DirectorGeorge Marshall, Edward F. Cline
Release Date(s)1939 (April 19, 2022)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B
You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man was the first film that W.C. Fields made for Universal Studios, a team-up with his occasional radio co-star, Edgar Bergen. It was a somewhat troubled production, with Fields and director George Marshall not seeing eye-to-eye, so Edward F. Cline was brought in to finish the scenes featuring Fields, while Marshall continued to handle the other actors. Even the script was fractured; the story was by Fields (under his pseudonym Charles Bogle), with the screenplay credited to George Marion, Jr., Richard Mack, and Everett Freeman, and uncredited contributions from several other writers. Despite all of the cooks involved in making the film, the end results are tasty enough.
Larson E. Whipsnade (Fields) is the owner and proprietor of the Circus Giganticus, a shady operation constantly moving across state lines to avoid foreclosure by angry creditors. Whipsnade also has to stay on the move to avoid paying his own talent, especially his ventriloquist (Bergen, essentially playing himself), though Charlie McCarthy is no dummy, and has ideas of his own. When Whipsnade’s daughter Vicky (Constance Moore) comes for a visit, she falls for Bergen, but after seeing what kind of trouble that the circus is in, she leaves to marry a socialite instead. Yet Whipsnade’s machinations to keep Bergen away from his daughter end up backfiring, and as a result he’s finally forced to do the right thing for once in his life. You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man also stars Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Grady Sutton, and an uncredited Mortimer Snerd (you’ll have to read the closing credit card to understand what that means).
Fields was usually at his best when paired with straight men (or women) like Grady Sutton or Tammany Young, but there’s no question that he worked well with Bergen, thanks in no small part to the latter’s razor-sharp comic timing as Charlie McCarthy (though Bergen spends relatively little screen time opposite Fields). Speaking of which, one of the most interesting aspects of You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man is the way that Bergen’s dummies are treated by the other characters in the film. Everyone acknowledges that Bergen is a ventriloquist, but McCarthy and Snerd are still treated as if they’re real people. With the exception of one ambiguous scene, even Bergen treats his dummies as real. Yet given the outsize personalities of Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, it all seems entirely appropriate.
What’s a bit less appropriate is the significant quantity of cringeworthy racial humor in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man—Charlie McCarthy even wears blackface at one point. It’s nothing that was unusual for the era, but it’s still a noticeable misstep in an otherwise harmless film. It’s a testament to Fields that his films can indeed feel harmless despite any questionable elements like that, or the dubious nature of conniving characters like Whipsnade. He’s still one of the only actors in film history who could kick children or dogs, and get away with it.
Cinematographer Milton R. Krasner shot You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, framed at 1.37:1 for its theatrical release. Kino Lorber describes their Blu-ray release as using a “brand-new 2K master,” but there’s no indication of the elements that were used for it, though it’s likely a combination of the best available sources that Universal had at their disposal. It’s not a clean restoration like the one that Universal provided for My Little Chickadee, but it’s still in much better shape than some of the Paramount titles like It’s a Gift. It’s reasonably detailed for most of the picture, with a few softer shots taken from dupe elements, and while there’s damage like scratches throughout the entire film, they’re not as distracting as they are in It’s a Gift. The grayscale is lovely, with solid contrast and black levels. It’s not the best-looking Fields title on disc, but it’s in the upper tier.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. It’s a clean track, with clear dialogue, and little in the way of background noise.
The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary by Michael Schlesinger
- Trailer (HD – 1:37)
- The Old Fashioned Way Trailer (SD – 2:37)
- The Bank Dick Trailer (SD – 1:54)
- My Little Chickadee Trailer (SD – 1:36)
- Alice in Wonderland Trailer (SD – 2:34)
- The Ghost Breakers Trailer (SD – 2:15)
- Murder, He Says Trailer (HD – 2:05)
The commentary is by filmmaker, historian, and all-around good egg Michael Schlesinger, who brings his usual high-quality research to the table with him. He always does a great job identifying each and every actor in a film, even for the walk-ons and cameos. If you think that a minor actor in a film looks familiar, Schlesinger will clear up any confusion. Schlesinger also discusses the production history of It’s a Gift, including the conflict between Marshall and Fields. He does acknowledge the problematic racial humor in the film, though he ultimately explains that it was 1939, so we should just roll with it. That’s probably good advice these days.
The fragmented nature of You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man means that it isn’t always appreciated as much as it deserves, but there’s a lot of great material in it, and some of the Edgar Bergen material is truly priceless. The Kino Lorber Studio Classics Blu-ray brings the film to new life with a solid transfer and a helpful commentary track. It’s an essential addition to the libraries of fans of classic comedy in general, and W.C. Fields in particular.
- Stephen Bjork