Gloria Jean, Actress in W.C. Fields' 'Never Give a Sucker an Even Break,' Dies at 92

Courtesy of Scott and Jan MacGillivray
Gloria Jean with W.C. Fields in 1941's 'Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.'

The young singing star also appeared in films with Bing Crosby, Donald O'Connor, Mel Torme and Groucho Marx.

Gloria Jean, the perky actress and singer who starred as a teenager alongside W.C. Fields in the 1941 classic Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, has died. She was 92.

Jean died Friday of heart failure and pneumonia in Mountain View, Hawaii, her biographers, Scott MacGillivray and Jan MacGillivray, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Jean co-starred with Bing Crosby in 1940's If I Had My Way (the film's poster proclaimed, "Glorious Gloria Jean of 'The Under-Pup' becomes a shining star — and a Singsation — with the one and only Bing!") and with Mel Torme (who would later propose to her) in 1944's Pardon My Rhythm.

A contract played at Universal, the dark-haired beauty also appeared with Donald O'Connor and Peggy Ryan in a popular series of musical comedies that included When Johnny Comes Marching Home (1942), Get Hep to Love (1942), the Andrews Sisters' What's Cookin' (1942), It Comes Up Love (1943) and Follow the Boys (1944).

When she portrayed a blind girl and stole too many scenes in her dramatic debut, Flesh and Fantasy (1943), starring Edward G. Robinson, Charles Boyer and Barbara Stanwyck, studio execs removed her 25-minute sequence and used it for another full-length feature, Destiny (1944). She was heartbroken.

Jean also appeared with the comic tandem Olsen and Johnson in Ghost Catchers (1944) and with Groucho Marx and Carmen Miranda in Copacabana (1947).

For Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, Fields, who enjoyed a cocktail now and then, reportedly handpicked Jean to play his niece in what would be his final starring effort.

"I was warned about him," she told interviewer Skip E. Lowe in an undated interview. "The [studio] schoolteacher said, 'If I catch him once taking a drink in front of you, that's it, we close down the set.' "

Fields got around that, Jean said, by putting up a folding screen and having "a little man in a white coat go behind the screen" to deliver the actor his booze.

Gloria Jean Schoonover was born April 14, 1926, in Buffalo, N.Y., one of three daughters. Her father owned a music store. At age three, she was already a popular singer on radio station WQAN in Scranton, Pa., and she trained as a coloratura soprano with bandleader Paul Whiteman.

A turning point came when her operatic coach took her to audition for Universal producer Joe Pasternak in New York.

"He said, 'I want to hear you sing,' and they started the piano and I said, 'It's out of tune, I can't sing,'" she told Lowe. "He said, 'I like this kid, she has spunk.' He said, 'Can you come back tomorrow, we'll tune the piano?' I said yes."

She performed an aria for the producer, signed with the studio two weeks later and quickly starred in The Under-Pup (1939), in which she played a poor city kid who spends a summer at a camp for wealthy girls. The movie was a big hit, and she was groomed as a successor to Deanna Durbin. (Pasternak had discovered that talented youngster as well.)

As her musical career wound down in the late 1950s, Jean was hired as a hostess at the Tahitian restaurant in Studio City. That prompted sympathetic stories in the newspapers, and she got work in a few more films and TV shows, including Jerry Lewis' The Ladies Man (1961) and an installment of The Dick Powell Theatre.

In 1963, Jean became a receptionist and executive secretary for Redken Laboratories, and she remained with the cosmetics firm until retiring 30 years later.

She married Franco Cellini in 1962, but he was away often and lived apart from his wife and son, her biographers noted. Their only child, Angelo, died last year.

Her biography, Gloria Jean: A Little Bit of Heaven — riffing off the title of her 1940 musical — was published in 2005. Soon after, she moved from California to her son's home in Hawaii.

Survivors include her daughter-in-law, Jennifer.

Rhett Bartlett contributed to this report.