Alcoholism, deception, sexism and domestic violence…certainly the ingredients for laughter, right?
In the hands of W.C. Fields, these unlikely comic elements did somehow result in hilarity. With his completely unsentimental, rough-edged and often risque sense of humor, Fields' success in a supposedly more innocent era may seem a bit surprising. Like his one-time co-star Mae West, however, he connected with the impolite impulses of the public at large and they loved him for it.
Of the classic screen comics of the golden age, I would take the Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy over Fields, but, unlike those acts, he never lost his edge. The Marx Brothers' comic anarchy was softened when they moved to MGM, and their final films did not do their talent justice, while nothing Laurel and Hardy did after 1940 was really worthy of their earlier gems. But Fields, in part because film stardom came rather late in his career, went out at the top of his game as unapologetically ill mannered as ever.
"The Bank Dick" (1940) was his next-to-last starring vehicle, and most fans rank it alongside "It's a Gift" (1934) as one of his very best. Fields plays Egbert Souse, who dodges the wrath of his bitter wife, mother-in-law and youngest daughter each morning by evacuating the premises in favor of the Black Pussycat Cafe. There, bartender Joe (Shemp Howard, six years prior to joining brother Moe as one of The Three Stooges) keeps Egbert well lubricated as he pontificates to other tavern regulars and keeps an eye out for a good deal or a sucker.
He finds his first mark in a desperate movie producer who believes his B.S. about being an experienced director. Hired to take over a troubled production, his scam is almost undone by the nagging women of his household. Fortunately another lie gets him out of trouble, as he is wrongly credited for stopping a bank robber. His exaggeration of his non-existent heroics gets him a job as the bank detective, with a move to the institution's vice-presidency seemingly his for the taking.
A corrupt investment deal, the poisoning of a diligent bank examiner, and the return of the bank robbers round out the subplots, but the script (written by Fields under the memorable pseudonym Mahatma Kane Jeeves) is less concerned with plot than finding moments for the writer-star to let his renegade brand of humor loose on the world around him. A climactic car chase is a justifiably famous piece of slapstick, but often it's the briefer moments that earn the biggest laughs: Fields threatening to crown his daughter with a dangerously large potted plant, or rushing to retrieve the wobbly bank examiner after a fall from his hotel window.
"The Bank Dick" is part of Universal's W.C. Fields Comedy Collection, a five-disc set that also includes the essential "It's a Gift," his irresistible teaming with Mae West in "My Little Chickadee" (1940), and "You Can't Cheat an Honest Man" (1939), a favorite of mine because it pairs him with his longtime nemesis on the radio airwaves, Charlie McCarthy. With the great wit of his creator and voice, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, at his service, Charlie forged a great feud with Fields and was almost his equal in terms of cutting humor. (Though Charlie, unlike Fields, was occasionally willing to appear lovable, especially where the ladies were concerned.)
Conspicuous in its absence from the set is Field's last feature as the lead, "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break" (1941), though we can hope it may turn up as part of a future set with some of W.C.'s lesser-known films. In its place in the current collection is "International House" (1933), a minor but frequently amusing comic answer to the celebrity-packed melodrama, "Grand Hotel" (a smash hit in its day). Too much time is devoted to a romantic farce involving Peggy Hopkins Joyce (a nearly forgotten socialite/actress mainly famous for getting married frequently), but there are priceless moments with Fields, George Burns, Gracie Allen and Bela Lugosi, showing an unexpected flair for comedy as a jealous former hubby of Miss Joyce. There is also a wild musical number by Cab Calloway (his band is billed here as the Harlem Maniacs) called "Reefer Man," reminding us that the good old days weren't quite as squeaky clean as we think, particularly before the censorship of the Motion Picture Production Code began to be enforced in the mid-1930s.
The W.C. Fields Comedy Collection comes with little in the way of bonus features, offering only some theatrical trailers and an A&E "Biography" episode devoted to Fields' career and tumultuous personal life. The best "bonus" in this case is actually a standard DVD feature: optional English subtitles. Fields, whose speaking manner takes some getting used to in general, was legendary for muttering critical asides under his breath (including occasional thinly veiled profanity substitutes). Now fans who have long strained to decipher some of his muffled comments will be able to more fully enjoy the wicked wit of a comic legend who never gave a censor an even break.
Films featured in DVDetours™ may be difficult to find at many video stores but are widely available from some of the online rental services, such as Netflix, Green Cine, QwikFliks and Blockbuster Online. Inventories vary from company to company and DVDetours has no connection to any of these services.
© 2005 Joel Wicklund