Though W.C. Fields is rightly regarded as a comedy legend, his films just haven’t been widely available until fairly recently. Even in the VHS era, it was hard to find them, let alone with quality prints. I don’t think I’d even heard of him or seen one of his films till my twenties, though I’d long been familiar with other classic comedians from this era. I wouldn’t be surprised if many people under about 40 had no idea who he was, in comparison to how most culturally literate younger people at least know of Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, and Abbott and Costello. Even if they’ve never actually seen their films, they’re familiar with the names and perhaps faces.
Released 29 November 1940, The Bank Dick is widely regarded as one of Fields’s best films, though I personally prefer 1941’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. And to answer the obvious question, the word dick was slang for a detective in this era. Until I was twelve, I had no idea it also has a cruder meaning.
W.C. Fields plays Egbert Sousé, a hopelessly henpecked family man. His wife, mother-in-law, and younger daughter all have it out for him, and some people think his name is pronounced Souse (slang for drunk). One of Egbert’s neighbor explains it’s Sou-SAY, since there’s an accent over the E. She calls it an accent grave, though it’s really an accent aigu. Perhaps that’s part of the joke too.
As a huge Three Stooges fan, I’m delighted to point out my boy Shemp is in this too, playing a bartender at The Black Pussy Café. This name was a very daring thing to sneak past the censors in as many scenes as it was. Shemp was the only Stooge (from the original lineup) who acted in a wide variety of films, not just as a Stooge. He was quite possibly the best actor out of all of them, since he was so versatile and not tied down to just one character forever. I have zero tolerance for Shemp-bashers, and if I ever have my Samuel before I’m too old, his nickname will be Shemp too.
Egbert’s one joy in his henpecked life is his older daughter Myrtle (Una Merkel), though she’s very ashamed of how much he smokes and drinks. He frequents The Black Pussy Café to get away from all the abuse heaped on him at home, and on one of these visits, he’s given a job as a movie director. Things don’t work out that well, but after he leaves the set, he accidentally stumbles into catching one of the bank robbers who just struck Lompoc State Bank, where Myrtle’s fiancé, Og Oggilby (Grady Sutton), works. In reward, Egbert is given a position as bank dick.
On another visit to The Black Pussy Café, Egbert is talked into investing in a seemingly worthless beefsteak mine. He convinces Og to come along for the ride too, and Og takes $500 from the bank to pay for his stocks. Og figures he’ll make back the money when he gets his upcoming $500 bonus, and not only will no one be any the wiser, but he’ll be richer too, and worthy of Myrtle’s hand.
Things get a little complicated when the bank inspector, J. Pinkerton Snoopington (Franklin Pangborn), comes to town to inspect the books. To save Og’s hide, Egbert wages a valiant campaign to keep Snoopington far away from the bank and unable to get a look at those books. I won’t spoil all the great twists and turns that happen from this point out, though I will say there’s an awesome car chase near the end.
There are so many awesome character names in this, like Og Oggilby, Dr. Stall, Filthy McNasty, Snoopington, and A. Pismo Clam. Fields’s character may be an acquired taste for some, since he’s a rather un-PC curmudgeon instead of immediately sweet and sympathetic like Laurel and Hardy, but he gets funnier each time. He was definitely one of those stars whose career got a huge boost with the advent of sound, since his voice matches his character so perfectly.