You Can't Cheat an Honest Man

You Can't Cheat an Honest Man

Theatrical release poster
Directed by George Marshall
Edward F. Cline
Produced by Lester Cowan
Screenplay by Everett Freeman
Richard Mack
George Marion, Jr.
Story by Charles Bogle
Starring W. C. Fields
Edgar Bergen
Charlie McCarthy
Cinematography Milton R. Krasner
Edited by Otto Ludwig
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release dates
  • February 18, 1939 (1939-02-18) (United States)
Running time
79 mins.
Country United States
Language English

You Can't Cheat an Honest Man is a 1939 American comedy film starring W. C. Fields. Fields also wrote the story on which the film is based under the name Charles Bogle.

Production background

Fields plays Larsen E. Whipsnade, the owner of a shady carnival that is constantly on the run from the law. The whimsical title comes from a line spoken by Fields about ten minutes into the film. Whipsnade says that his grandfather Litvak's last words, spoken "just before they sprung the trap", were: "You can't cheat an honest man; never give a sucker an even break, or smarten up a chump." The line expands on his character's comment to his daughter in the musical Poppy (1923): "Let me give you just one bit of fatherly advice: Never give a sucker an even break." (This is the title of a subsequent Fields film, made in 1941.) The character name is obviously a play on "larceny", a point which Fields reinforces at one point when someone calls him "Larceny Whipsnake".

The film features Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, capitalizing on the popularity of their ongoing radio "feud" with Fields.

According to historian William K. Everson, the film has three directors. George Marshall, the credited director, did not get along with Fields, so he worked mostly with the other cast members, while Eddie Cline was brought in to work with Fields, who had worked previously with Cline and liked him. (Cline in fact went on to direct Fields' next three films.) B. Reeves Eason was the second-unit director, helming the chase scenes and other action-oriented material.


Whipsnade is struggling to keep a step ahead of foreclosure, and clearly not paying his performers, including Bergen and McCarthy, who try to coax money out of him, or in McCarthy's case, steal some outright. Whipsnade's co-ed daughter pays a visit and falls in love with Bergen, but after she sees the financial mess that her father is in, she decides to marry a tiresome young millionaire. Whipsnade initially approves of the marriage, and just to be sure that the penniless Bergen doesn't win out (and make McCarthy an in-law), he sets the pair adrift in a hot-air balloon. However, Whipsnade creates a scene at the engagement party, and father and daughter escape together in a chariot, with Bergen and McCarthy in pursuit.



  1. Deschner, Donald (1966). The Films of W.C. Fields. New York: Cadillac Publishing by arrangement with The Citadel Press. p. 134. Introduction by Arthur Knight

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