When The Bank Dick was released in 1940, the image of W.C. Fields was moreor less a caricature. His bulbous nose, middle-aged girth, and use of the phrase “Ah, yes . . .” were sent up across the popular culture of the time, perhaps most harshly in Warner Bros. cartoons (in one, Fields was recast as a duplicitous pig; in another as a huckster rodent). Fields fed these parodies by playing up the familiar traits established in earlier films. On the surface he was as depicted. But the humor of Fields went deeper than that, and culminated in what is arguably his most popular and enduring feature.
The Bank Dick has no real plot but plenty of situations. The action is determined by Fields’ character, Egbert Sousé, the resident know-it-all buffoon of Lompoc. Sousé stumbles from home to bar (tantalizingly dubbed The Black Pussy) and all points in between, stopping now and then to pass on useless advice and tell tall tales. He is a pathetic, bad-tempered figure who curses everyone under his alcohol-scented breath—everyone, that is, save Joe the bartender (played by the positively restrained Shemp Howard, the intellectual’s Stooge) who patiently administers Sousé’s medicine.
It appears that poor Egbert hasn’t much of a life. At home, his wife, youngest daughter, and mother-in-law conspire to keep him from smoking or, indeed, having any fun at all. He seems oblivious to his eldest daughter’s engagement to a bank teller (played by Grady Sutton, who also appears in the Fields short The Pharmacist). He holds no job and, other than Joe, has no friends, though he claims to know everyone in town. It isn’t until he brags his way into a film director’s chair that his fortune begins to change. And in typical Fields fashion, his fortune is not made through honest effort but by luck, circumstance, and beautifully timed accidents, later turned into heroic epics by Sousé as he exaggerates his role in each. Here and elsewhere, Fields accurately nails the American tendency to inflate one’s importance, especially if money and fame are at stake.
The Bank Dick, written by Fields under the nom de plume Mahatma Kane Jeeves, contains many of the same themes found in his short films: the hectoring family, small-town puritanism, irritating children, the love of drink and smoke. (There is also the now-troubling ethnic stereotype, here in the guise of the Shufflin’ Hollywood Negro who, in his desire to draw money from his account, practically scares Fields to death.) These themes served Fields well, not only in this film, but in most of his better work. And what makes the comedy unique, especially for its time, is that Fields grants no one moral high ground. Everyone has an agenda, is on the take, is insipid or simply meddlesome; the worst character traits usually belong to Fields himself. Although this style of comedy is sometimes tried today (the best recent example was Seinfeld, part brainchild of Larry David, a truly dark absurdist who never met a protaganist he seemed to like), rarely is it done with the subtle malice of which Fields was a master.
So enjoy The Bank Dick, and don’t be fooled by the clumsy behavior of its star. Advanced in years and near the end of his career (after Never Give a Sucker an Even Break in 1941, he popped up in a few cameo roles before his death in 1946), Fields was in full command of his powers. Like Fatty Arbuckle before him, and Jackie Gleason and John Belushi after him, Fields put his pudgy frame to fine comedic use. The result? Drunk, awkward, indifferent to the needs of others, Egbert Sousé prevails and remains true to his one love, The Black Pussy. A morality tale as only W.C. Fields could, and did, conceive.
Dennis Perrin is the author of Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O'Donoghue, The Man Who Made Comedy Dangerous (Avon Books) and American Fan: Sports Mania and the Culture That Feeds It (Spike/HarperCollins).