Guest blogger Elizabeth writes:
Probably W.C. Fields’ best-known film, The Bank Dick, produced by Universal, is usually considered his greatest effort onscreen. William K. Everson writes that it is “quite possibly his finest work,” and that “it is even less concerned with plot than was usual with Fields.” What little story it has is about Egbert Sousé (note the accent on that final ‘e’), the town’s most dedicated drinker, with a nagging family that drives him to it, who accidentally foils a bank robbery. As a reward he’s made the bank’s resident detective (the film title’s literal meaning), protecting the premises from such terrors as small boys with cap pistols. Along the way, Sousé directs a movie when the film company’s director gets drunk; slips a Mickey Finn into a suspicious bank examiner’s drink; and by sheerest chance foils a second robbery when he happens to be in the wrong place at the right time. The film climaxes with one of the most wild and woolly car chases ever filmed, Sousé’s vehicle progressively losing its front hood, windshield, hand brake, steering wheel, and tires (“the resale value of this car,” he mutters at one frantic point, “is gonna be nil after you get over this trip”), before everything is wrapped up in a comically ironic ending. The Bank Dick is noteworthy for combining Fields’ two personae, the harassed family man and the larcenous con-artist, in one character. Sousé’s all-female kinship group here (“the Fields family to end them all,” says Everson) rounds on our hero at every turn for his drinking and smoking habits, while also indicating their paradoxical respect for his standing as titular family head (when the smaller daughter wants to throw a rock at her pater, her mother stops her with the question, “What kind of a rock?”). When not avoiding his kinsfolk, Sousé is persuading his son-in-law-to-be (Grady Sutton) to embezzle the bank where they both work for funds to buy a beefsteak mine, or he’s luring the upright bank examiner (Franklin Pangborn) into a disreputable saloon out of equally discreditable motives. The film is a treasure trove of those odd names with which Fields loved to endow his characters, such as Filthy McNasty, Repulsive Rogan, Og Ogilby, and J. Pinkerton Snoopington, while also showcasing a sterling collection of such beloved eccentric character actors as Franklin Pangborn, Grady Sutton, Jack Norton, Jesse Ralph, Pierre Watkin, Jan Duggan, and in-between Stooge Shemp Howard as a helpful bartender.
But perhaps the best thing about The Bank Dick is that it gives us, as the contemporary Time magazine review said, “74 minutes of almost clear Fields—as much a one-man show as the fences of cinema formula will allow.” The film is Fields pared to his essence; Louvish notes that it “has the greatest density of Fieldsian lines and dialogue,” and that Sousé is “made out of the building blocks of so many previous characters.” The Bank Dick also unabashedly celebrates the joys of shiftless behavior (“Ever do any boondoggling?” Sousé asks a fellow barfly). Until the bank offer, Sousé has no regular job, but spends most of his time at his favorite drinking hang-out, the Black Pussy Cat Café (which, with typical Breen-Office-defying relish, Fields throughout refers to only as The Black Pussy). What Knight wryly described as Fields’ personification of “the very antonym of every Boy Scout virtue,” is perfectly caught in this film.
This film, like Fields’ other movies, has no moral (unless you count the concluding warning from The Fatal Glass of Beer’s song, “Don’t go round breaking people’s tambourines,” as a valuable maxim by which to live life). At film’s end, Sousé has won riches, respect, and family happiness (drinking and smoking are now, if not tolerated, then winked at), not by any honest effort but merely by being himself. Like all of Fields’ characters, Sousé is a rugged individualist—he lives his life as he wants to, no apologies made, no quarter given. Robinson points out that Fields became an improbable icon during the social rebellion of the 1960s, when “his black, brutal and fantastic humour” embodied a “startling modernity.” Times have certainly changed. One wonders today how Fields’ rambunctious, ornery individualism, in this age of upwardly mobile career path-conformity and the 24/7 office, as well as of nanny-state regulations that oversee so many aspects of drinking, smoking, and eating, would survive. Fields himself died on (of all days) Christmas Day in 1946. Though The Great Man himself is gone, his movies, and their comedy, live on, to delight the lurking individual in all of us.
Click here to read the entire piece about W.C. Fields that this post was excerpted from.
Grand Old Movies writes about Hollywood’s golden age films that, while maybe not the most famous or fêted, are amongst our personal favorites–movies we think have been overlooked or deserve a second look. The site looks at a wide range of genres, including westerns, horror, film noir, comedy, musicals, melodramas, and (a particular favorite) the Hollywood Biblical Epic. And it tries to give you background on the films, as well as an analytical look at what makes them tick. The site’s emphasis is on films with a kind of energy, style, or even outrageousness that the writers think qualifies them as–well, Grand Old Movies.