You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man
dir. George Marshall
scr. George Marion Jr. & Richard Mack & Everett Freeman
story by W.C. Fields
Commissioned by Mark Woodvine
Now that I am an angry, irritable old man, I finally understand W.C. Fields.
There are filmmakers whose work has always been important to me, and there are filmmakers I have learned to love, and there are filmmakers whose work I never warm to. We all have reasons for the ways we connect to the work of different artists, and in the case of W.C. Fields, I bounced right off of him for most of my life.
The exception was It’s A Gift, the film he made in 1934. You can credit Danny Peary with that, since his write-up in Cult Movies set the table just right. There are a number of films that I was led to by Peary’s work, and I credit him for the breadth of his taste even if I don’t always agree with him. There are films he spotlighted in those books that I have never warmed to, and there are films I think he misjudged severely. But he nailed it with It’s A Gift, and the thing that’s so beautiful about it is the way it positions Fields as a modern-day Job, suffering through the daily afflictions of a million tiny paper cuts. Prior to that, my main exposure to Fields had been his collaborations with Mae West, which represents a tiny portion of his overall body of work. Whatever you think of Mae West and Fields, they aren’t comics whose work was ever particularly aimed at children. I grew up with Chaplin and Keaton and The Three Stooges and Abbott and Costello and The Marx Brothers and Harold Lloyd and plenty of comedy from the early days of Hollywood, and a lot of it is still important to me. But Fields? It just didn’t happen.
Overall, time has not been terribly kind to the legacy of Fields, who had a fascinating arc as an artist. There are reasons for that, and some of them involve race in his movies. If we’re going to talk about You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man, we’re going to talk about Eddie Anderson and we’re going to talk about the casual deployment of words like pickaninny and Ubangi and, yeah, we’re going to talk about how fucking weird it is that there’s an entire scene with a puppet wearing blackface.
As it feels like we’ve begun grappling with the history of race in America and the history of how we’ve handled it onscreen, watching some of this work can feel like tapdancing in a minefield. It’s one thing to simply say “it was the times,” but it feels like there’s more value in really looking at the context of the times and then actually looking at what’s being said and how. Fields gained more and more control over his work as he got older, a rarity for a comedian in his era. You look at genuine geniuses like The Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton and you look at how they struggled more as they got older, and you see how Abbott and Costello’s career slowly crumbled under the weight of itself, and it’s almost a miracle to see someone going in the other direction.
Fields didn’t really follow the same career path as anyone else, though, and part of what saved his life was his popularity on radio. Here’s another reason Fields wasn’t as important to me as some of his peers. I am a movie guy. I am a TV guy. I am not a radio guy. I know the history of radio programming in America, and I understand why it was popular when it was popular. I think it’s great that there was this entire media form that people were very good at producing work for, and if it’s your thing, great. It’s just not something I ever felt compelled to go back and really learn in depth. I never heard the show that rebuilt his career after he basically crumbled into alcoholic ruin. He went to radio in disgrace, and that's where he was paired with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, who basically hammered on him non-stop.
Let me try to put into perspective how far below the bottom of the barrel that must have been for Fields. He had been a fairly big movie star, after all, and now he was trading insults with a ventriloquist. On the radio. That is the absolute strangest way to get famous I can imagine. “I’m a mime for the blind.” It’s almost beyond ridicule. The real appeal of McCarthy had nothing to do with how convincing Bergen was or wasn’t as a ventriloquist, of course. McCarthy was the filthy id that Bergen could never voice himself, and the puppet was allowed to say things on the radio that the person could never say directly. I’m not sure if censors all legitimately had some sort of brain damage or if they just thought it was a cute workaround, but McCarthy was pretty scathing under the guise of being incorrigible, and that gave Fields permission to open fire with both barrels right back at him. They exploded, and people began to tune in specifically for that back and forth.
Universal took the chance on Fields, and they gave him a fair amount of creative control. The films they got in return were big movies, each of them getting bigger, before they gave him enough rope to hang himself with Never Give A Sucker An Even Break, a movie even Deadpool would call “a little too meta.” The biggest hit was The Bank Dick, and it’s a big broad mainstream bullseye. The weirdest film of that batch, though? It’s got to be You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man, and before we talk about anything else, let’s get back to what I mentioned before, because I am not kidding you. There is a goddamn puppet in goddamn blackface.
