Gloria Jean, a child singing sensation remembered for her popular 1940s films with Universal Studios and her leading part in W.C. Fields’ antic comedy “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break,” died Friday at a care facility near her home in Mountain View on Hawaii island. She was 92.
The cause was heart failure and pneumonia, said Scott and Jan MacGillivray, Jean’s biographers.
Jean started singing for an audience when she was quite young, first appearing on local radio in her native Scranton, Pennsylvania. She was trained as a coloratura soprano and brought a ringing, nimble voice and wholesomeness to the many musicals in which she appeared.
Joe Pasternak, the producer who discovered the child star Deanna Durbin, signed Jean to a contract with Universal Studios in 1938 when she auditioned for a musical called “The Under-Pup.” Universal billed Jean as an 11-year-old phenomenon, even though she was actually 13, and built a press campaign around the film that included her triumphant return to Scranton, complete with a parade and coronation of sorts.
“The Under-Pup” told the story of a streetwise city girl brought to a rural camp for wealthy girls, where she wins over a group of bullies.
“It’s an amiable little film, a kind of cross between a Temple and a Durbin; Miss Jean can be described that way, too, although the comparison might be opposed on the ground that it does an injustice to all three,” the film critic and screenwriter Frank Nugent wrote in The New York Times in 1939.
Two years later, Jean starred in a film that was decidedly less conventional, Fields’ absurdist comedy “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.” Fields chose his supporting cast and wrote the original story for the film, about a character, who was named after him, pitching a script to a studio executive at Esoteric Pictures.
Jean played his loyal, long-suffering niece, whose voice is sought after by the same studio executive Fields wants to pitch. She sings several times in the film, in one scene performing a lengthy number that is regularly interrupted by a work crew building a set.
Parts of Fields’ fictional script are enacted in the film, which turns surreal. In one scene, Fields knocks a pint of whiskey out of the open window of an airplane lounge, then leaps out of the plane after it. He lands on a soft, bouncy bed on a mountaintop inhabited by a striking young woman, named Ouilotta Hemogloben, and her rather severe mother, Mrs. Hemogloben.
Ouilotta has never seen a man, and Fields quickly teaches her a kissing game. When Mrs. Hemogloben tries to join in, he flees by leaping into an enormous basket that speeds him down the mountain. He winds up in a saloon, where he regales other men with his exploits, while Jean’s character forlornly searches for him.
Critics had mixed feelings, including New York Times film critic Theodore Strauss, who wrote, “We are not yet quite sure that this latest opus is even a movie — no such harum-scarum collection of song, slapstick and thumbnail sketches has defied dramatic law in recent history.”
“Yes, some parts of the film you will find incomprehensibly silly,” the reviewer continued. “Probably you also will laugh your head off.”
Audiences have since come to appreciate “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break” for its digressive, self-aware nature. The film was Fields’ last starring role, and he died in 1946.
Jean also appeared in musicals like “If I Had My Way” (1940), with Bing Crosby, and “Get Hep to Love” (1942) and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” (1942), both with Donald O’Connor and Peggy Ryan. She was featured with Mel Tormé in “Pardon My Rhythm” (1944) and Groucho Marx and Carmen Miranda in “Copacabana” (1947).
But by the mid-1950s film roles had grown sparse. Her last credited part in a major studio film was as an extra in Jerry Lewis’ 1961 comedy “The Ladies Man,” a role for which she did not sing, or even speak.
Gloria Jean Schoonover was born to Ferman and Eleanor (Watkins) Schoonover on Apr. 14, 1926, in Buffalo, New York. Her father was a farmer, railroad worker and piano salesman, and her mother worked in a soap mill.
The family settled in Scranton, and she started singing on the radio and with a band when she was little more than a toddler. She studied opera with Leah Russell, a professional teacher, in New York before her audition for Pasternak.
Jean took a job as a restaurant hostess in Los Angeles as her acting career waned. She met an Italian named Franco Cellini while she was working there, and they married in 1962. They had a son, Angelo, and divorced by the mid-1960s.
Angelo died in 2017. Jean is survived by four grandchildren.
In 1963, Jean began working as a receptionist for the cosmetics company Redken, a job she held for three decades.