You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939)

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  • directed by George Marshall and Edward F. Cline
  • starring W.C. Fields, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Eddie Anderson, Constance Moore, John Arledge
  • Larson E. Whipsnade runs a seedy circus, which is perpetually in debt.

“Are you eating a tomato or is that your nose?”

When compiling the shortlist of the top comedic geniuses in film, those one of a kind performers who saturated scripts and scenes with successful jokes and uncovered some real truths in the process, it becomes clear that they exclusively come from the same era. In an interview a few years ago, Woody Allen added the name Peter Sellers to such a list, which I won’t argue, but the universally agreed upon names are always Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and W.C. Fields. They built the structure and somehow nobody’s topped them since. On the surface they all approach their work with a similar sense of craft, either creating an identity for a character or inflating aspects of themselves, but each come at it from a different angle as only people with completely different backgrounds can. Fields was born in Darby, Pennsylvania, and into his teens he worked at department stores and restaurants. No matter how deep into show business he got or how extraordinary his performances were, it seems like the blue collar roots never left his appearance or point of view.

This was actually my first experience with Fields in a feature film capacity, so unfortunately I can’t treat You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man with any degree of context when it comes to his career, but the movie itself, while touching on themes of class, was mainly just a machine gun of comedy. There were pratfalls and physical gags, creative insults, one liners, absurd humor (showering by elephant’s trunk), plays on words (Fields’ character Larsen E. Whipsnade), jokes based on alliteration or merely on the phonetic sound of words (You Pharisee…you Pecksniff…you egregious Tartuffle!”), and subtle jokes you have to dig a bit for, like my favorite, “Are you alright? You don’t look well.” “No, I’ve got a little stomachache (points to stomach). Rather a large stomachache. I ate too many of those canned cherries. The bartender always puts one in each of my Manhattan cocktails.” The jokes came from all angles and were of every style imaginable.

The film was set against the backdrop of Whipsnade’s debt-laden circus and co-starred popular radio personality Edgar Bergen along with his dummy Charlie McCarthy. Their involvement was one of the main hooks of the film, as producers wanted to capitalize on a long-running fictionalized feud between Fields and McCarthy. Though his ventriloquism might be better served by radio—I’m no expert, but one’s mouth should not move that much—his timing and jokes were excellent. I didn’t necessarily need to see the entirety of Bergen’s stage act, especially more than once, but he and Charlie’s dynamic did keep the movie afloat in the non-Fields scenes. Speaking of afloat, there was a great, very surreal scene in which they along with another one of the dummies got stranded in a runaway hot air balloon. There were moments, that scene in particular, when Charlie displayed an independence that brought me back to other frightening dummy tales, The Great Gabbo and Willy from the iconic Twilight Zone episode. I don’t love ventriloquist acts, the magic wore off a while ago for me, but it does help when somebody like the fast-on-his-feet and hilarious Edgar Bergen is pulling the strings.

There are way too many specific lines and moments to list, and Fields’ ability to have all of these moving parts contribute to one complete vision has me excited that there are so many more of his films left to see. Unlike the other comedy icons of the 20s and 30s, his on-screen persona is something very familiar and more grounded in reality. He’s the drunk, wicked-tongued, but ultimately well-meaning avuncular type that everybody has memories of laughing at from their childhood. A lot of people mention the ping pong game as the film’s shining moment, and it was fun, but for this newbie, I was just happy to finally meet the guy and experience his universe.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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