Tuesday, December 4, 2007

You Can't Cheat An Honest Man

More W.C. Fields to discuss and to me that’s always a good thing.

In 1939 W.C. Fields signed a contract with Universal Pictures to write and star in four movies. The fact that two of them turned out to be among the funniest movies ever made (“The Bank Dick” (1940) and “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break” (1941)) and the other two are solid three star movies (“You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man” (1939) and his teaming with Mae West in “My Little Chickadee” (1940)) means both sides got what they wanted. Fields could write what he wanted and Universal could sit back and watch the money roll in. The films are loaded with surreal moments that harken back to his free-wheeling Paramount comedies of the early 1930s.

In the first film of the four, “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man” (1939) W.C. plays huckster carnival owner Larson E. Whipsnade (say it fast) who never misses an opportunity to pull one over on his rube audiences. But he’s so gleeful about it that we don’t mind.

My favorite scene is when he introduces his sideshow attractions, one of which is a pair of ordinary hillbilly types. Whipsnade introduces them, saying “Here they are. The world’s shortest giant and the world’s tallest midget. They baffle science.” That kills me.

Later he performs double duty as the bearded female trick shot artist Buffalo Bella, astride a horse Whipsnade calls “the world’s largest Shetland pony.”

The film also stars Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, whom Fields had a running feud with on the radio. Their insult scenes are funny and Bergen and McCarthy are too, but too much footage is devoted to them, when what we really want to see is Fields.

Whipsnade’s daughter Vicki (Constance Moore) agrees to marry the rich, but stiffer than stiff Roger Bel-Goodie to get dad’s carnival out of debt. Whipsnade arrives at the wedding via chariot and gets things off to a bad start when he talks about his experience hunting snakes. (Mrs. Bel-Goodie screams and faints at their very mention.). There’s also the funniest ping pong game ever put on film, with Whipsnade hitting the ball back and forth, faster and faster, out of spectator’s mouths and from a gurgling fountain. Great stuff.

One drawback of the film is its uncomfortable racism. There’s nothing particularly funny about Whipsnade inquiring of a group of African-Americans, “Which one of you is the head Ubangi” and other such comments. I wish they weren’t there, but no one ever accused Fields of being genteel. Fortunately its only a small part of the film, and there’s enough funny moments to overcome that distaste.

Rating for “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man”: Three stars.

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