The Bank Dick

Movie Information

In Brief: Often cited as W.C. Fields' best movie — or at least as the equal to 1934's It's a Gift — The Bank Dick (1940) is probably the purest expression of the great comedian's humor. Fields himself wrote the screenplay — under the preposterous name of Mahatma Kane Jeeves (a groan-worthy pun if ever there was one) — about a genial layabout drunk, Egbert Sousé (Fields), who, through no fault of his own, foils a bank robbery and is rewarded with the job of bank detective ("or in the argot of the underworld, a bank dick"). Though employment doesn't really suit him — and he has no intention of letting it interfere with his hanging out at his favorite watering hole, The Black Pussy Cat Cafe — Egbert clearly enjoys the authority and the prestige. The plot is largely immaterial — we don't even get to it until some rambling comedy and Egbert's brief employment filling in for a drunken movie director — but the point of it all is that it allows Fields free rein to indulge his every comedic desire.
Genre: Comedy
Director: Edward Cline (Million Dollar Legs)
Starring: W.C. Fields, Cora Witherspoon, Una Merkel, Jessie Ralph, Franklin Pangborn, Grady Sutton, Russell Hicks
Rated: NR



Roughly speaking — which is to say setting aside his silents and early sound films where he wore that awful clip-on mustache — W.C. Fields movies fall into two categories: The Paramount era (1932-38) and the Universal one (1939-41). The Paramount era is largely more realistic, more character-driven. The Universal one is more personality-driven. It’s a matter of taste — and lively debate — as to which is preferable. But almost every one agrees that The Bank Dick is one of the best. It comes closest to the feel of the Paramount films in its small town — Lompoc — setting. Lompoc could almost pass for the whistlestop burgs in movies like Tillie and Gus (1933), You’re Telling Me (1934), and It’s a Gift (1934). Almost. Lompoc is more hayseed, more rundown, and apparently occupied entirely by lunatics and hypocrites. And Fields seems almost apart from them. They exist, it seems, solely for him to react to. There’s a certain warmth to the earlier films that is missing here. That does not make it less funny.




Similarly, where Fields — at least in his starring roles — was at least moderately sympathetic in the Paramount films, that’s not so true here. His Egbert Sousé — “It isn’t pronounced Souse — it’s Sousè, accent grave over the e” — is pretty much a rascal, who, as the film notes, steals money from his child’s piggy bank and tries to support his family by entering slogan contests. He’s lazy and he’s a braggart and he’s a souse (without the incorrectly named accent). So why is he somehow likable? Probably because everyone else in the film — including his family — is pretty unbearable or terminally stupid or flagrantly dishonest (especially, the one who wants to show Egbert that he’s honest “in the worst way”). Plus, there’s something strangely appealing about a “hero” who triumphs in everything without earning it or even trying. It’s nice to see a complete lack of virtue rewarded.

The Asheville Film Society will screen The Bank Dick Tuesday, Sept. 29, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critic Ken Hanke.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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