Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Bank Dick (1940)

Director: Edward F. Cline                            Writer: W.C Fields
Film Score: Frank Skinner                          Cinematography: Milton R. Krasner
Starring: W.C. Fields, Cora Witherspoon, Una Merkel and Shemp Howard

W.C. Fields was one of the most popular comedians of the thirties and early forties. The Bank Dick was the second to last film he made, serious illness plaguing him until his death in 1946. By the time he signed with Universal in 1939 he was supremely confident in his own skills, writing and staring in his own films, and producing classics like You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man and My Little Chickadee. Today they seem like rapid-fire gag machines, but unlike a lot of slapstick comedy, it’s clear that the films are well thought out and have a lot of extremely clever moments that could only have come from the mind of W.C. Fields.

The story is simple enough. Fields plays Egbert Sousè (accent grave over the “e”) a cuckold husband who can’t keep a job. On one of his many visits to the Black Pussy Café he convinces a movie producer that he can direct a picture that has lost its director. This is probably the weakest part of the film and one that seems only there to pad out the length. It’s not until Fields unwittingly foils a bank robbery that things really get underway. Some great character actors assist the master. Shemp Howard is Joe the bartender, Russell Hicks plays a con artist, and Franklin Pangborn does a really nice turn as the bank examiner.

There are also some great lines, like when Fields apprehends a child playing with a gun in the bank. He asks, “Is that thing loaded?” and the mother replies, “Of course not, but it smells like you are.” But other lines that elicit laughter are just plain goofy, as when he’s running down a list of illnesses the bank examiner could catch and ends with “that dreaded of all diseases, mogo on the ga-go-go.” For the most part Fields plays things deadpan, which I like, and the slapstick isn’t nearly as funny as the wordplay. But the chase that ends the film is hilarious. The only incongruity is the proceedings, for those of us aware of such things, is the use of Frank Skinner’s monster film music during the robbery scenes.

Henry Sheehan in his A List review does a pretty good job of identifying what makes Fields funny. Although his analysis is off the mark by a long shot on a few occasions, such as claiming the character’s “alcohol abuse is almost shocking by today’s standards.” Uh . . . exactly what are those standards, because it didn’t strike me as excessive--even outside the context of the film--at all, the key element I suppose being that Fields never acts drunk. But that aside, Sheehan give a nice capsule biography of Fields’ career, emphasizing the influence of not only D.W. Griffith, but Florenz Ziegfeld on his films. He also rightly points out the myth that Fields’ comedy was all verbal. It is equally physical, some of the best coming in the finale. The Bank Dick is not only a great comedy, but an example of what made W.C. Fields so great, and why he remains great to this day.

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