W.C. Fields's first film for Universal was not one of his best, but it does contain plenty of solid laughs. YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN featured Edgar Bergen and his wooden alter ego Charlie McCarthy nearly as much as Fields, which was the producers' way of capitalizing on the success of the popular Fields-McCarthy radio feuds. I always enjoyed and appreciated Bergen's quick wit, but he and Charlie were always more successful on radio, where one's imagination could create two separate characters (and not be distracted by Bergen's lips moving). It's somewhat ironic that the funniest ventriloquist routine in YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN is performed by Fields. In fact, Fields has nearly all of the film's best moments, despite playing such an uncharacteristically unlikable character in circus owner Larson E. Whipsnade. An enjoyable film, but not the best showcase for its stars. ½ - JL
Fields seems overly influenced by his year in radio (after POPPY, before THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938), not only in the casting of Bergen and McCarthy but also in the use of sound effects and noises in the ticket-selling scene near the beginning of the film. There is so much going on in that scene, and it is all so obnoxiously loud, it took me several viewings to realize it was not terribly funny. Fields was under the impression that what worked on radio would work in a movie. Certainly, Edgar Bergen's routines with Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd were amusing in the film (but I have always been a sucker for Bergen's stuff), but the feud between McCarthy and Fields, which was wonderful stuff on radio, falls flat. Similarly, Fields "Snake Story", which he tells at a posh party late in the film, doesn't register the way it did over the radio, because Fields once again fills the scene with so much noise and distraction, he has to yell the story at the top of his lungs. YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN is funny in spots, but it is the least successful of all of Fields' Universal films. MY LITTLE CHICKADEE, which followed, may have had a split personality, but much of Fields' stuff hit the mark dead on. My favorite moment in HONEST MAN involves not Fields but Bergen and McCarthy. When Whipsnade's daughter asks Bergen how he can throw his voice without moving his lips, little Charlie chimes in "You're asking the wrong man!". ½ - JB
HOW'S YOUR PING PONG?
Fields was not happy with HONEST MAN, feeling his character was ruined by the studio heads. He may have been right. The studio cut out several scenes intended to make Fields' character sympathetic. One such scene set early in the story had Whipsnade's wife falling from a trapeze. Whipsnade then promises his dying wife he will give the children a good life. Fields liked this scene so much, he put it in an early draft of MY LITTLE CHICKADEE, where it fell by the wayside, and resurrected it for NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK, only to see it cut out yet again. Notice in that film that after the initial appearance of Gloria Jean's stunt woman mother, whose name happens to be Gorgeous, she is never seen again, and "Uncle Bill" is suddenly Gloria Jean's guardian for the rest of the picture.
While working on the script for this film, Fields was
contacted by MGM with an offer a part in a very special movie - the
title character of THE
WIZARD OF OZ. Things didn't work out to
Fields' satisfaction, and he turned down the role. Next time
watch the film, imagine Fields in the role - he would have been
perfect. But it was not to be, and the wonderful Frank Morgan
turned out to be just as perfect as Fields would have been.
it is one of the most interesting "what ifs" in Hollywood history.