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THE BANK DICK, 1940
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THE BANK DICK, MOVIE POSTERTHE BANK DICK, 1940
Movie Reviews

Directed by Edward F. Cline
Starring: WC Fields, Cora Witherspoon, Una Merkel, Evelyn Del Rio, Jessie Ralph, Shemp Howard, Franklin Pangborn
Review by Alex Udvary


SYNOPSIS:

Henpecked Egbert SousŤ has comic adventures as a substitute film director and unlikely bank guard.

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REVIEW:

If you were to ask fans of W.C. Fields which of his movies they thought was his best, I'm willing to bet you would hear "The Bank Dick" mentioned frequently. It is not my favorite Fields' movie, my favorite would be "It's A Gift". But "The Bank Dick" does have some typical hilarious moments.

Though W.C. Fields is probably best known for his comedy shorts and films of the 1930s and 40s he actually started out in the silent era. He had been on the stage but appeared in his first short in 1915, it was entitled "Pool Sharks". From there he found himself in two D.W. Griffith comedies, "Sally of the Sawdust" and "That Royle Girl" (which is no longer available on VHS or DVD). And appeared in the comedy "Running Wild".

These silent comedies, while some may argue are good, don't show Fields in the best light. When we think of Fields' comedy, his sarcastic tongue is the main attraction. The way he played with words. Always ready with an insult under his breathe. Naturally you lose that in the silent films. Think if Groucho Marx had appeared in silent movies. It wouldn't work. These were comedians who could only work in talkies. If they lose their voice, you diminish their talents.

Fields made his talking debut in the two reeler, "The Golf Specialist" (1930). In it appears what might be his most famous routine. Fields went on to act in a few more two reelers but largely found himself in movies.

"The Bank Dick" was to be Fields second to last movie appearance. In it Fields plays Egbert Souse, accent on the "e" (it is pronounced sue-say). As usual he is a non-working married man with children who happens to be a drunk. As the film opens we see his mother-in-law (Jessie Ralph), wife (Cora Witherspoon) and their eldest daughter Myrtle (Una Merkel) complaining about Egbert and his bad habits while "Home Sweet Home" plays in the background.

These scenes, while very funny, went against the norm in Hollywood. Hollywood didn't like the depiction of unhappy married life. Hollywood wanted to present itself as the bedrock of family values. Remember "The Bank Dick" was made during the time when the production code was still in effect. Fields' humor was a slap across the face. We may not think of it as daring today but Fields was breaking social customs. His films represent a world which we can relate to, even to this day. Family life was never as innocent and sweet as presented in movies or TV shows. Fields' comedy works so well because it is an exaggeration of the truth.

What further makes Fields' comedy and movies so daring was Fields is usually rewarded for his behavior. Society doesn't change his character. Society made him what he is. There are never moments when Fields has a change of heart and stops drinking or decides to devote himself more to his family. He remains the same character from beginning to end. There is no moral in a W.C. Fields comedy.

"The Bank Dick" is a collection of moments from other Fields comedies. Fields wrote the movie under the man "Mahatma Kane Jeeves". If you break down the name it reads, my hat, my kane jeeves. Get it? The structure of the film is a mess. Fields hangs out at his favorite bar called the "Black Pussycat" which is run by Shemp Howard. One day a movie producer is in the bar on the phone, getting into an argument. The director of a short film is drunk and unable to work. A replacement is needed immediately. Fields takes advantage of the moment and brags how he use to direct Charlie Chaplin and "Fatty" Arbuckle. He is hired on the spot.

I suppose in another movie, with another comedian, that may have been enough for the plot. But no. Fields abandons this idea as soon as it starts. What the movie is really about is Fields inadvertently capturing a bank robber as he escapes. Fields takes full credit and is rewarded by the bank president with a job as their new detective (hence the title).

The movie could have really started off with this bank robbery plot, which Fields also used in the two reeler, "The Barber Shop", and forget about the movie director sequence. It adds nothing to the movie.

At the bank works Og Oggiby (Grady Sutton) who wants to marry Myrtle but is saving up for more money before he asks for her hand. Fields talks Og into buy some bonds, which unknown to the both of them are worthless. But Og doesn't have enough money on him, so he "burrows" it from the bank and plans to repay it in four days when he gets his bonus. Problem is a bank examiner, Mr. Snoopington (Franklin Pangborn) has come to check the books.

The cast in the movie is simply great consisting of comedy pros. Una Merkel usually played a smart-alec, wise-cracking supporting characters in films ranging from "42nd Street" to the original "Maltese Falcon", Noel Coward's "Private Lives" and co-starring with Harold Lloyd in "The Cat's Paw". She is a little too old to be playing Fields' daughter but it is not a big role and she is always a pleasure to see on-screen.

Pangborn, along with Edward Everett Horton played what is known as the "sissy man". Usually a closet homosexual. He had been around since the silent era and was also a character actor. He worked with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in "Carefree", several Preston Struges' comedies such as "Hail the Conquering Hero" and with Jack Benny in "The Horn Blows at Midnight". While Grady Sutton made a career playing simple minded fools. We worked a lot with Fields, appearing in "The Man on the Flying Trapeze" and with Laurel & Hardy in "Pack Up Your Troubles".

The film ends with a chase scene which reminds me of the one in "Never Give A Sucker An Even Break". It feels a little forced. But with a movie like this, exactly how is it all suppose to end? Nothing else in the movie makes much sense so why should the ending?

That doesn't mean "The Bank Dick" is a bad movie. It has some very good moments, like Fields attempting to hit his daughter when she suggest he doesn't love her (Fields used this joke often). Or his attempts to try and stop Mr. Snoopington from checking the books. Telling him to stay away because one of the employees has a severe case of "mogo on the ga-go-go".

Will "The Bank Dick" please modern movie fans who have never seen Fields before? It is hard to say. I'd like to say yes, everyone will enjoy watching W.C. Fields. He is one of our great comics but I know it doesn't work that way in our society. Young movie fans rarely have an appreciation for movies made before the time they were born. I will say this however, "The Bank Dick" is a fine example of the kind of insane antics Fields was usually up to. If you are already a Fields fan and haven't seen it, you are missing out on a treat.

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