur muddling through a Sunday at H&R Block in Somerville, NJ, 1983. The sorrows of life are the joys of art, and the misery of work fuels the giddy roadster of happy hour inebriation. Alcohol almost killed me a dozen times over...

But I still love him.

3 comments:

  1. As a Fields Fan, if I could own only 1 movie, it would be "The Bank Dick", and a former Drunkard, I love this ... "Is this Kansas City, Missouri or Kansas City, Kansas?" or ah, vice versa.

    ReplyDelete
  2. that quote's from International House. Though having recently re-seen all the Universal Fields, I agree Bank Dick might have more 'legs' than most - especially since it's sans songs.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This was quite a wonderful essay.

    ReplyDelete

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