Cult Classics: Never Say Die

never say die indexA lot of the time when a movie is based on a play it’s painfully obvious as the film is only set in one or two locations and due to that may even feel quite claustrophobic, and that’s especially often the situation back in the 1930’s when films with sound was still a fairly new invention. But that’s not the case with this superb effort from 1939 based on William H. Post and William Collier Sr.’s play, and the fast paced script from Preston Sturges, Don Hartman and Frank Butler never lets up from the moment it begins.

Initially set in a spa in Switzerland, the incredibly rich John Kidley (Bob Hope) is a hypochondriac who’s convinced there’s all manner of things wrong with him, and he’s a weak willed individual in general and looks set to be the latest victim of Juno Marko (Gale Sondergaard), a black widow who John has every reason to feel terrified of due to the way her husband’s were blatantly killed, with the last one dying as “He fell off the Matterhorn”. But when John’s test results are mixed up with that of a dog (because this is a delightfully silly piece) he thinks he only has thirty days left to live and to help a suicidal woman called Mickey (Martha Raye) out of an arranged marriage with the evil Prince Smirnov (Alan Mowbray) he marries her instead, knowing that he’ll be dead within a month and the money she’ll receive when he does will allow her to marry her true love Henry (Andy Devine) instead.

As well as moving at a really great pace the dialogue is full of fantastic lines, with Hope’s John Kidley initially a moany old sort who complains that “I’m cursed, every time a woman finds out I’ve twenty million dollars and bad health she fall in love with me”, yet upon meeting Mickey he perks up considerably and soon finds joy in life. Which is very understandable indeed given how much fun the character is, and though initially in love with the very Texan Henry, mainly because he makes her laugh a lot, explaining to John “When we were kids he ate a beetle, just cause I asked him to”, soon she gets a bit fed of the adult version who’s more interested in whittling than kissing.

Henry’s also a superb comic creation, impersonating horses in a ridiculous manner just to please Mickey, and though he’s initially thankful for John’s actions preventing Mickey from marrying Prince Smirnov he soon becomes jealous and surly and that’s very funny too, especially when he makes John share a bed with him and ties their toes together to stop him sneaking off in the middle of the night. There’s also a fantastic sequence involving John teaching him how to kiss which ends up with Mickey being licked by a rather large bear, which yes, is daft in the extreme but director Elliott Nugent pulls it off beautifully.

To ramp up the tension further Prince Smirnov and Juno Marko make a reappearance towards the end of the film, John and Mickey discover he’s not going to die which complicates matters no end, yet the finale is extremely satisfying, with it ending on a great note and not outstaying it’s welcome by a single second, unlike 99% of films. All of the cast are on fantastic form and this really is up there with the best Preston Sturges movies, it may lack some of the social commentary he was known for but when it comes to the very witty dialogue and hilarious set pieces it’s gloriously funny and charming from start to finish.

★★★★

Alex Finch.
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