You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (George Marshall / U.S., 1939):

The Marx Brothers tried to bring the freaks back to the MGM big top in 1939, W.C. Fields has a go over at Universal. The setting is Larson E. Whipsnade’s Circus Giganticus, where customers who complain about getting the wrong change end up with glued-on beards on the sideshow. Fields runs the show most nobly, meaning he flees from the police, dodges a downpour of acrobats, and fills in for the sharpshooter with Annie Oakley dress and curved rifle. The veiled-willy gag from Austin Powers finds its provenance here as Fields steps out of a makeshift shower (a jumbo’s trunk douses him on command), the one about the little girl and her squashed puppy is recounted as part of the ode against "disgusting kids" ("reeking of popcorn and lollipops"). Still, Fields’ main foe is wood-carved wiseass Charlie McCarthy, the "termite’s flophouse" perched on Edgar Bergen’s knee: The dummy mocks the old huckster’s booze-swollen snout, Fields threatens rides on the buzz saw and finally puts the alligator pit to good use. Too much celluloid is wasted on Bergen’s radio-made ventriloquism, but fortunately the other roustabouts include Eddie Rochester Anderson, Edward Brophy and Grady Sutton, all in synch with Fields’ muttered surrealism. Somewhere amid the sawdust is a plot, something about a daughter (Constance Moore) marrying a dandy suitor to get her father out of debt, basically an excuse for Fields to crash high society -- he arrives by Roman chariot and promptly freaks out the lady of the manor with wanton references to snakes. Not as undiluted as It’s a Gift or The Bank Dick, but invaluable if only for Fields’ flirtation with the resident ping-pong nympho. With John Arledge, James Bush, Thurston Hall, Mary Forbes, and Arthur Hohl. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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