Larson E. Whipsnade runs a seedy circus which is perpetually in debt. His performers give him nothing but trouble, especially Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Meanwhile, Whipsnade's son ...
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Larson E. Whipsnade runs a seedy circus which is perpetually in debt. His performers give him nothing but trouble, especially Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Meanwhile, Whipsnade's son and daughter, Phineas and Vicky, attend a posh college. Vicky turns down her caddish but rich suitor Roger Bel-Goodie, but changes her mind when she learns of her father's financial troubles. Will Vicky marry for money or succumb to the ventriloqual charm of Edgar Bergen? Will Whipsnade's Circus Giganticus make it over the state line one jump ahead of the sheriff? Written by
Rod Crawford <email@example.com>
While posing as a bearded lady, W.C. Fields uses the alias "Gerdie Schicklgruber," when talking to two policemen who are hunting for him. This was a jab at Adolf Hitler, whose real last name was supposedly Schicklgruber. In fact, although Hitler's Austrian father had been born Alois Schicklgruber, he had adopted his stepfather's last name, changing it first to Alois Hiedler, and later to Hitler.) See more »
YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN (Universal, 1939) directed by George Marshall, is a circus movie, and with W.C. Fields in the lead, accompanied by the support of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy, along with an assortment of oddball characters, ranging from another dummy named Mortimer Snerd, to human numskull Grady Sutton, plus circus attractions of the world's largest midget and smallest giant, one should expect this madcap comedy to be none other than a circus. In spite of its backdrop, where much of it takes place, there's no man on the flying trapeze nor Sally of the Sawdust or clowns juggling bowling pins, yet, Fields provides several opportunities clowning around by not taking it's title seriously. He is far from being an honest man and actually does most of the cheating, not in the illicit sense, but as a circus impresario who holds back salaries from his employees and cheating his paying customers of their change.
The story actually concerns Larson E. Whipsnade (W.C. Fields), the manager of a circus, who is heavily in debt of $3500, and in a comedic way, is at wits end with his troupe and constantly one step ahead of the sheriff. His problems are further complicated when Vicki (Constance Moore), his attractive daughter, becomes interested in the Great Edgar (Bergen), but in order to help their father out of his financial difficulties and from being arrested, Phineas (John Arledge), her brother, arranges for Vicki to marry Roger Bel-Goodie (James Bush), the son of society snobs (Thurston Hall and Mary Forbes), who may have money but not her love.
The supporting cast consists of circus performers Blacaman and Princess Baba playing themselves; Edward Brophy as Corbett; Arthur Hohl as Burr; Eddie "Rochester" Anderson as Cheerful, the crap-shooting handyman; and several Fields staff players including Grady Sutton, Jan Dugan and Bill Wolfe in smaller roles, plus Evelyn Del Rio, who would go on to play Fields' brat of a daughter in the upcoming comedy, THE BANK DICK (1940), seen here as a crying girl annoys Whipsnade about her "lost" dog. Children and animals continue to make good comedy props for Fields in this one.
The movie itself comes is a sort of mixed blessing for some considering how comedy routines shift from Fields to the antics of Bergen and McCarthy. The ventriloquist and his dummies acting like humans certainly will appeal to younger children than Fields, yet the older kids or adults with minds of children could find the Bergen, McCarthy and Snerd exchanges quite intrusive. While the Fields comedies of the past focused solely on his character, he doesn't have the entire movie nor does he share much screen time with Bergen and McCarthy in spite of their current popularity of verbal insults on radio. The story itself, written by Fields, under the assumed name of Charles Bogle, is slight with some situations unresolved, but the verbal exchanges and comedy routines are first rate. Standouts include Fields taking a shower behind a circus tent as his elephant Queenie acquires water from a bucket and sprays upon his command of "Give Queenie!"; Fields staging a ventriloquist act sporting a false mustache as none laughing spectators look on with blank expressions; and if those scenes don't provoke laughter, then the climatic ping-pong game at the society party certainly will. Watch how character actress Jan Duggan catches the ball.
YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN has become a favorite on commercial television for many years, and later on cable channels, including American Movie Classics from 1995 to 1998, and Turner Classic Movies where it made its premiere in June 2001. Take notice that the prints available on these mentioned cable channels are not from the original 1939 release but from reissue copies with an entire different background during its introduction elevating Eddie "Rochester" Anderson's name (of Jack Benny radio fame) from bottom billing to co-starring status, thus reducing co-stars Bergen, McCarthy and Constance Moore further down the list. Video prints, from MCA Home Video, however, have become available with its original theatrical opening credits.
For his debut at Universal Studios after many years at Paramount, W.C. Fields comes off to a good start. It's may not be perfect but the laughs are there. Several comedy routines from previous Fields comedies are repeated here, and in many ways, much improved. The feud between Fields and "smart mouth" McCarthy continue to become highlights. McCarthy to Fields: "Is that a tomato or your nose?" McCarthy eventually gets his from Whipsnade (Fields) in one scene where the child-like dummy finds himself inside a live crocodile. After watching this, the circus may never be the same again, thanks to the one and only Larceny Whipsnake, better known as Larson E. Whipsnade, profession, "Honest Man." (**1/2)
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