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DVD Reviews for 3/23: A Column Fit For Man And Beast!

by Peter Sobczynski

This column, chock-full of comic geniuses, low-budget monsters and corpses a-plenty, is respectfully dedicated to the memory of the late Calvert DeForest, the man who appeared on David Letterman's various television shows over the years and who taught an entire generation about the laughs that could be earned with nothing more than a misplaced microphone, a hot towel or Toast On A Stick.

It is almost always a dangerous thing to pronounce any comedy as one of the funniest films ever made–one man’s sublime silliness is another’s sheer stupidity–and even such seemingly unassailable classics as “Duck Soup,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Young Frankenstein” and “Airplane!” no doubt have their detractors. However, I am going to go out on a limb here and pronounce the 1941 W.C. Fields vehicle “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break” as one of the most hilarious things even captured on celluloid and I would even go so far as to engage in fisticuffs with anyone who might dare to suggest otherwise. I say this not because I have a desire to engage in roughhousing but because I know in my heart that what I say is the truth and now that it is finally making its DVD debut, a new generation of viewers will be able to discover it for themselves.

Fields was, of course, the legendary comedian who parlayed his basic persona–that of a cantankerous (though occasionally hen-pecked) grump who loved the sight of a pretty face or a thick rube with a thicker wallet and hated sobriety, children, animals and virtually ever other conventional social more–into a long-running career as an enormously popular performer, first in vaudeville and later in film. His feature films, many of which he wrote himself under a series of pseudonyms that Dickens himself would have killed to have come up with, were little more than a series of vaudeville sketches linked together by plot threads so tenuous that they bordered on the surreal. This frustrated the studios to no end but as long as his films made money, they were willing to look the other way but when the much-hyped “My Little Chickadee,” in which he teamed up with Mae West, proved to be both a critical and commercial disappointment, they began to crack down on him to a degree. “Never Give A Sucker an Even Break” would prove to be the last feature film in which Fields maintained a large degree of control and he must have suspected that this was the case at the time because in it, he would push the weirdness to new extremes and the result is so wild and wooly to behold that even today, one watches it in wonder that he was able to get away with it at all.

In the film, Fields plays himself and after a joke at the expense of the previous year’s “The Bank Dick” and an encounter with an exceptionally surly waitress (“Listen, honey. I was only trying to guess your weight. You take things too seriously”), he arrives at the gates of Esoteric Studios to pitch a project to producer Franklin Pangborn that will include him and his niece, played by young starlet Gloria Jean. In this story, Fields and Gloria are flying in an airplane when he jumps off the plane’s observation deck (?) in pursuit of a bottle that has fallen over the side. He lands on an isolated mountaintop that is the home of Daisy Hemoglobin (Margaret Dumont) and her daughter Ouliotta (Susan Miller). When Fields learns that Ouliotta has never before seen a man, he volunteers to teach her a kissing game, he offers to teach her a kissing game but when he discovers that her mother is insanely rich, he decides to go for her instead and finds himself competing with rival Leon Errol. Eventually, Pangborn has heard enough (“This script is an insult to a man’s intelligence. Even mine!”) and throws him off of the lot. For a climax, Fields encounters a woman on the street that he assumes is about to give birth and embarks on a high-speed chase to get her to the maternity hospital on time. Yes, this climax may sound like an odd tangent for the finale but it is such a screwy idea that it winds up feeling like an inspired choice after all.

