Thursday, November 19, 2015

You Can't Cheat an Honest Man

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man (Universal, 1938) – Directors: George Marshall, Edward F. Cline (uncredited). Writers: W.C. Fields (story) as (Charles Bogle). George Marion, Jr., Richard Mack, & Everett Freeman (s/p). Henry Johnson, Lew Lipton, Manuel Seff, & James Seymour (contributors). Cast: W.C. Fields, Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Mortimer Snerd, Constance Moore, John Arledge, James Bush, Thurston Hall, Mary Forbes, Edward Brophy, Arthur Hohl, Princess Baba, & Blacaman. B&W, 79 minutes.

There’s an old saying that too many cooks spoil the broth, which is certainly the case in this film, even though it contains one of W.C. Fields’s best and funniest performances.

The plot is vintage Fields. He plays Larson E. Whipsnade, a low rent P.T. Barnum whose business philosophy is to wheedle every last nickel from his customers and share as little of it as possible, especially with his employees and attractions. His “Circus Giganticus” is constantly in danger of foreclosure, and the sheriff is not too far behind him.

He only cares about his daughter Victoria (Moore) and son Phineas (Arledge). Both are away at college, where Victoria is pursued by Roger Bel-Goodie (Bush), a shallow, upper-class twit whose family’s money has gotten him out of scrapes with the law. Roger has proposed to Victoria, but neither she nor Phineas are excited about marrying into the Bel-Goodie family

As the film opens, we see Fields in a frantic attempt to escape the pursuing law. He makes it to the state line, but we know it will be just a matter of time before a new set of lawmen chase after him.

Victoria pays a visit to her father and falls in love with Bergen (playing himself). But after she sees the financial mess her father is in and considering how he sacrificed to send her and Phineas to college, she decides to accept Roger’s proposal. Whipsnade initially approves of her match, and to make sure the penniless Bergen doesn’t change her mind, he sends Bergen, Charlie McCarthy, and Mortimer Snerd aloft in a hot-air balloon, though Bergen and Charlie later manage to parachute to the ground, landing in Victoria’s car, with all being arrested by the police. Of course, this being a Fields film, nothing comes out as planned. 

When Whipsnade attends the engagement party (arriving in a horse-drawn chariot), he raises such a ruckus that the snobbish Bel-Goodies have him banished. After being released on bail, Victoria arrives at the party and sees how the Bel-Goodies have treated her father. That’s enough for her and she calls off the engagement. When the sheriff crashes the party to serve papers on Whipsnade, she escapes with her father and brother in a chariot with Bergen and McCarthy in pursuit on a bicycle, while Snerd comments on the chase from the balloon.

Fields is at his sardonic, misanthropic best in this movie. Unfortunately, he has the baggage of Bergen and his wooden friends, McCarthy and Snerd. The pairing of Fields with Bergen and McCarthy was a success on radio, but in a movie, where they could all be seen, the illusion is shattered. When we see Bergen and Fields interacting with a wooden dummy we find we can’t suspend our disbelief that much and the film loses some of its charm.

Another point about the film is that while Fields has some wonderful scenes (scamming the customers who are trying to scam him) and lines (“Who stole the cork from my lunch?”), the Fields presented here is a different Fields from the lovable misanthrope we’re used to from such films as The Old Fashioned Way and Poppy. This Fields has a pronounced unsympathetic streak in him. He bullies for the sake of bullying and not to conceal his soft-heartedness. He canes his troupers when they dare to ask for their wages; he flies to vehement rages on little or no provocation; he throws Charlie McCarthy to the alligators; and in the scene where he cuts the tethering rope for Bergen’s balloon, he does so after Bergen and his pals have pledged their loyalty to him. He’s more the Fields of radio, the product of nagging and being nagged in return by a smart-alecky ventriloquist’s dummy.

But we can’t blame Fields for this turn of events. Look at the credits and all the writers credited. Universal took the picture away from Fields and seemingly had it rewritten by committee. Fields himself would later complain that that the additional writers had taken his character of Larson E. Whipsnade and made him too unsympathetic.

It was bad enough that producer Lester Cowan took the script away from Fields and assigned it to others, what really rankled the comic was Cowan deleting one of the key characters: Madame Gorgeous, a tightrope walker married to Whipsnade and the star attraction of his Circus Giganticus.

At the beginning of the film, Madame Gorgeous plunges off the high wire to her death, which drives Whipsnade into bitter grief expressing itself in his low estimation of his fellow man. His children are the only things worth having to him and he acts accordingly. Cowan and the other stuffed suits at Universal, being wary of their new star due to the circumstances by which Paramount let him go (alcoholism), decided that opening a comedy with a death defeated the entire idea of the picture and simply forced Fields to take the scene out. Look closely; there are two quick shots of one of the wagons in Whipsnade’s circus painted with an ad for “Madame Gorgeous” on the sides.

The one scene where Fields comes through entirely as himself is at the engagement party. Passed off by his son as a big game hunter, Fields proceeds to regale the party with an account of his adventures. Unfortunately. Madame Bel-Goodie (Forbes) is afraid of snakes – even to the point where she’ll faint if the word in mentioned. Fields, of course, is cheerfully oblivious to this, and every time he mentions the word “snake,” Madame Bel-Goodie goes into a swoon. Fields attributes it to her drinking and picks up the story where he left off. The juxtaposition of Fields’s stories and Madame Bel-Goodie swooning is hilarious, as are his explanations for her spells.

One of the downsides of the movie is the racial humor (for which I blame the studio), from Charlie McCarthy appearing in blackface (the reason was never made clear) to Eddie Anderson’s clowning as “Cheerful,” Whipsnade’s dumb and obedient lackey.

And as if all this wasn’t enough, Fields had trouble with director George Marshall on the set, a situation that grew so bad that Eddie Cline, who previously directed Fields in Million Dollar Legs (1932) had to be brought in to direct Fields while Marshall handled the rest of the cast. Cline went on to direct Fields in his last three great films: My Little Chickadee (1940), The Bank Dick (1940), and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), where at last he was able to sneak Madame Gorgeous into the film.

When the previews of the film proved unsatisfying with audiences, Fields was brought back in for retakes, which killed his chances of playing the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz, a role written specifically with him in mind, and one that he really wanted to play.

While You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man has its moments, it doesn’t have enough of them and it lacks the heart of his earlier efforts.

Great Dialogue

Whipsnade (to a group of children standing around at his circus): “You kids are disgusting… staggering around here all day reeking of popcorn and lollipops.”


  1. Thank you for that. I found it enlightening, telling me many things I hadn't known, and I can't find a thing in your analysis I disagree with.

    1. Thank you so much, Robert, for the kind words. They are greatly appreciated. I agree that Ed did an excellent job with his review of this W.C. Fields film.