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Matt Hough

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George Marshall and Edward Cline’s You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man offers us W.C. Fields in fine, irascible form with commanding co-stars Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and an excellent cast of supporting players that contribute to the merriment.



You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939)



Released: 18 Feb 1939
Rated: Approved
Runtime: 79 min




Director: George Marshall, Edward F. Cline
Genre: Comedy, Family



Cast: W.C. Fields, Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy
Writer(s): George Marion Jr., Richard Mack, Everett Freeman



Plot: The owner of a debt-ridden circus contends with pursuant bill collectors and sheriffs and his beloved daughter's relationships with one of his performers and a stuffy but wealthy young man.



IMDB rating: 7.0
MetaScore: N/A





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Josh Steinberg

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This is one little weird movie - it’s got shades of Fields, shades of Bergen/McCarthy and a dash of studio interference as a homogenizing force. It’s completely absurd (perhaps even more so than Never Give A Sucker An Even Break) but consistently entertaining nonetheless. Not bad for being the work of three directors who weren’t talking to each other.

When I first saw this film, I didn’t know anything about the background behind it, but in more recent years, I’ve discovered the old radio routines that led to the creation of the film. Edgar Bergen (with his dummies including and especially Charlie McCarthy) were having a successful run on radio - go figure that a ventriloquism act would work without the visual, but it does, surprisingly well. The producers of the Chase & Sanborn Hour variety show took note that W.C. Fields and Bergen/McCarthy had great chemistry during a guest appearance, and offered Bergen a permanent slot on the show, while also extending Fields an offer to appear as a regular guest, which he took after much haggling over fee and creative control. Fields would typically appear midway through the show for ten minute segments, as host and straight man Don Ameche would listen and try to swallow whatever tale tail Fields was selling, and then “McCarthy” would start poking holes in the anecdote as an increasingly angry Fields would mutter about all of the various ways to destroy wood. Everything was scripted, but the performers were so damn good that you believed the old man was on the verge of throwing a talking doll into a wood-chipper. There was some backstage drama with these appearances; Fields didn’t like the writers that Bergen preferred to work with, and Bergen didn’t like Fields’s entourage (and Bergen would usually wait to air his complaints until he was doing the McCarthy persona) so they had a difficult relationship. Each believed the other was getting more credit than was due, so at a certain point, the fictional rivalry became a real one.

There are at least ten such appearances that survive and they are well worth your time if you’ve never heard them. They are every bit the equal of Fields’ best film work.

For years, I had believed the common wisdom that Fields took a break from films for several years due to his alcoholism, but James Curtis’ excellent and exhaustively researched biography adds some additional detail to the story. Curtis suggests that while Fields was never a stranger to alcohol (going so far as to keep a nicely stocked bar in his vaudeville dressing rooms during prohibition), he generally abstained from mixing drink with work in the early and middle parts of his career - keeping the booze around was part of his trick to keep cast and crew in his favor. At a certain point, the drink started taking over, but was apparently much later than generally believed. Fields himself didn’t like when his characters were referred to as “drunks” - he felt that they were men who enjoyed a drink (often with good reason, given the obstacles they typically faced) but rejected the notion that they walked through life drunk.

Apparently Fields had contracted pneumonia and grippe (influenza) early in his stage career and never fully recovered, and as a result was always susceptible to coming down with bad cases of it. At the time, the available remedies weren’t much better than “take a bath in hot springs” and “stay in warm climates,” but after one particularly ferocious reoccurrence in the mid-30s, he fell under the care of a respected doctor who turned out to do more harm than good. The doctor basically kept Fields sedated for a year on opioids, the theory being that opioids encourage shallow breathing which puts less strain on the lungs. It’s the same reason you might be prescribed a cough syrup with an opioid to counter a temporary bout of violent coughing, but it is obviously not a desirable or sustainable option for long term treatment. Fields was left feeling constantly weak and without appetite, and it took a long time before he finally got the medical care he needed. He made an unsuccessful attempt to sue the doctor for malpractice, but the doctor was a better salesman than practitioner and the jury went against Fields in the trial.

When I see Honest Man now, I can’t help but think about all of those behind the scenes issues and disparate elements and marvel at how entertaining the film is. There was a scripted prologue that Fields felt was vital to the film, but the studio had grown tired of the behind the scenes antics and pulled the plug before it could get shot. The originally planned opening was similar to that of his stage play and film “Poppy,” where the mother of his children would have been ill and died when the kids were very young. Fields would have made a promise on her deathbed to take care of the kids no matter what and to provide a better life for the children than they had had. It would have been established that all of Fields’ conniving and trickery was motivated by his desire to keep that promise and give the kids that better life. More of a point would have been made that he was doing all of those crazy things in order to pay for their first rate schooling, not for his own personal gain.

I think the argument could be made that Fields already made that picture and there was no need for his character to be made sympathetic. Universal didn’t care - they just wanted the movie to get finished and released while they could still capitalize on the popularity of the radio appearances. But Fields himself was apparently dissatisfied and saw the film as incomplete.

So much of the work Fields did was meticulously planned, developed and rehearsed, but his particular gift was making it seem spontaneous every time.
 

Josh Steinberg

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Apologies to Matt for hijacking an excellent review - I didn’t realize I had prattled on for so long :D
 

ponset

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Nice review, Matt.
Also a good piece from, Josh.

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Matt Hough

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Mike points it out repeatedly in his commentary, and this posed shot also continues the notion that Charlie is a real person and not a ventriloquist's prop.
 

PMF

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Candice definitely learned something about ventriloquism from her dad.

Back in the early 80’s I was seated at an auditorium lecture that hadn’t yet started. I turned around from my seat to take in the people who were attending. And there, right behind me was Ms. Bergen. Our eyes met. Not a word was exchanged, but her warm closed lipped smile of acknowledgement did all the talking.

Oh, and for the record, I smiled back too.
 
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Josh Steinberg

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Here’s a free copy of one of my favorite of the Fields radio broadcasts - his segment begins at approximately 38 minutes into the show:


This may have been the first one I ever heard.

“I love Bolivia!”
 

PMF

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I loved those vinyl recordings of W.C.Fields and the many other radio comedians that were available in the early 1970’s through mail-order catalogue clip-outs. Too bad there wasn’t an HTF back then. Yup, the membership in those days was just me and two other of my grade-school chums.

BTW, they had boxed-sets back then, as well. Those consisted of 5 vinyls with 10 complete broadcasts.
 
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Santee7

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I loved those vinyl recordings of W.C.Fields and the many other radio comedians that were available in the early 1970’s through mail-order catalogue clip-outs. Too bad there wasn’t an HTF back then. Yup, the membership in those days was just me and two other of my grade-school chums.

BTW, they had boxed-sets back then, as well. Those consisted of 5 vinyls with 10 complete broadcasts.
Radiola made alot of the records where I think I first heard the Fields/Bergen recordings, and then there was a company called Mar-Bren that custom made cassette recordings of classic radio shows. It was ten dollars for one custom made sixty second tape. You picked the shows you wanted out of catalogues of hundreds of radio shows. It was alot of money in 1975 but once a month I found the ten or twenty to get cassette recordings of great radios shows. As you can imagine I was not the "coolest 17 year old" on campus, but I was happy!
 
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TJPC

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In Canada, Dominion stores had one of those buy-a-volume-once-a-week for a set of 12 cassettes of old time radio shows. One of the tapes included a W.C.Fields/Charlie McCarthy show, my first introduction to then. I converted them all to DVD later.
 

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