You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (George Marshall/Edward F. Cline, 1939, USA)

You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939) follows a similar formula as a lot of other Fields films. Here, Fields plays Larsen E. Whipsnade, the ringleader of a circus, who is constantly on the run from the law and from debts. Famous ventriloquist Edgar Bergen is playing himself here as one of Whipsnade's performers, along with his very famous dummy Charlie McCarthy, who is truly a character in the film in his own right. Constance Moore plays Vicky Whipsnade, Larsen's daughter, and she falls in love with Edgar Bergen. Her brother Phineas (John Arledge) wants her to marry into money. 

While the film is ostensibly a vehicle for W.C. Fields, he is actually playing a somewhat minor character in the film. Bergen is mainly the star of the film and gets much of the screen time. Interestingly, Bergen came to popularity in the age of radio, and one has to wonder how ventriloquism became so popular on the radio. It is a medium that does not particularly translate well to film, in part because the camera is so close to Bergen that you can see his mouth moving. It is a medium that best works with some distance between the audience and the performer. Bergen is a good performer, but his dummies just simply take up too much of the film. They are in fact treated as actual characters in the story with their own agency, which adds an element of absurdist humor to the otherwise formulaic proceedings. 

That being said, there are some great gags and general insanity in the film, including a very intense ping-pong match, a dummy being rescued after having been eaten by a crocodile, and others. However, this is one of the lesser Fields films overall, and should only be watched by real fans who are completists.



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