Movie: Never Say Die (1939)

Anybody who seen 1955’s The Court Jester will fondly recall the scene where Danny Kaye struggles to remember a silly rhyming device he’s given to remember which of two goblets has poison in it.  Without looking at an earlier review I wrote of that, let’s see if I can remember it correctly: “The poison is in the vessel with the pestle.  The chalice with the palace is the brew that is true.”  Hmm…my memory is better than I thought. Well, for remembering movie lines, at least.

But I was startled to see a movie from more than 15 years earlier had done a similar shtick.  This kind of thing may have originated in vaudeville for all that I know.  And yet, here’s Bob Hope and Alan Mawbray about to duel with pistols where one can be identified by the “cross on the muzzle of the pistol with the bullet.”  Woe to the man who grabs the one nick on the handle, cause that’s the pistol with the blank.  Needless to say, both men will quickly get the phrases thoroughly confused in their minds.  It isn’t quite as clever as when a similar thing will be done in the later film, but it’s still very funny.

This happens in 1939’s Never Say Die, where the wealthy hypochondriac played by Hope thought he had found the answer to his assorted problems when a doctor gave him only a month to live.  The diagnosis is Hope is somehow digesting himself, wasting away until he will eventually become nothing at all.  Supposedly, this illness has only been detected before in dogs.  I really wanted to see that physician’s credentials, as I refuse to believe any mammal has ever had such an illness.

He also has significant worries, such as the interest Gale Sondergaard takes in him. She’s a serial widow of wealthy men, and it is very likely she helped to expedite their demises.  Apparently, she isn’t the first to see opportunity in a rich man who constantly believes he is going to shuffle off the mortal coil. Hope: “Every time a woman finds out I have $20 million and bad health, they want me.”  Still, he agrees to marry her, though he did so only because of the implied threat she will shoot him otherwise.

After this, he tries to save Martha Raye from drowning herself.  Actually, he only jumped into the pond. She instead ends up having to rescue him.  She had tried to off herself because her father had insisted she marry Alan Bowbray. I love something her father says and then her response: “His family goes back 40 generations” “Well, why doesn’t he go back with them?”

Mobray just wants her money, as he is a prince with only the title and none of the fortune.  She is, instead, in love with a doofus back in Texas who drives a bus (Andy Devine).

Hope convinces Raye to join him in a sham marriage so he won’t have to tie the knot with Sondergaard.  His rationale is that, once he expires, his money will be hers and she can marry Devine.  What he doesn’t take into account is the outrage of the murderous would-be spouses, so he changes his will to make provisions for each of them.

He thinks everything is sorted, except fate has a cruel twist for him: he’s not sick at all.  Now he has to deal with several angry people who believe he has intentionally scammed them.

All this take place in various (and, presumably) fictional locations in the Alps.  I especially liked how the fountain of healing water in the town of Bad Gaswasser is delivered by a serious of modern pipes originating at four industrial supply tanks, each of which adds its own particular foulness to the mix.

Roughly half the movie takes places at an inn in another town, where an elderly proprietor played by Sig Ruman accidentally glimpses many weird and seemingly incriminating situations which are never what they appear to be.  Ruman is one of the masters of the reaction shot, and he does so brilliantly when witnessing such spectacles as Devine and one of the bellboys in bed together, with a string tied from the big toe of one man to that of the other.  But then, things started out weird when Hope and Raye arrived for their honeymoon with Devine in tow. He’s even introduced as her fiancée while all three are checking in together.

Never Say Die has much to offer fans of screwball comedies of this vintage.  All the actors in top form.  It is mildly risqué, though nothing that will raise an eyebrow for any modern viewers. That is surprising when considering the production code had gone into effect four years earlier.  But, even in that regard, it is still a sweet-natured film.  Consider Raye’s reaction when Hope tries to show Devine how to properly woo a gal: “When [Hope] does it, it’s like wildcats.  When you do it, it’s like wild…mice.”

Dir: Elliott Nugent

Starring Martha Raye, Bob Hope, Andy Devine,

Watched on Kino Lorber blu-ray