Like most Fields films, it is probably not a good idea to try to analyze the finished product too heavily–the person who tries to dissect something as cheerfully demented as “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break” runs the risk of descending into utter madness. Instead, I will simply point out that simply in terms of jokes, this is by far the most overstuffed of all his works and virtually all of them are still hilarious today. There are one-liners (“Drown in a vat of whisky–death, where is thy sting?”) and extended set-pieces (the diner sequence with the cranky waitress is a little masterpiece of comic frustration). There are broad bits of goofiness (“Beanbag, very good. Becomes very exciting at times. I saw the championship played in Paris; many people were killed”) and sly in-jokes. (At one point, he wanders into a ice-cream parlor, orders a soda and turns to the camera to inform us that the scene was originally supposed to take place in a saloon, but the censors wouldn’t allow it–which was actually true.) Of course, Fields is hilarious–how can anyone resist a man whose idea of a curse is “Suffering sciatica!” and whose idea of a breakfast order is “How’d you like to hide the egg and gurgitate a few saucers of mocha java?”–but the supporting players also get a chance to shine here as well. Pangborn had a memorable bit as the prissy bank examiner in “The Bank Dick” and his scenes as the stuffy studio head pleading with Fields to be reasonable are equally amusing. Gloria Jean may have only been inserted into the film as a form of box-office insurance but she is more than just a pretty face with a nice singing voice–her audition for Pangborn is pretty amusing in its own right. And while it has been a popular assumption over the years that Margaret Dumont was a fairly humorless person who was funny only because of the way she tried to maintain a sense of dignity amidst the chaos, thanks to her performances in several Marx Brothers films, her work here as Mrs Hemoglobin offers up irrefutable proof that she could be pretty funny in her own right.

Long unavailable on home video, “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break” is being released as one of five titles in the Universal Home Video set “The W.C. Fields Collection: Volume 2" and while it is unquestionably the highlight of the set, the other titles are nothing to sneeze at either. “You’re Telling Me!” (1934) finds him playing an inventor trying to push his latest creation–bullet-proof tires–with disastrous results. “The Old-Fashioned Way” (1934) has him playing The Great McGonigle, a two-bit theatrical impresario trying to put on a production of “The Drunkard,” stay one step ahead of the law and marry off his daughter. “The Man On the Flying Trapeze” (1935) is a brilliant shaggy-dog story in which he plays a brow-beaten man whose efforts to skip out on work for the first time in 25 years to attend a wrestling match results in his boss mistakenly believing that he has passed away. “Poppy” (1936), based on Fields’s long-running stage hit, sees him playing a carnival huckster who tries to pose his sweet-natured daughter as the long-lost heir to a fortune. As for extras, Universal has thrown in trailers for all five films and a vintage 1965 television retrospective special that was produced when Fields’s films were revived for a new generation that had just begun to rediscover him. A few more extras might have been nice but it is hard to complain too loudly since this collection is, in terms of the sheer number of laughs on hand, probably going to wind up as one of the biggest comedy DVD bargains of the year.

THE W.C. FIELDS COMEDY COLLECTION: VOLUME 2: A Universal Home Video release. $59.98.


BLOOD DIAMOND (Warner Home Video. $29.98): Although well-made, well-acted and certainly well-intentioned, Edward Zwick’s drama about the conflict diamond industry in Sierra Leone is little more than a modern-day Stanley Kramer film in the way that it invokes a hot-button topic without ever really dealing with it in any significant way. For those who felt differently (and the film did pick up five Oscar nominations, including nods for co-stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou), this two-disc set includes a commentary by Zwick and numerous featurettes highlighting both the making of the film and the real-life dramas that inspired it.

THE BRIDESMAID (First Run Features. $29.95): Still going strong at an age where most filmmakers hang up their hats and hit the lifetime achievement award circuit, French director Claude Chabrol is still going strong and cranking out one impressive movie after another. In this 2004 effort, a young man (Benoit Magimel) meets a sexy young woman (Laura Smet) at his sister’s wedding and becomes instantly besotted–only later does he discover that she is an emotional time bomb that is just about to go off.

THE COMEDY CENTRAL ROAST OF WILLIAM SHATNER (Paramount Home Video. $19.99): Sure, we’ve all made fun of William Shatner from time to time–and he has provided us with plenty of ammunition over the years with the overacting, the hairpiece, the music career and “Star Trek V”–but who among us would have the nerve to do it while standing in the same room as the man himself. Luckily, Comedy Central was able to find a group of hardy souls–including Sarah Silverman, Jimmy Kimmel, Jason Alexander, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Andy Dick and Clint Howard–willing to skewer T.J. Hooker to his face in the most filthy-mouthed manner possible.

