February 18 marks the anniversary of the release date of what may be W.C. Fields’ best remembered (certainly most iconic) film You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939).
Artistically, Fields’ career trajectory went the opposite of most of the other so-called classic comedians of the early sound period. Whereas the Marx Brothers, Mae West and Laurel and Hardy all LOST all creative freedom and artistic control over time, Fields actually had the opportunity to go a little crazy (in a good way) toward the END of his career, due to leverage he enjoyed through his popularity on radio. Where his Paramount pictures of the 20s and 30s are certainly enjoyable, the Universal period (1939-1944) is a surreal free-for-all.
You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man was the first of these. It builds on Fields’ many previous performances on stage and screen as carny Eustace P. McGarrigle in Poppy and Sally of the Sawdust, here casting Fields as shady circus owner Larsen E. (i.e., larceny) Whipsnade. Despite his best efforts as a crooked showman, Whipsnade is forever on the verge of losing his circus, always dodging the sheriff. The plot, such as it is, concerns his daughter’s plan to marry a stuffy moneybags to bail her father out. Fortunately the plot gets short shrift here — that’s one of the many positive aspects of the Universal period. The focus is on the comedy, which just keeps on coming.
To bolster the box office, Fields is teamed up here with his frequent radio rivals Edgar Bergen (with Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd). The trading of barbs and quips between them comes fast and furious.
Also in the cast is Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, acting in a similar capacity to his role in Jack Benny’s ensemble as Fields’ Man Friday. There’s an elephant named Queenie who sprays water on command, a pair of bearded twins (one of whom is the world’s tallest midget, the other of whom the world’s smallest giant), and much more nonsense like this. One of my favorite parts is when Bergen is AWOL from the circus so that he can pursue Fields’ daughter (whom he loves), forcing Fields to do a ventriloquism routine himself.
I’m biased, but I think this is a film every human being on earth should own.
For more on comedy film history don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc . To learn more about show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.