The Bank Dick is one hour 12 minute of WC Fields doing what WC Fields does – comedy in an erratic, chaotic, incoherent and brilliant way. It’s barely a film at all, more a series of sketches linked together by the familiar Fields character, a dyspeptic layabout and drunk who spends so much time and effort trying to avoid work that it’s a full-time job in itself.
Loosely, and this is very loose, the “plot” follows the irascible shirker into and out of his favourite bar and then into and out of two different jobs. In one, he somehow becomes the director of a movie, merely by claiming to some wits-end producer type that he’d once directed Keaton, Chaplin, all the greats. Minutes later he’s on set with the bullhorn. It makes no sense.
Somehow, from here, he winds up becoming a bank detective (the film’s alternative title), and within minutes he has inveigled his potential future son-in-law, who works at the bank, into “borrowing” money from the safe to buy some shares in a get-rich-quick scheme (ie scam).
Some of the best scenes are between Fields and his screen family, a wife, a mother-in-law and two daughters, all of whom consider him to be totally useless and an utter liablity. The antipathy drips off the screen, with the youngest daughter, Elsie Mae (Evelyn Del Rio) getting some of the funniest moments as the kid who’s worked out that the best way to deal with her dad is to use violence. An exasperated Elsie Mae: “Shall I bounce a rock off his head?” Her mother: “Respect your father, darling. What kind of rock?” Fields here polishing his notoriety – “any man who hates children and dogs can’t be all bad” etc. Fields never said it, but why let facts get in the way of a good line?
Fields wrote the script and it’s full of verbal flights of fancy, bizarre surrealisms and ridiculous names. Fields goes by the name of Souse, pronounced Sooz-ay, we’re repeatedly told, because there’s an “accent grave on the final e” (it’s an accent acute, in fact, but that might be part of the joke). He frequents a place he calls the Black Pussy Cafe, which the studio insisted on changing to the slightly less pungent Black Pussy Cat Cafe. On the glass door of the cafe it’s obvious that the “Cat” has been added later. Fields completely ignores it.
His daughter’s fiancé is called Og Oggilby – “sounds like a bubble in a bath,” quips Fields. The newspaper he reads is The Lompoc Picayune Intelligencer (Lompoc, incidentally, was a town founded on temperance values, hence Fields’s choice of it as a target). The auditor who comes to check the bank’s books, suddenly giving the film some jeopardy and a recognisable dramatic shape, is J Pinkerton Snoopington. The script is written by Mahatma Kane Jeeves – Fields himself, using a terrible punning pseudonym.
But it’s the weird asides that really make it. At one point there’s a car chase, which director Edward F Cline partly lifts from a Buster Keaton film, and the hood of the 1930s car Fields is driving flies off into the air. “Magic carpet,” he exclaims, half under his breath, as it spirals into the air.
Having made his name on the vaudeville circuit, Fields was used to repeating the same joke night after night. And he has no qualms about repeating the same joke several times in the same film. The hat trick, where he accidentally either puts on the wrong hat or puts the hat on the wrong thing – not his own head, in other words – recurrs several times. It turns up in one form or another in most of his films. And it’s welcome every time because to watch it is to watch a master of physical comedian at work. Fields started out as a juggler – the “world’s greatest” was how he was often billed – and his light touch never left him.
Fields was 60 when he made this film and died of an alcohol-related haemmorhage on Christmas Day 1946. The Bank Dick, and the film that followed it, 1941’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, are probably as near as we can get to Fields on film with the minimum of studio interference and being portrayed the way he wanted to be.
The Bank Dick – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
© Steve Morrissey 2022