Old 01-11-2009, 02:38 PM
The Bank Dick

The Bank Dick (1940)

W.C. Fields is hailed as one of the all-time great comic geniuses of the early days of cinema. He was a noted alcoholic and was said to have mainly played himself during his career, which started in 1915 and ran all the way to 1942, just four years before his death, caused by bouts with several illnesses including pneumonia. "The Bank Dick" was one of his final works.

The story follows Egbert Sousť (W.C. Fields) on his comic misadventures around town. He meets a man at a bar who is working on a local movie. He explains that their director is drunk and ends up hiring Egbert to direct the picture. After this episode, Egbert gets caught up with some bank robbers and wrongfully gets praised for catching them when it was nothing more than an accident that he was there.

This leads to him getting a job at the bank as a security guard. Later on, he convinces his daughter's boyfriend, Og Oggilby (Grady Sutton), to buy stocks from a swindler that he met at the same bar as before, but this leads to a lot of trouble as Og borrows it from the bank. A bank examiner, J. Pinkerton Snoopington (Franklin Pangborn), soon comes knocking.

This is the first film that I've seen that has W.C. Fields in it and I must say I was rather disappointed. He has a reputation for being one of the best comics in the history of cinema, but he just doesn't show it here very well. Most of his gags involve physical comedy, but most of it seems forced. Fields does a lot of this physical comedy when the situation doesn't call for it at all. Even when he does it, it is just not that funny.

There are those that can pull of that kind of humor really well. Other comedians of the time are great examples of this like The Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, or Buster Keaton. All of these guys push physical and situational comedy to the extreme and are able to make it incredibly funny for no other reason than that it is unexpected and brilliant choreographed.

However, W.C. Fields was 60 years old when he made this film, so I wouldn't expect the physical comedy to be on the level of those listed above. The problem is that Fields tends to use the same unfunny jokes over and over. He continually misplaces his hat, gets hit in the head with something, or boasts about his great deed of catching the robbers. Perhaps viewing some of his earlier work to examine his brand of comedy would be a good idea, because I don't want to completely condemn him based solely on one film.

Fields also wrote this film. His screenplay gives it the feeling that it is a series of disconnected scenes thrown together. Roger Ebert, in his "Great Movie" essay, says that "This kind of abrupt disconnect is common in Fields Movies. Even a Marx Brothers plot was a masterpiece of construction by comparison. One segment segues into another one, not seamlessly, and no effort is made at realism." That doesn't exactly sound like praise for a film that he considers a "Great Movie." But he is right. The construction of "The Bank Dick" makes it feel like it is just a loose collection of sketches that are tied together by a very thin plot.

Now that that's out of the way, there were some things to like about this film. First, W.C. Fields is a decent actor. Even though his jokes are not that funny, he is an interesting actor to watch nonetheless. The character he plays, Egbert Sousť, seems like a commoner, someone that we all know or have know in our lives. Egbert is not anyone special, nor is he really someone to root for with all his smoking, drinking, and backhanded way of getting things done. Despite all his flaws, he is still an interesting character to watch, as he gets all the good things in life by doing nothing at all.

The other thing that was really good about this movie was the amazing car chase at the end of the film. This was especially impressive when you remember that the movie was made in 1940. In a way, it showed glimpses of the great cinematic car chases that would proceed it in the future like "The French Connection," "Bullitt," or even "The Matrix Reloaded." It was crafted with several close calls thrown in that could have spelled disaster if anyone was off by even a foot.

Even though this movie is not really laugh-out-loud funny, it feels as though W.C. Fields had the potential to do much better comedy that this. But with this film being very late in his career, perhaps he just didn't have it in him anymore, or perhaps somebody just threw one too many objects at his head. 2.5/4 stars.
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