W.C. Fields Shines in “The Bank Dick”

W.C. Fields Shines in The Bank Dick (1940)Guest blogger Kim Wilson writes:

W.C. Fields isn’t as timeless as one would like.  Overall, vaudeville humor hasn’t aged well, either.  Still, Fields was a devilishly delicious deadpan comic who knew how to keep a gag running. He was greatly aided in this endeavor by his own clever writing.  Who better to convincingly deliver funny lines than the person who wrote them—I’m sure Woody Allen would attest to this.  The Bank Dick (1940) is a product of Fields’ comedic wit (director Edward F. Cline was just along for the ride). Oh, pay no attention to the name listed in the writing credit either, Mahatma Kane Jeeves–it was one of Fields’ many pseudonyms (evidently Gandhi was on his mind).  The story follows the Fields blueprint: an easy-going, imbibing man just wants to be left alone but finds himself hampered by domestic disturbances and inconvenient chance meetings.  What follows is a 74-minute study in Fields’ own unique brand of comedy.

Usually the best parts of Fields’ films deal with his character being mistreated by his ungrateful family—which is mostly filled with women: wife, daughters and an occasional cranky mother-in-law.  However, this theme isn’t really the crux of The Bank Dick. Yes, his aptly named character, Egbert Sousè, has a nagging wife (Cora Witherspoon as Agatha), an unpleasant mother-in-law (Jessie Ralph as Mrs. Brunch), and two daughters, one being a terror (Evelyn Del Rio as Elsie Mae) and one being stupid (Una Merkel as Myrtle).  Yet, unlike some of his other films, the family doesn’t figure heavily in the story.  They are used intermittently to show how unappreciated Mr. Sousè is, but otherwise they don’t really bring much to the table.  I personally would have liked to have seen more of Jessie Ralph’s belittling mother-in-law. She had some of the best lines in the entire film.  Here are two of my favorites:

Myrtle: I’ll bet that’s Og!
Mrs.Bruch: Mmm, he’s got her bettin’ now. She never gambled ‘fore she met him.

Myrtle: What’s a six-letter word meaning “embezzlement”?
Mrs.Brunch: Prison.

I definitely think they should have used her acerbic tongue more and less of Una Merkel’’s Myrtle, who is engaged to Og Oggilby (Grady Sutton), one of her father’s unfortunate co-workers and co-conspirators. Still, stupid characters often play the much-needed role of straight man (or woman, let’s be PC!), so I suppose she serves her purpose.

There are a few random gags in the film, another trait of a Fields production, that I could have done without.  His stumbling into the role of film director after the actual director goes on a bender wasn’t very funny to me.  Perhaps he was trying to make a inside dig at someone (perhaps himself, LOL!), but I just found it completely useless to the story.  Another thing I could have missed was a few of his sojourns into the local watering hole.  Yet, I must admit that the name of the establishment, the Black Pussy Cat Café, is pure Fields gold.  Who else in 1940s Hollywood would have dreamed up such a name and got away with it?

All of the best things about this movie revolve around his work as an unqualified bank dick. What security guard in his right mind would tackle a small child holding a toy gun?  Sousè does, though I doubt he was in his right mind, and the result is laugh-out-loud funny.  When he asks the child’s mother if the gun is loaded, she replies, “No, but I think you are!” Who would think it was a good idea to buy $500 in bonds from a slickster (who says: “I want to show you I’m honest in the worst way”) he met at the Black Pussy Cat and then convince his soon-to-be son-in-law to “borrow” money from the bank to buy them?  Sousè would—and he’d do it with a big grin on his face and rye on his breath.  Who would try to postpone the bank’s books from being examined by the wonderfully named J. Pinkerton Snoopington (Franklin Pangborn) by using food (or, in this case, liquid) poisoning?  Sousè would, and then he’d have another drink!

What most people remember about this film is the extended road chase scene at the end of the film, where Sousè has to drive the getaway car for a bank robber.  The scene is reminiscent of the old silent chase scenes from the likes of the Keystone Kops. I’m not a big fan of slapstick chase scenes, but Fields gets off some great lines as the car slowly falls apart. A particular favorite barb is: “The resale value of this car is going to be nil after this trip.” I also got a hearty chuckle out of him handing the wheel to the robber when he was told to let the robber have the wheel.  It’s silly humor, but it’s smart silly humor.

While this isn’t my favorite Fields film (I prefer It’s a Gift) The Bank Dick has many enjoyable moments in it.  It is also a showcase for Fields’ comedic genius.

Kim Wilson is a history professor and the author of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die blog ( http://1001moviesblog.blogspot.com) and a regular contributor to the blog Classic Film & TV Café . She’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too.

  • Harry Lyme

    His attacker wielded an assegai, an assegai ‘about yea big.’ My memory may fail, but isn’t this the film where he enters the house, all ignore his tale, and he proceeds up the stairs on the wrong side of the bannister?

