Review: The Bank Dick (1940)

>> Monday, January 22, 2007

USA/B&W-74 m./Dir: Edward Cline/Wr: Mahatma Kane Jeeves (W.C. Fields)/Cast: W.C. Fields (Egbert Sousé), Grady Sutton (Og Oggilby), Franklin Pangborn (J. Pinkerton Snoopington), Una Merkel (Myrtle Sousé), Shemp Howard (Joe), Jack Norton (A. Pismo Clam)

Comedians tend to produce their strongest work in their youth, but at the age of 60, W.C. Fields wrote and starred in The Bank Dick, an acknowledged masterpiece of screen comedy and arguably his finest work. Universal gave Fields full creative control on the picture, and he took full advantage of it, filling the film with jokes on his favorite themes--disapproving family members, malevolent children, pompous authority figures, and most of all, booze.

In this classic, The Great Man portrays Egbert Sousé (accent grave over the “e”), a small town layabout, who spends his happiest hours downing cocktails at the Black Pussy Café. After accidentally disrupting the getaway of a couple of bank robbers, Sousé is rewarded with a job as a security guard and is soon involved in embezzling bank funds. The paper-thin plot serves as a framework on which to hang a number of alcohol-fueled gags, including a memorable sequence in which Fields slips the bank examiner a Mickey with the help of the Black Pussy’s bartender, Joe (Stooge Shemp Howard).

Everything works in The Bank Dick, from the glimpses of Sousé’s horrific home life, to the chummy tête-à-tête with his bartender, to the climatic car chase (which is slapstick at its most surreal). In addition to career-topping work by the Great Man himself, the film features very funny supporting performances from Fields' regulars Grady Sutton and Franklin Pangborn, Una Merkel as Sousé’s daughter, the aforementioned Shemp Howard, and famous character drunk Jack Norton as dipsomaniac director A. Pismo Clam.

In truth, the film is drunkenly incoherent--no plot or real connection between the scenes begins to emerge until halfway through the movie--but the proceedings are so funny, you aren’t likely to notice. If you're not familiar with the work of W.C. Fields, you owe it to yourself to check out his riotous films, and there's no better place to start than The Bank Dick (although It's a Gift is an excellent alternative). This comedy classic a soused cinema "must see!"

Incidentally, Fields was able to get the name, “The Black Pussy,” past censors, because his friend, Leon Errol, owned a Santa Monica bar and grill of the same name.

Drinks Consumed--Straight Rye (referred to as “poultice” and “depth bomb”), rye highballs, and absinthe

Intoxicating Effects--Boasting, swearing (of a sort), sneaking sips, hiccups, slurred speech, staggering, passing out, and Mickey-slipping

Potent Quotables--Sousé (to his bartender): Was I in here last night, and did I spend a twenty dollar bill?
JOE: Yeah.
Sousé: Oh, boy. What a load that is off my mind. I thought I’d lost it.

Video Availability--DVD, as part of the W.C. Fields Comedy Collection, Vol. 1 (The Bank Dick / My Little Chickadee / You Can't Cheat an Honest Man / It's a Gift / International House)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Fields co-starred with Black Pussy-owner Leon Errol in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941).

W.C. Fields Comedy Collection, Vol. 2 (Never Give A Sucker An Even Break / The Man on the Flying Trapeze / Poppy / The Old Fashioned Way / You're Telling Me!)


Chris B. January 23, 2007 at 12:16 PM  

This is probably my favorite of his movies. Another great quote: "He pulled an assegai on me about yea big..." Of course, it gets bigger every time he recounts the transaction.

Anonymous April 25, 2007 at 3:36 PM  

They drink Absinthe in The Bank Dick? I really missed that, guess I have to see it again soon. On the other hand it's a little bit odd, because Absinthe was banned in the USA in 1912. Although it's also mentioned in the movie Evelyn Prentice.
By the way if you ever buy a bottle of Absinthe go for the destilled once preferably a brand produced in Switzerland or France. They are just very, very tasty and refreshing.

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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

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