COME EARLY MORNING (The Weinstein Company. $19.98): Because it was barely released in theaters last fall, there is an excellent chance that you missed Joey Lauren Adams’s filmmaking debut about a young woman trying to break her cycle of too many drunken one-night stands by coming to terms with herself and her life. Now that it is on DVD, you should make an effort to check it out because Adams’s screenplay and direction are surprisingly self-assured and the lead performance from Ashley Judd is the single best thing that she has done since “A Normal Life.” (Fans of Judd may find echoes of her breakthrough film, “Ruby in Paradise,” in this one–watching the two of them back-to-back could make for an interesting double-feature.)

ERAGON (Fox Home Entertainment. $34.98): When this big-budget children’s fantasy was released in theaters last December, Fox chose not to invite me to any of the limited press screenings that they had set up (although they did have the stones to ask me if still I wanted to interview hunky young star Edward Speelers) and since I tend to be constitutionally averse to sitting through elaborate fantasies involving talking dragons (even if the voice is supplied by Rachel Weisz in an apparent effort to make the beast seem hotter than usual) and the presence of both Jeremy Irons and John Malkovich in the same cast, I never bothered to catch up with it. In other words, you are on your own with this one.

EVERYONE’S HERO (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): And yet, Fox had no problem with inviting me to this abysmal animated film (co-directed by Christopher Reeve) in which the evil owner of the Chicago Cubs (an uncredited Robin Williams) kidnaps the prized bat belong to family man/all-around saint Babe Ruth and a little boy sets off to return it and winds up single-handedly winning the World Series for the Yankees. Think it can’t get any worse? Well, consider the fact that the bat in question not only talks, it has been given the voice of Whoopi Goldberg.

GOING TO PIECES: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SLASHER FILM (Velocity/ThinkFilm. $24.98): As the title suggests, this is a documentary charting the various ups-and-downs of the mad slasher genre from the early days of “Psycho” to such current favorites as “Saw” and “Scream” with interviews and plenty of icky film clips.

INTIMATE MOMENTS (Televista. $24.95): I have never seen this bit of early-80's sexploitation following the adventures of several employees of an international ring of call girls. However, I seem to recall reading one review from expert in such matters–the legendary drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs–that made it sound ever so intriguing, if you know what I mean.

MASTERS OF HORROR: PRO-LIFE (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $14.98): In John Carpenter’s second contribution to the Showtime horror series, a rabid pro-life fanatic (Ron Perlman) who breaks into an abortion clinic to prevent his 15-year-old daughter, the victim of rape, from having the procedure, only to discover that her child may literally be the spawn of Satan. Although not as good as his previous “MOH” effort, “Cigarette Burns,” this is still a pretty good installment that offers up another Carpenter cocktail of horror, humor and political commentary.

MAUDE–THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Sony Home Entertainment. $29.95): Although this long-running sitcom from Norman Lear–a spin-off of “All in the Family” that became a star-making vehicle for Bea Arthur–first aired over 35 years ago, it doesn’t feel as dated as most other shows from that era because most of the hot-button topics featured on the show (including discussions of sex, drugs, politics and abortion) are still amazingly relevant today.

MIAMI VICE: THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON/THE COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON (Universal Home Entertainment. $59.98 each): By this point in the run of this once-innovative TV series, the show had pretty much devolved into a routine cops-and-robbers extravaganza that merely looked and sounded better than the rest. However, those of you who enjoy spotting future stars in early roles should have fun with these two collections–Season 3 offers up the likes of Liam Neeson, John Leguizamo, Viggo Mortensen, Annette Bening, Steve Buscemi and Helena Bonham Carter while Season 4 features turns from Stanley Tucci, James Brown, Sheena Easton (as the short-live Bride of Crockett) and Julia Roberts.

THE MICHAEL SHAYNE, PRIVATE DETECTIVE COLLECTION (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): Made by Fox at roughly the same time as the Charlie Chan and Mr Moto mysteries, this series featured Lloyd Nolan as the two-fisted detective of pulp-fiction fame. The four titles collected here are 1941's “Michael Shayne: Private Detective” and “Sleepers West” and 1942's “Blue, White and Perfect” and “The Man That Wouldn’t Die.”

