W.C. Fields in THE BANK DICK (1940) – Don’t be a jabbernowl, watch this comedy classic!


Trying to review W.C. Fields’ The Bank Dick in cinematic terms is like trying to watch Christina Hendricks act while she’s wearing a string bikini — the talent is obviously there, but other distracting factors are also at hand.

Suffice to say that if you’re familiar with the Fields persona — a bellicose and verbose man, trying to make a name in the world while in a constant alcoholic haze — The Bank Dick will be just your pick-me-up. Here, Fields is Egbert Souse’ (“Accent grave over the ‘e’,” as an opening bit of exposition helpfully tells us). Souse’s sole goal in life is to make his timely daily visit to his favorite saloon, The Black Pussy Cat Cafe. (Souse and his cohorts helpfully say the saloon’s name over and over, leaving us to wonder if the censor was on a bender as well.) Souse is constantly thwarted in this goal by his extremely unloving family (all female), who vigorously demonstrate why Souse is always so eager to leave the house.

By turns, Souse becomes a robbery-thwarting hero, a movie director, a bank guard (the movie’s title has to have been another one-up on the censors), and a robbery-thwarting hero again. Along the way, Fields exchanges verbal gems with his regular bartender Joe (future Stooge Shemp Howard, as great a straight man as anyone ever had), drops non sequitors at every chance, and ends the movie with one of the movies’ funniest-ever chases, not to mention Souse getting rewarded far beyond his due. (Preston Sturges seemed to absorb this lesson two years later for The Palm Beach Story: If the studio wants a happy ending, give it to ’em in spades.)

Besides starring, Fields also wrote the movie’s, er, screenplay (under the pseudonym “Mahatma Kane Jeeves”), and the movie was directed by Fields’ good friend and drinking buddy Eddie Cline (whose resume included Buster Keaton’s early two-reelers), so this movie is about as close to auteurism as Fields ever got. One gets the impression that Fields’ idea of writing a screenplay was to tour the Universal lot with a continuity person, saying, “There’s a set for a bank — let’s have most of the action here. There, that thing’ll pass for a saloon — let’s give it a dirty name and I’ll do a lot of physical business there.”

But from such ramshackle origins, a great comedy is made. It’s Fields’ last great movie (though he had one more starring role, in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, and a few cameos before his sad death from alcoholism). And The Bank Dick obviously had some great stuff in it. Its finale was bodily lifted, 43 years later, for Rodney Dangerfield’s Easy Money. And Fields himself re-did the chase motif (and re-used BD‘s opening and closing theme music) in Never….

At one point, Souse leans back in his director’s chair and yells, “Quiet…we’re making cinema history here!” Nearly 75 years later, one is hard-pressed to argue with him.

Here’s a 17-second clip that tells you all you need to know about the movie:

Laurel & Hardy in ANOTHER FINE MESS (1930) – Stan in drag is not a drag


Another Fine Mess is based on a sketch written by Stan’s father, which was also the basis for their first “team” film, Duck Soup. It’s been well-documented that Stan’s dad disapproved of his son’s version of the sketch, but as Laurel & Hardy pictures go, you could do far worse.

Here, Stan and Ollie are vagrants on the run from an irate cop whom Stan mistakenly addressed as “Ma’am.” Through circumstances beyond their control (as usual), they end up hiding in a mansion and having to pose as the owner, Col. Buckshot (Ollie), and his maid Agnes (Stan!), under the pretext of showing the mansion to potential renters.

It’s the wispiest of premises, and it’s not helped by intrusive music and sound effects. But on the plus side is Ollie’s hammy interpretation of Col. Buckshot (“last of the Kentucky Buckshots”), and a priceless give-and-take between Stan-as-Agnes and Thelma Todd, exchanging some “girl talk.” It goes on a bit long (as most of their three-reelers do) but has its fair share of laughs.

And definitely check out the movie’s opening, where two chorus-girl types walk on-screen and recite the movie’s credits out loud. And you thought Stan in drag was bizarre!

Laurel & Hardy in THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929 – The highlight of a talkie endurance test


The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is one of those early talkie variety shows that were no doubt fascinating to moviegoers hearing their favorite stars speak for the first time but are now downright unbearable. This one is 130 minutes long and was actually nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Go figure.

One of the few “highlights” that still stands up well is Laurel & Hardy’s act as perpetually botching magicians. Emcee Jack Benny, bereft of most of his later comedic genius, introduces Stan and Ollie when the curtain inadvertently opens on them before their act is prepared. From there, Stan manages to destroy most of their tricks before the act even gets started. The camera pretty much remains glued to a single spot on the stage, but since most of the comedy comes from L&H’s reactions and pantomime, that isn’t a huge problem. Watch the movie for Laurel & Hardy’s segment, and then test yourself as to how much of the movie’s remainder you can tolerate.

CASABLANCA (1942) – You must remember this, as there will be a movie quiz on it later


There’s this guy who’s been burned in love, see. So he hangs out at his bar and acts like he doesn’t care about anyone. Then his lover comes back, only now she has a husband who has secret papers he has to get out of the country, fast. Now, the barfly could get his revenge and forget them both, or he could help the guy out and snooker his old flame into staying with him. Ah, what’s a World War II apolitical in occupied France to do?

If you’re lucky enough not to already know this scenario, I highly urge you to buy the two-DVD set of Casablanca, winner of 1942’s Best Picture Oscar. The rest of us can once more enjoy a legendary movie that, like The Wizard of Oz or Citizen Kane, only grows better with time.