  • Tito Pannaggi

    I love W.C. Fields. He is nearly a forgotten person – so sad. He was there and was one of the big ones together with Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon and William Powell. (odd mixture, but they are ALL among the greatest)

  • John Goodwin

    Mahatma Kane Jeeves evolved according to Fields from a line that
    he said was in every British drawing room comedy – My hat, my cane, Jeeves!”

  • Allen Hefner

    Thanks for a great write-up, Kim. I agree with his scenes as the director. It was as though Fields was trying to use up ideas while he had film in the camera, and it didn’t add to The Bank Dick story.

    The saloon scenes, I think, were needed in the film. They added character development and made a good location for the sale of the stocks, and for keeping Pangborn occupied. And Shemp Howard worked well as the bartender.

    I am also with you on Its a Gift as my favorite Fields film. That was a story that you could easily follow, a great happy ending, and the biggest limo I have ever seen.

  • Vann Morrison

    One of the greastest Fields lines of all time:

    “Women are like elephants, you like to look at them but you wouldn’t want to have one!”

  • Chip Mackey

    The “throwaway” scenes with the chauffeur harken back to Field’s early vaudeville days as a juggler (when he was said to be a complete teatotaller, including no coffee or tea to keep his coordination in top form). When the chauffeur whips that “shifting spanner” (cresent wrench) at him notice how fast Fields is to snag it out of the air. My favorite is “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man”; his real life hatred of Charlie McCarthy (a puppet!) shines through every scene!

  • Gord Jackson

    “The Bank Dick” is my personal favourite with his scenes with Frank Pangborn being the highlight for me.

  • Tim

    I love when Fields talks to the bank president, who says something like…”Let me offer you a warm and hardy handshake!” The president offers his hand but only touches the tips of Fields’ fingers.

  • gloee

    this is my favorite WC Fields movie & one of my favorite lines in the movie (since I am a short woman)…when he was “directing” the movie & he glanced over the lead actor (who was really tall) & the lead actress (very short)standing next to each other & Souse says “Is she standing in a hole??” that line just cracks me up…being slightly under 5 ft…myself..

  • Doug

    There are some very funny moments in this film, like when Fields becomes distracted by the woman while walking upstairs and steps up on the stand beside the stairs thinking he is on the steps. He was great.

  • Publius

    W.C., was the second great comedian to enjoy a renaissance in the Seventies. (The first was Laurel and Hardy.) Fields’ records, movies, books and one-liners came out in abundance. I first saw THE BANK DICK when I was about 12 or 13 in Dallas, Texas. I remember this was in the pre-DVD age when if they showed an old movie on television, you had better sit right up in front of the TV set, or you would miss it. I think after repeated screenings of this film, that it does not live up to its reputation. I agree that the movie director bit was overdone with a stunt double taking the place of Fields. Some of the characters did not jell with the comedy, with the result that the scenes that should be funny, are not so funny because the cast did not have the right timing for the gags. Fields had a tendency to be sloppy with his films which is why I think he really wrote nothing for some scenes, but ad-libbed his way around the script until he got what he wanted. I do agree that the chase is the best thing in the movie, and IT’S A GIFT can very well be called his comic masterpiece. For the Universal films of this period, I would say that SUCKER is the best even though the scenario is much ado about nothing. HONEST MAN was just filmed for the Fields-McCarthy Feud which isn’t even done very well–although the gag where Fields walks nude through the different parts of the circus covering himself with wierd but workable things, is hysterical.

  • Jim Foster

    And how about the mother of the kid with the gun saying to him after he’d made fun of the Fields proboscis, “You’d like to have a nose like that full of nickels, wouldn’t you?”

  • Martha

    Can anybody tell me the name of the W.C. Fields movie in which there is a scene when he is on the golf course, at one hole, & he has a hard time getting ready to make his shot. The caddy is trying to help him without much luck. The first time I saw this skit, I laughed til I had tears in my eyes!!

  • Jeffrey Shimmin

    Fields was brilliant and one of my all time favorites !

  • mrmovie

    was i in here with a 20 dollar bill last night?
    yes u was buying drinks .
    that’s a load off my mine i thought i lost it.
    thought that was a classic line out of that film by fields at black pussy cat cafe.

  • jim

    The Bank Dick is a great film.

  • Fred Smith

    Martha, the name of the film with the classic golf scene is, “You’re Telling Me”. A true W.C. Fields classic!

  • Jay Albert Stockwell

    I first saw “The Bank Dick” when I was about 10 years old (50 years ago),late at night, in the privacy of my own bedroom. The next day my mother asked me what was so funny. When I told her,she understood. Been a fan ever since.

  • William Smith

    Oh yes the Bank Dick is a classic, makes me laugh every time.

    Wm. Smith

  • ed cohen

    I find “The Bank Dick” to be very funny and relaxing. I’m not a big Fields fan, but I find myself watching this film quite often, especially at night when I can’t fall asleep.
    But isn’t the name of the cafe “The Black Pussy”? Can someone correct me if I’m wrong. If this is the correct name, then Fields got by the censors very devilishly. However, if the name is “The Black Pussy Cat”, then this is legitimate.