THE MILPITAS MONSTER (Televista. $14.95): In the grand tradition of the micro-budget classic “Equinox,” this 1975 monster movie was produced by the town of Milpitas, California as a sort of group community effort. Of course, the resulting film–some nonsense about a creature born of garbage and pollution that threatens the town that would later become famous as the setting for the cult classic “River’s Edge”–is filled with shoddy performances and shoddier special effects but those willing to overlook those flaws are likely to be somewhat charmed by the sheer enthusiasm on display.

THE NAKED CITY (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): There are, of course, eight million stories in the Naked City and Criterion presents this one–the acclaimed 1948 Jules Dassin police procedural in which veteran cop Barry Fitzgerald prowls the streets of New York while investigating the mysterious death of a model–with a commentary from screenwriter Marvin Wald, footage of a 2003 public appearance by Dassin (who relocated to Europe during the blacklist in the 1950's) and a look at the authentic city locations that gave the film its documentary-like feel.

THE NATIVITY STORY (New Line Home Entertainment. $28.98): Although the presence of star Keisha Castle-Hughes (as the Virgin Mary) and director Catherine Hardwicke might have suggested that this would be a radical new take on the story of the birth of Jesus, this was a disappointingly familiar take on the material that winds up playing like the most expensive Sunday-school pageant ever produced. There are no extras to be found here, which leads me to suspect that this title might wind up being resurrected in a more lavish edition just in time for the holidays.

NEWSRADIO: THE COMPLETE FIFTH SEASON (Sony Home Entertainment. $39.95): When the fifth (and final) season of this acclaimed workplace comedy–arguably the funniest sitcom of the 1990's–began airing in the fall of 1998, the shock over the murder of invaluable co-star Phil Hartman was so fresh that even long-time fans of the show found it difficult to imagine it without him. With the passage of time, it is possible to judge these episodes on their own merits and while this was by far the weakest season–although Jon Lovitz had been hysterically funny in a couple of one-shot appearances, his peculiar comic style never quite jelled with the rest of the ensemble when he was brought in as a replacement for Hartman–it still had more than its share of excellent episodes (my favorites being the one where klutzy Matthew (Andy Dick) suddenly became a super-genius after consuming a “smart drink” and an inspired “Freaky Friday” homage) and even its lesser episodes provided more laughs than virtually anything currently on the air.

PLAYBOY–THE ANNA NICOLE SMITH COLLECTION (Playboy Home Video. $29.99): Now you too can feel like Zsa Zsa Gabor’s creepy husband for a night with this 3-disc set collecting previously-released videos of the late tabloid queen. At least Playboy did the classy thing by waiting a full six weeks before raiding the library to exploit her passing–I like to think that she would have wanted it that way.

RE-ANIMATOR (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $24.95): Speaking of vaguely terrifying corpses that are making return appearances via DVD, we have yet another edition of the 1985 Stuart Gordon splatterfest that brings back most of the extras seen in its previous releases and throws in both a 70-minute documentary and a neon-green highlighter pen designed to look like one of the hypodermics featured in the film. If you already own the film, you will have to decide for yourself whether it is worth the upgrade or not but if you haven’t yet purchased it, the film is a must–a giddy and gory sick joke of a film with plenty of sex and violence and plenty of genuine wit as will (including one of the most delightfully perverted visual puns ever seen in a film).

ROCKY BALBOA (MGM Home Entertainment. $28.95): Defying even the most optimistic expectations, Sylvester Stallone took what sounded like the most desperately sad idea for a movie in years–another “Rocky” sequel that would see him once again strapping on his boxing gloves to battle an opponent more than half his age–and transformed it into the best film in the series since the 1976 original by replicating that film’s low-key charm instead of going for the bombast of the later installments. On the extras side, Stallone offers up a commentary, deleted scenes, an alternate ending (?) and some painful-looking boxing bloopers.

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originally posted: 03/23/07 14:12:40
last updated: 03/24/07 08:19:14
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