The Bank Dick [DVD]
Screenplay : W.C. Fields (as Mahatma Kane Jeeves)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1940
Stars : W.C. Fields (Egbert Sousé), Cora Witherspoon (Agatha Sousé), Una Merkel (Myrtle Sousé), Evelyn Del Rio (Elsie Mae Adele Brunch Sousé), Jessie Ralph (Mrs. Hermisillo Brunch), Franklin Pangborn (J. Pinkerton Snoopington), Shemp Howard (Joe Guelpe), Dick Purcell (Mackley Q. Green), Grady Sutton (Og Oggilby), Russell Hicks (J. Frothingham Waterbury)
In his highly regarded essay "Comedy's Greatest Era," published in "Life" magazine in 1949, film critic James Agee wrote that W.C. Fields was the one great comedian to emerge out of the talkies. He described Fields as "majestically lethargic" and "the toughest and most warmly human of all screen comedians," and after looking back at one of Fields' greatest films, 1940's "The Bank Dick," Agee's words ring more true than ever.
"The Bank Dick" was Fields' second-to-final major role (his last starring role would be in 1941's "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break"). Here he plays Egbert Sousé (pronounced "sou-say," although "souse" is a good description for him). Sousé is an unemployed drunk who would rather spend his time drinking at the Black Pussy Cat Café than being henpecked at home by three generations of women: his mother-in-law (Jessie Ralph), his wife (Cora Witherspoon), and his bratty daughter (Evelyn Del Rio). At one point, the young daughter asks if she can throw a rock at her father. Her mother's reply: "Dear, respect your father. (pause) What kind of rock?"
Sousé accidentally foils a bank robbery, and is rewarded with a job as a bank security officer. Instead of protecting the bank, he uses the opportunity to talk his older daughter's (Una Merkel) naïve fiancé, Og Oggilby (Grady Sutton), to "borrow" $500 from the bank to buy some stocks that are supposed to go through the roof. Of course, the same day Og takes the money, a bespectacled bank examiner, aptly named J. Pinkerton Snoopington (Franklin Pangborn), shows up to check the books. Thus, Sousé spends most of his time trying to keep Snoopington from doing his job, which involves breaking his glasses, lying to him about the whereabouts of the bank manager, and even tricking him into going to the Black Pussy Cat to get drunk.
This is only a small part of the wildly lurching plot, which also involves a movie being filmed in town and Sousé's contribution to it (at one point, he finds himself directing the film and changing it from an English period piece to a circus picture). The script, written by W.C. Fields under one of his typically outrageous pseudonyms, this one being Mahatma Kane Jeeves, is a purposeful mess that is merely an excuse to set up jokes. If Fields weren't such a perfected comedian, the whole affair might collapse.
"The Bank Dick" is a highly revered film in the annals of screen comedy, and it is easy to see why. Director Edward Cline, an ex-Keystone Cop turned experienced filmmaker who had already worked with Buster Keaton and Carole Lombard, keeps the movie rushing forward from scene to scene, not giving anyone an opportunity to question anything that is happening. The jokes come one after another, and each one is executed with perfection, from the expected pratfalls and muttered asides to a delirious car chase down a windy dirt roads.
By this point in his career, Fields was already a well-established screen comedian, and his slouching, middle-age girth and misanthropic attitude were expected parts of his character. Fields was something of a one-man show, and all the best jokes somehow revolve around his character both being victimized and victimizing others.
Yet, Fields was wise enough to understand that no one, no matter how talented, can carry a feature-length film all by himself, so he surrounded himself with great actors off whom he could work. A good example is the use of Pangborn, already an established dramatic stage actor who had also worked in comedy, as the constantly put-upon Snoopington. There is absolutely no glory in the role of the harassed bank examiner, and Pangborn plays the part with such misplaced dignity and anal-retentive determinism that he becomes one of the funniest aspects of the movie.
Fields died only a few years after "The Bank Dick." During filming, he was already getting sick from a hard life that started with homelessness and finished with alcoholism. Yet, you would never guess that from watching his performance on screen. Fields' comedic timing and gruff demeanor works perfectly with the wild material, grounding the insane plot in a character that is only a few degrees removed from the truth. "The Bank Dick" will always remain one of Fields' greatest cinematic accomplishments, and it is the kind of screen comedy that all others hope to live up to.
|The Bank Dick: Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|The new digital transfer, taken from a 35-mm fine-grain master, is overall very good. The black and white photography is nicely balanced in terms of contrast, and the detail is generally good (there are a few scenes here and there that come off as a bit soft). There were some instances of speckling, but there was no major damage from the source print to cause distraction.|
|The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack is good, but, of course, limited. The general sound is pleasantly natural and dialogue is always easy to hear. There is no noticeable hiss, and some of the goofy sound effects have a decent amount of depth for a one-channel soundtrack.|
|No supplements are included.|
©2000 James Kendrick