Midway through the film, Fields and Bergen & McCarthy have been busting balls back and forth with ever-increasing stakes. Fields pays one of his guys to beat the shit out of both Bergen and the puppet, which is one of the weirdest things I’ve ever typed in a plot synopsis, and when they show up, yes, they both have black eyes. Because that’s the kind of movies that Fields made. Reality was malleable as long as it was funny. He was willing to bend the natural order a bit for a good joke. To cover up the injuries, they decide to do their act in blackface for the evening, a perfectly reasonable hey wait a minute what the hell did that puppet just look at himself in blackface in the mirror and say, “Hey, I AM cute!”? Because that is madness. Madness. It’s an insane comedy beat to play, and it is complicated terrifically by the way Fields speaks to the great Eddie Anderson in every scene where they appear together. Anderson was famous as Rochester, Jack Benny’s valet, and he’s playing a character named Rochester here as well. Fields is an abusive ill-tempered swine to everyone. It’s his nature. That’s the character he’s playing, and he plays it beautifully. But watching him lambast and degrade and pick at Eddie Anderson, calling him a pickaninny to his face, is unbearable. It would have been unbearable then. It’s not just about when it was made. Fields was unafraid to make anyone the antagonist in his comedy, and it works best from the point of view of the person who is put upon by the world. Comedy works best along certain power dynamics, though. We want to see the mighty laid low, and if it happens because we’re laughing at them, that’s great. Watching Fields slide his nasty, ugly little epithets into his digs at Anderson feels unfair. Jack Benny worked with Anderson for years and managed to create what felt like a comic collaboration in which Benny was well aware of the value of Anderson both as a performer and as a person. Fields goes right to describing him and the rest of the black carnival workers as “the Ubangi.” It’s grotesquely unbalanced and dragging Bergen and McCarthy into it feels like Fields not fighting fair.
So is that it? Is the film unwatchable because it’s a pretty clear indicator that Fields was forward thinking in some ways and very much trapped in an ugly past in other ways? Depends on your mileage. I won’t be including this in my personal repertory in the future, because there are Fields films that don’t have this same gnarly baggage. But overall? There’s some great stuff here. Fields, with his usual no-joke-too-broad style, appears as Larsen E. Whipsnade, the owner and lead con man in a traveling sideshow. He’s got a daughter who is in love in the Gummo Marx subplot of the film, but at least it’s Bergen she’s interested in, meaning her love interest gets to pretty much non-stop dunk on her father. Whipsnade lives one step ahead of the police, perpetually adopting other identities to skirt custody.
This is Fields as the victim of his own vice, and he makes sure to constantly deflate Whipsnade, which is one of the reasons I have any mixed feelings at all about what could otherwise feel cruel. Ultimately, Whipsnade is the one who keeps ending up at the bottom of the pile, and there’s a self-perpetuating element to the abuse that lands on him that is particularly rewarding. And, yes, the relationship he has with McCarthy is fascinating, not least because it’s different than the relationship he has with Bergen. The film treats Charlie like he’s alive, even as it acknowledges just how weird ventriloquism is in general. It’s one of the reasons I can’t quite pin down my own feelings about the film’s sense of humor. It is so strange, so willing to throw any joke at the viewer, that it is hard to get hung up on any single joke or even any particular kind of joke.
This last creative burst for Fields only lasted a few years, and I’m guessing it was a huge strain on him to pull everything back together after literally having to dry out from the DTs because he was such a robust and profound drunk. Still, you have to respect the clarity of vision he had even as he struggled in his private life. I’m not sure there was any mainstream studio comedy filmmakers/performers who pushed quite this hard on both sides of the camera until Jerry Lewis hit his stride in his solo career. His filmography is one that any serious student of Hollywood should become familiar with, and the innovations he brought to the table in terms of how to stage and shoot and, most important, cut a comedy sequence cannot be undersold. That’s one of the ways his work still feels modern, because he had a very keen sense of timing and how to keep jabbing you with a joke as many times as he could get away with it. He’s not wildly sentimental, and like many of the comedy filmmakers of his era, he seems impatient with anything that isn’t built purely on jokes. The closest thing I can think of to the appeal in the best moments of these films is the feeling I got when I saw Caddyshack or Back To School and saw Rodney Dangerfield firing at full force. It’s about understanding exactly what is funny about the character they’ve built and throwing as many worthwhile obstacles at that character as you can.
The sad truth is that I find myself tortured by the banal at times, and maybe the greatest value I find in the work of WC Fields is that I can recognize when I’m turning into him, allowing the world to grind me down, and in those moments, if I can get just enough perspective, I can laugh instead of simmer. And, when I’m feeling extra honest, I can even acknowledge that I am often my own worst enemy. Getting that kind of added worth out of something this happily silly is why we’re still discussing it, warts and all, almost 80 years after the fact.