In a career-defining role, Humphrey Bogart plays Rick, the nightclub owner who appears stoic until visited by old flame Ilsa (dreamy Ingrid Bergman), who sends his stoicism up in flames and has a few issues of her own to deal with. For one thing, there’s a war going on. It’s impossible for anyone who didn’t live through the Second World War to appreciate the intensity of what was at stake. But Casablanca gives us a pretty darned good idea, just by personalizing the whole thing under the guise of romance.

Ably supporting Bogart and Bergman is the supporting cast of a lifetime, including Claude Rains, Paul Heinreid, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet. There’s also the miracle of an Oscar-winning screenplay (by Howard Koch and Julius and Philip Epstein), which was derived from a so-so stage play and then made up as it went along. (Even the actors didn’t know how the ending would occur until the day they filmed it.)

Lastly, there’s the great music. Most of it is Max Steiner’s lush score, but the movie also makes much of a then-little-known song called “As Time Goes By.” And wait until you see what this movie does for the French national anthem (a rousing highlight of the movie, shown in the clip linked below).

The DVD set includes tons of extras, including two documentaries hosted by Bogart’s widow Lauren Bacall. But my personal fave extra is the long-overdue Bugs Bunny-Daffy Duck parody Carrotblanca, which, for my money, was the funniest movie of 1995. (You’ll be pleased to know that Tweety Bird does a wicked Peter Lorre imitation.)

So round up the usual suspects and savor a Hollywood classic. You’ll be glad you stuck your neck out for this one.

POPEYE THE SAILOR MEETS ALI BABA’S FORTY THIEVES (1937) – Another Popeye storybook delight


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

This cartoon, released one year almost to the day after the success of Popeye’s previous color landmark, Sindbad the Sailor, is perhaps a teeny notch down from its predecessor, just as The Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races is a tad-paler sequel to A Night at the Opera. But in each case, the good stuff in either movie is so good, must we quibble?? (Anyway, when that credit/cave door opens and the swanky theme music starts, I admit I’m suckered in every time.)

Naturally, the movie starts with Ali Baba (Bluto, typecast again) singing a song, this one about how he and the thieves are tough, rather than how he tamed a bunch of hyper-monsters. Having a bunch of braggarts sing is a bit New Kids on the Block “Hangin’ Tough” compared to singing about the wild animals you’ve tamed, so Bluto automatically starts off a bit lagging here.

Instead of Popeye sailing on a generic ship, here he starts off with a slightly topical reference, as a soldier at the Coast Guard Station. (Typical of the Fleischers’ attention to detail, they even show the sun gleaming off Popeye’s bald head.) Wimpy sits about a Spruce Goose-like contraption that Popeye launches upon getting word of Ali Baba’s shenanigans. Olive Oyl comes along for the ride, and the Goose literally bounces all over the globe before crashing in the Middle East.

The trio traipse through the desert, encountering some anachronistic gags predating the style of Bugs Bunny’s 1955 Sahara Hare. (Like Bugs, Wimpy sees a very elaborate mirage — in this case, a table laden with food.) Eventually, Olive collapses (but not before Popeye briefly props her up like a camel), as does Wimpy. Popeye threads himself and the other two together as a makeshift tire and rolls into town.

They enter a café, and one of the few outright racist gags of the movie occurs when Popeye is handed a menu in Arabic (which of course he can’t read), until it’s pieced together as a jigsaw puzzle into English. (But Jack Mercer’s chattering here, and elsewhere in the movie, is terrific.)

Popeye and Olive hear a radio broadcast in which the announcer warns of Ali Baba’s arrival by reiterating A.B.’s theme song. (Like Ali Baba needed product placement?) Everyone and everything go into hiding (a clock hides his hands away, even), including the radio after it’s finished its announcement.

Ali Baba’s gang enters and leaves so quickly, they’re literally just a blur. Popeye slows down Ali Baba long enough to try to fight with him, but Ali hangs Popeye from the ceiling as a chandelier and makes off with Olive and Wimpy. Popeye escapes and fuels up a camel (!) to catch the gang.

Ali and his crew enter and close their cave, but Popeye uses his pipe as a blowtorch to cut open an entrance. The cave, like that in Sindbad the Sailor, is another 3D delight for the eyes. In the cave, Popeye finds Olive (forced to do the thieves’ laundry) and Wimpy (chained up just beyond reach of Ali’s huge meal, though of course he manages a few steals). (Gotta love Ali’s guttural sounds when he eats, too — he makes Wimpy look a model of etiquette.)

Ali Baba catches Popeye and throws him to the thieves, who pass him around like a wiffle ball and then dangle him just above a man-eating shark. In the nick of time (surprise!), Popeye remembers his spinach can and tells it to “Open, sez-me!” In a series of extremely satisfying gags, Popeye subdues Ali and his thieves and has them lead a victory parade for himself and his pals.

This might be a strange complaint for a Popeye cartoon, but my only problem with the movie is that it is perhaps too gaggy. I liked the straight-faced fairy-tale style of Sindbad the Sailor a little better; this movie’s sometimes-peculiar jokiness seems to pave the way for the irony-laden CGI cartoons of the 2000’s. That said, it’s still a delightful cartoon on all counts.

On a scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon:  CanCanCanCanHalf