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: