The Bank Dick

The Bank Dick. Universal Pictures 1940.

Before watching the movie:

Between my tastes tending toward the 80s and more recent, having by now seen quite a lot of the more popular movies from that era, and it getting harder to find content on the major platforms from before the last ten years, sometimes I go specifically looking for something much older, especially before the move to color. That’s usually either B-movie sci-fi/horror or a romance, so when I came across a comedy vehicle for W.C. Fields, I jumped at it.

I didn’t spend much time looking over the summary, but it was kind of confusing, like two or three stories at once. It feels like I’m going in even more blind than if I hadn’t read anything.

After watching the movie:

Egbert Sousé (Accent Grave Over The E) is a complete bum, and his family despises him for it. He spends all day at the bar or the racetrack, the rest of whatever money he has or can steal out of his younger daughter’s piggy bank going to the mortgage that’s on the verge of foreclosure. When a bank robber trips over his bench and the arriving police assume Sousé stopped him, which he spins into a daring adventure of citizen justice. The story gets him an offer from the bank to become their new bank detective, and while bragging about it in the bar, a con man tells him about a great investment opportunity in a mining company for only $500. Sousé doesn’t take him up on it directly, but thinks it’s a grand idea for his older daughter’s fiancé Og to build a fortune before he gets married, and instead of using the bonus coming to him at the end of the week for an engagement ring, Og should loan himself the money the bank won’t miss for a few days to buy the shares and pay it back with the bonus. But when the bank auditor J. Pinkerton Snoop turns up the same day, Sousé has to do some quick scheming to keep Snoop away from the books until Friday.

The story structure reminds me a little of an effect I noticed in how an episode of The Simpsons is always written in that the story begins with an incident that could have easily been a separate installment, but after just enough gags have been gotten out of it to make it memorable, the story takes a complete left turn to go somewhere that seems completely unrelated. I suppose it could be argued that Sousé has a sequence where he talks himself into a gig replacing a movie director at the last minute shows off his skill at spinning complete Blarney in a way that people somehow take seriously, but the transition from that to the inciting incident of the main story is so blink and you’ll miss it that I wasn’t fully sure how we actually got there.

I felt very familiar with Fields going in, but I quickly realized that’s mostly from impressions, references, out of context quotes, and other derivatives, and I’d actually never seen more than maybe some clips used to illustrate people talking about how funny he was. His performance style is certainly unique, but a lot of his humor is so deadpan and softpeddled that it took me a while to acclimate to it. I was completely not primed to laugh at his manner of almost sleepwalking into the next change of his luck. As it moved on from “let him do his thing for a while” to “get going with the plot”, I got more into the comedy of it, but there’s still a major element that’s totally unlike anything else.

Most characters are a little pitched. I thought that Og was going to be a straight character, but when he’s afraid for his job, he turns into a slapstick fainter. The whole Sousé family has some element of caricature. Perhaps the straightest character with an appreciable speaking part is the bank president, who, apart from the women in his family who just loathe him, comes the closest to seeing through Sousé’s act. Even many of the names are jokes, including Fields’s screenwriting pseudonym, but some seem to be jokes I don’t get the reference of.

This was fun, but weird. Somehow I had a very wrong but also still somewhat correct idea of what to expect from W.C. Fields. Everything around his style was immediately funny, or at least familiar, so I can tell he’s skilled with conventional comedy, he’s just a bit odd. I should watch more of his works.

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