You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man was a comeback for W.C. Fields, whose illnesses related to alcoholism had kept him out of commission for several years. For his revival and first project with Universal, the studio poured more resources than was common for a Fields picture, which typically only needed small sets capable of housing a vaudevillian skit. Here, Fields’s Larson E. (get it?) Whipsnade runs the well-attended but nevertheless bankrupt Circus Gigantus, and even in black-and-white the aesthetic merits considerable mention. This probably has the best production design of any of his films.
Tents, caravans, lion cages, and alligator pits dot a scruffy, sawdust-filled landscape, and a number of unique character actors and circus performers populate the setting, most notably the then-popular ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. In Michael Schlesinger’s commentary for Kino’s Blu-ray release, he describes the film as equally Fields’s and Bergen’s. This appears to be the M.O. of Fields’s next few pictures with Universal. They would go on to produce a Fields/Mae West double bill, the western spoof My Little Chickadee. Personal feelings about both of his co-stars aside, it simply is a disservice to make a W.C. Fields film about anyone other than W.C. Fields.
Fields’s characters often embody a type of benignly wrongheaded masculinity—uncouth, boisterous, and self-assured, but undercut by chronic impotence, inconvenience, and distraction. In You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, Fields’s Larson E. Whipsnade lays the groundwork for future cantankerous dunderheads, from Archie Bunker to Uncle Buck, but incorporates a kind of forgivable unscrupulousness that manages to come off as charming and not despicable. And that’s just being him. Therein lies the conflict between Fields and Bergen. You can’t write what Fields does, and to write about it is nearly as impossible. Edgar Bergen is a good straight man, but a supremely unfunny ventriloquist. Charlie McCarthy’s smartmouth dummy antics pale in comparison to Fields’s inspired slapstick and character work, but also pales in comparison to other dummies, with an oddly quiet voice and a square sense of humor. One wonders how Bergen became a name at all, but then again the bar is pretty low for ventriloquism.
Fields often takes a concept and lets it ride, foregoing scripted gags for improvised absurdity. Simply throwing on a wig and presenting himself to two talent poachers as a recently shaved bearded lady is enough to create an almost sublime piece of comic role-play, one where a gender-bending caprice becomes full ego-death for the scheming ringmaster, who dissolves into his flirtatious and coy, androgynous persona, all for the sake of commitment to the bit.
Of course, Fields drops a number of scripted one-liners, memorable for their being unmistakably Fieldsian—beleaguered, indignant, and cheeky. A standout line occurs in Whipsnade’s cramped caravan as he attempts to sell tickets. Handymen and assorted personnel weave their way around him, diminishing his patience with each loud noise they can’t seem to help making. When a tall, bumbling man trips on the way in and falls onto Whipsnade, he announces himself as a new assistant, to which Whipsnade snaps back “that doesn’t give you the right to kiss me, does it?”
If that doesn’t sound especially funny, it’s because the atmosphere in this scene is a kind of controlled chaos that has to be felt, a ballet that incorporates subtle movements and near-whispered asides building to a kind of climactic punch line that isn’t even a joke. Just words. Uttered perfectly. One of Fields’s catchphrases, spoken in nearly every one of his films, was “I hate you.” Just wait till you see it. It always kills. | Nic Champion
You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras include an audio commentary by filmmaker and historian Michael Schlesinger, and the film’s trailer.