W.C. Fields and She: Remembering Susan Miller

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Susan Miller (1920-2018) was an actress and singer best known for her appearance in the W.C. Fields classic “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.”

Susan Miller … who knew?

Miller died this week in Phoenix at age 98 (wow!). She was an actress who appeared in one of my favorite scenes with one of my favorite actors in one of my favorite movies. The actor was W.C. Fields, and the movie was Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941).

And here is the scene (actually, it starts about a minute into this) …

The ultra-innocent blonde whom the old reprobate (Fields) attempts to engage in a fictional “parlor” game on a remote mountain homestead is Miller. Her insanely protective mother is played by Margaret Dumont, the frequent Marx Brothers collaborator who was now opposite one of the greatest of solo comedians.

A Universal release, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break was Fields’ last great movie — and perhaps the craziest of all. Its flights into surrealism and interweaving plot lines keep it lively. The flimsy central premise (scripted by the star) has Fields — playing himself, sort of — caring for his young niece while trying to pitch a movie script to exasperated mogul Franklin Pangborn. A climatic extended chase scene fits right in.

As for Miller, she acted and sang in a couple of handfuls of movies during the 1940s. Sucker was by far the most notable, and she also got to sing a song in that one: “Comin’ Thru the Rye,” which we hear later on after her byplay, as a character named “Ouilotta Hemogloben,” with W.C. (Fields liked colorful names like that, and it’s said he used to scour the phone book to find them.)

According to an Internet Movie Database contributor, Miller spent 60 years or so performing in supper clubs and live theater after her picture career ended in 1948. She was described by her neighbors at a Phoenix retirement complex as being “bright and bubbly” as she neared the century mark.

Miller is not the last surviving cast member of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. The niece (seen at the start of the above YouTube clip) is played by Gloria Jean, the then-popular soprano who is still with us at age 92.

A few words about Capitolfest 2018

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The Capitol Theatre in Rome, N.Y., is the annual home of Capitolfest.

When the audience at Capitolfest applauded at the sight of Eleanor Boardman, I knew I was in the right place.

My son and I had driven from Michigan to attend our first Capitolfest, the annual classic-film extravaganza in Rome, New York, expressly to sit through the 68 minutes of the 1933 science-fiction musical It’s Great to Be Alive. (I am writing about that Fox picture for a book project I am soon to finish.) But we wouldn’t be getting our money’s worth without attending some of last weekend’s other screenings, which brings me to Boardman and the newly restored 1930 adventure Mamba.

For the uninitiated, it’s common to applaud familiar names at insider events such as this, and even if most of the world has forsaken Boardman – a striking blonde whose acting career ended in 1935 – we buffs haven’t forgotten.  She looks great, if not terribly expressive, in Mamba, which is a thing now because, as Hollywood’s all-Technicolor talking drama, it’s back in circulation after being feared lost.

Jean Hersholt delivers a colorful performance as the nominal star of the piece, produced by the third-tier Tiffany studio (which, probably not coincidentally, went bankrupt not long after). In German West Africa not long before the outbreak of World War I, a powerful plantation owner (Hersholt) is called “Mamba” by the locals and hated by both the occupying Germans and British. To curry favor, the planter secures an arranged marriage to the daughter (Boardman) of an Austrian creditor, and when she moves with him to Africa, she becomes mutually attracted to a German military officer (‘30s Poverty Row reliable Ralph Forbes).

Mamba was restored at UCLA from a unique 35 mm nitrate print that was owned by a collector in Australia. (The back story is told in a charming short documentary, The Theatre of Dreams, which preceded the Mamba showing in Rome.) Mamba is not an ideal restoration – the source material was in terrible shape – and I am not one to criticize painstaking efforts to preserve rare cinema. I was disappointed in Mamba as a movie, although given the constraints of the script and the resources of the producing company – even if Tiffany was spending more than its usual – this might have been expected.

Mamba is a not-insignificant piece of history, however, and if this restoration were available to me on DVD or Blu-ray tomorrow, I’d not hesitate to buy it.

A surprise for the positive at Capitolfest was another 1930 talkie: The Storm, an early William Wyler-directed drama from Universal. Some inventive camera work and exciting exterior action scenes give way, over the course of 80 minutes, to a taut, intimate account of a love triangle in a cabin deep in the Canadian wilds. The participants are portrayed by Lupe Velez, William “Stage” Boyd and Paul Cavanaugh, three actors for whom I have no special affection, but who do good work. Velez masks her strong Mexican accent by adapting it to French-Canadian, and Cavanaugh proves he had more to him than the debonair clubman roles to which he would become typecast.

Wyler wrote in his autobiography that he considered The Storm to be his worst film. Maybe his memory was faulty.

Ronald Colman was the designated star of Capitolfest 16, and this event showed one of my Colman favorites, Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934), a lively mystery drama that also sends up the private-eye genre. I had not seen The Night of Love (1927), a Colman teaming with frequent co-star Vilma Banky, but this story of Gypsy revenge in medieval Spain is first-rate, especially when Colman and heavy Montagu Love play mind games with each other in the first half hour, with innocent maidens as the victims.

I will have much more to say about It’s Great to Be Alive at a date TBA, but I certainly did not regret the effort taken to view the print restored by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Brazilian tenor Raul Roulien, a Maurice Chevalier type without the charisma, is top-billed as a playboy who ends up being the last man alive on Earth (no kidding!), but Edna May Oliver steals the futuristic show. The songs are unmemorable, but the offbeat humor is highly enjoyable. And in what other picture can you hear Edward Van Sloan call Emma Dunn “Sugar”?

Next year’s Capitolfest stars are to be Joel McCrea and Frances Dee, so expect plenty of early RKOs and Paramounts. The Capitol Theatre looks great, and once the marquee is restored to its original 1928 state (as, we were told, is planned), it will look even better. I eagerly await a Roman return.

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William Wyler didn’t like “The Storm,” but we did.