Saturday, September 5, 2015

You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (Universal, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched one of the movies TCM was showing in last night’s tribute to W. C. Fields, his 1939 film You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man. Fields had made most of his movies for Paramount — he’d been under contract to them from 1926 to 1928 and again from 1932 to 1937 — but his growing alcoholism and periods of ill health (in many of his later films his stand-in, Bill Oberlin, filled in for him whenever he had to do a pratfall) led Paramount to drop him after his featured role in The Big Broadcast of 1938. Universal signed him and decided that for their first film with Fields they would team him on-screen with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his famous dummies, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, who had just scored big with their guest appearance in the 1938 film The Goldwyn Follies. Fields had been a frequent guest on Bergen’s radio show, where he traded insults with the dummies (one famous exchange: Fields said, “Quiet, wormwood, or I’ll whittle you down to a coat hanger,” while “McCarthy” fired back, “I’ll stick a wick in your nose and use you for an alcohol lamp”), and though TCM presented Fields’ granddaughter, Dr. Harriet Fields, to introduce the film and say that Fields and Bergen admired each other and got along genuinely well during its making, that was quite the opposite of everything I’d heard about this film before. In W. C. Fields by Himself, a 1970’s compilation of letters, memos, interviews, notes, unused stories and screenplays and whatnot by Fields compiled by his grandson, Ronald J. Fields, Fields himself described the making of You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man as a hellish experience. First, even though Fields himself wrote the story (under his usual writing pseudonym “Charles Bogle”), the actual script was taken from him and assigned to other hands — credited screenwriters George Marion, Jr., Richard Mack and Everett Freeman, as well as Lew Lipton, Henry Johnson, Manuel Seff and James Seymour, four other people claims were uncredited “contributor[s] to screen play construction and special sequences” — and Fields complained that the additional writers had screwed up his character, circus owner, barker and showman Larson E. Whipsnade, and made him too relentlessly unsympathetic.

Fields was especially upset at producer Lester Cowan for having forced him to delete a key character: Madame Gorgeous, a tightrope walker who was married to Whipsnade and was also the star attraction of his Circus Giganticus. At the beginning of the film Madame Gorgeous was supposed to take a tumble off the high wire and die, thereby plunging Whipsnade into bitter grief and his circus from relative prosperity to down-at-the-heels penury, but Cowan and the other “suits” at Universal decided a fatal circus act was no way to start a comedy and demanded that the scene come out. (There are two shots of one of the wagons in Whipsnade’s circus painted with an ad for “Madame Gorgeous” on the sides, but that’s the only trace we get of her.) Then, at least according to Fields’ grandson (disagreeing big-time with his granddaughter), Fields and Bergen hated each other as much off-screen as they did on. Also, Universal assigned director George Marshall to the film, and while Marshall was a talented comic director, the sort of comedian he was used to working with was Bob Hope and he and Fields were so mutually incompatible that Fields brought in his own director, former Keystone Kop Edward F. Cline, to direct his scenes. Finally, when the initial previews of You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man were disappointing, Universal called Fields back for retakes, which really pissed him off because it cost him a role he’d been very proud of and one he had longed to play: the title character in MGM’s classic 1939 adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. One “Trivia” poster said Fields had turned down Wizard to make You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, but that couldn’t be further from the truth; he had hoped to finish this film in time to do Wizard, but Universal’s demand for retakes cost him the big role at MGM and for the remaining seven years of his life Fields was bitter about it. Not knowing this history, and not having seen much of Fields’ other work, when I first saw You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man I found it utterly enthralling and quite funny, though today it seems amusing and very much in the Fields canon but lacking the “heart” of Fields’ previous excursions in the “carnie” realm, The Old-Fashioned Way and Poppy. 

The plot, in case it matters, casts Fields as an unscrupulous circus owner determined to extract every last dime from his paying patrons and share as little of it as possible with his employees, including his attractions. About his only normal human emotions are directed towards his two kids, son Phineas (John Arledge, who plays a surprisingly small role in the film) and daughter Victoria (Constance Moore). Victoria is away at college and is being cruised by the upper-class twit Roger Bel-Goodie (James Bush), whose family’s money has got him out of scrapes with other women and DUI arrests. The moment we get our first close-up of him and see his “roo” moustache we know he’s up to no good and totally wrong for Our Heroine, but Victoria determines to marry him anyway, because even though she doesn’t love him, he’s got enough money to bail her dad’s circus out of the $3,500 Whipsnade owes and for which various sheriffs and deputies are chasing him. Only Victoria instead attracts the amorous attentions of the circus’s ventriloquist, Edgar Bergen (playing himself), and in the end — after a good and very Marxian scene in which Whipsnade alienates Bel-Goodie’s equally stuck-up parents (Thurston Hall — who else? — and Mary Forbes) at a fancy party by telling a long anecdote about snakes (it’s established that Mrs. Bel-Goodie is so scared of snakes she immediately faints upon hearing the words “snake” or any name of a snake species), and in the end Victoria ends up with Bergen, Whipsnade ends up heaven-knows-where (there isn’t a final pathos-ridden leave-taking between father and daughter, as there were in The Old-Fashioned Way and Poppy) and Bergen’s other dummy, Mortimer Snerd, ends up in a runaway balloon (don’t ask). It’s a good movie but one that could have been considerably better; it’s watchable and funny (Fields couldn’t have made an unfunny movie if he’d tried), and it’s a good warmup for later Fields films at Universal, including the relentless comic assault of The Bank Dick and the metafictional Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (though he tried to get the Madame Gorgeous plot point into that, too, and was again told no by the Universal bigwigs), but there’s still the air of a much better movie hiding in the interstices of the one we actually have.