Larsen E. Whipsnade (WC Fields) is owner of a seedy circus that’s constantly on the run, trying to stay ahead of the law and his creditors. His daughter Vicky (Constance Moore) is torn between a wealthy no-good-nik and a charming ventriloquist (Edgar Bergen). Runaway hot air balloons, a wild ping pong game and a meeting between the society swells and circus folk equal a hysterical outcome.
WC Fields left home at age 11 and entered vaudeville, even though by all accounts he came from a happy home. His family supported his interest in the stage. By 21, Fields was an eccentric juggler and traveled the world to become a world-class juggler. While performing in the US, he added what was to become his trademark mumbling patter and sarcastic asides. Fields first experience in films began with four short subject comedies for comedy pioneer Mack Sennett. Paramount Pictures began to feature Fields in full-length comedies and by 1934 he was a major star.
Fields became gravely ill in 1936. His condition was made worse by his heavy drinking and irascible behavior. He couldn’t get hired by film producers. He turned to radio and became a very popular guest. This new popularity earned him a contract with Universal Pictures in 1939. His first feature for Universal was You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man. Fields also wrote the story under the pseudonym Charles Bogle.
Fields signature roles were often hustlers such as card sharps and carnival barkers. His Larsen E. Whipsnade is a gleefully dishonest misanthrope. “Someone took the cork out of my lunch,” he tells his daughter as they walk around the circus. As he tries to hide that the circus is in trouble from her, he is confronted by unpaid workers and ducks creditors at every turn.
These confrontations highlight Fields comic timing and physical performance. Fields is simply wonderful as this character. You can see how Fields influenced many future comedians. He plays a character that none of us would wish to confront in reality, yet he loves his family and is struggling and scraping by to keep them in college. He keeps the truth from them, so that they won’t worry about their future. I like Whipsnade despite his anti social behavior. We enjoy his lawlessness and cunning and laugh when he gets caught in his own dishonest web reaching for the next lie to make his escape.
Whether it’s a sight gag of Fields walking around naked while being strategically covered by various objects or his sarcastic asides, Fields was an original character. “You can’t cheat an honest man, never give a sucker an even break, or smarten up a chump,” are words of advice from Whipsnade‘s grandfather “just before they sprung the trap,” the trap being a trap on the hangman’s scaffolding. The humor is dark and brutally funny. This line infers that Whipsnade has had to live by his wits all his life and he holds no grudge in life. Just be smarter than everyone else.
The film is a mere one hour and nineteen minutes of funny. Whipsnade is a widower who’s been putting his two children through their posh colleges, which have put him in debt. Constance Moore and John Arledge are great as Vicky and Phineas Whipsnade. Phineas has caught on that Dad’s in debt and encourages Vicky to accept wealthy beau Roger Bel-Goodie’s proposal of marriage. Vicky goes to the circus to see what’s going on when she meets Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy at the sideshow. Edgar falls in love with Vicky. Once Vicky finds out about Dad’s financial problems, she agrees to marry Bel-Goodie. While Vicky is late arriving to the engagement party at the Bel-Goodie’s Whipsnade arrives and obliviously wreaks havoc.
Whipsnade is a three ring circus in a tuxedo and cape advertising the circus on the lining. His son warns him to be more gentile with the guests, but Whipsnade’s personality is too much for them. Even after he’s made the hostess faint because he mentioned snakes (“Stewed to the Whiskers,” he mutters) he continues his endless story to no one in particular. After she faints again, he asks his son, “Isn’t she overdoing it just a bit.” Whipsnade is introduced to a female guest who blows smoke in his face so much that he exhales smoke back at her. He then performs an extreme game of ping pong that must been seen to be appreciate. By this time Vicky arrives and the snobby Bel-Goodie’s want nothing to do with the Whipsnade’s. Vicky and Phineas tell the Bel-Goodie’s off as Whipsnade offers his own non sequiturs. The sheriff and a bill collector show up too, Whipsnade sees them and exclaims “Great snakes.” The Mrs. Bel-Goodie faints again. Whipsnade twirls his hat and he and his children depart in his chariot.
Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy are another fun aspect to this film. They used to perform with Fields on radio programs. McCarthy and Fields would trade insults as Bergen would play straight man. McCarthy and Fields repartees are another highlight in the film. Edgar Bergen is Candice Bergen father. Bergen’s comic timing as McCarthy was superb. His quick sassy comebacks were on par with Fields. One forgets that Charlie McCarty isn’t an entity. He seems so alive and Bergen was truly talented in creating McCarthy. McCarthy becomes an alter ego to Bergen. It’s fascinating to watch Bergen be these characters on the screen. Bergen was an excellent actor in his own right in such films as I Remember Mama and as the first Grandpa Walton in The Homecoming.
There are wonderful character actors throughout the film. Grady Sutton, plays Chester Dalrymple a man who’s father is paying Whipsnade to teach him the circus business. Sutton takes what some would see as a small part and makes it memorable. He went on to make another film with Fields and had a prolific career in Hollywood. Thurston Hall and Mary Forbes are also pitch perfect as the snobby Bel-Goodie’s. Eddie ‘Rockchester’ Anderson is Cheerful, one of the unpaid circus workers and right-hand man to Whipsnade. Anderson’s reactions to Fields are great. There is also an appearance by the animal trainer/animal hypnosis Blacaman. He is a curiosity. Blacaman was a famous circus performer during the time the feature was made.
Field’s gives such a wonderful physical comedic performance. His grace from his juggling prowess and years of theatre training are all on display to enjoy. Fields unique verbal cadence is still unmatched. His line readings are incredible. No one can say “I hate you,” the way he did in such a humorous and exasperated way. You need to see it for yourself to understand what I mean. To dissect humor reduces the effect. I’ve watched this movie many times and I love it. It never gets old. The film is still fresh and alive.