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.