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The Bank Dick

The Bank Dick(1940)

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teaser The Bank Dick (1940)


Despite his wife's nagging, champion tippler Egbert Souse (pronounced "Soo-say") spends his time avoiding work so he can hang out at his favorite watering hall, The Black Pussy Cat Cafe, but jobs keep falling into his lap. After a brief attempt to fill in for a drunken movie director, he encounters a bank robber which accidentally leads to the man's arrest. Labeled a hero, he's hired as a security expert at the bank, where his daughter's fiance works. His major accomplishments are confiscating a child's toy gun and convincing his future son-in-law to embezzle $500 so he can invest in a con artist's get-rich-quick scheme, the Beefsteak Mine. Before the investment can pay off, the bank examiner shows up to check the books, leading to a series of ruses and a madcap chase to cover up the illegal activity.

Director: Edward F. Cline
Producer: Cliff Work
Screenplay: Mahatma Kane Jeeves (W.C. Fields)
Cinematography: Milton R. Krasner
Editing: Arthur Hilton
Art Direction: Jack Otterson, Richard H. Riedel
Music: Frank Skinner
Cast: W.C. Fields (Egbert Souse), Cora Witherspoon (Agatha Souse), Una Merkel (Myrtle Souse), Evelyn Del Rio (Elsie Mae Adele Brunch Souse), Jessie Ralph (Mrs. Hermisillo Brunch), Franklin Pangborn (J. Pinkerton Snoopington), Shemp Howard (Joe Guelpe), Dick Purcell (Mackley Q. Greene), Grady Sutton (Og Oggilby), Russell Hicks (J. Frothingham Waterbury), Jack Norton (A. Pismo Clam), Reed Hadley (Francois), Eddie Acuff (Reporter), Patsy Moran (Lady with Fruit Hat)

Why THE BANK DICK is Essential

The Bank Dick ranks with It's a Gift (1934) in many critics' estimations as W.C. Fields' funniest and best movie. Tipping the scales in this film's favor is the fact that Fields had more artistic control on this film than on any of his others. Of special appeal to his fans is The Bank Dick's combination of his usual acerbic one-liners aimed at such middle-class institutions as matrimony, child-rearing and temperance with moments of inspired pantomime showing off Fields' physical dexterity as a juggler. In one great bit, he wads up a paper napkin, throws it in the air, catches it on his foot and kicks it away, making the elaborate routine look easy.

One of the great joys of Fields' films was their irreverent attitude toward the institutions most movies enshrined. While MGM's "Andy Hardy" films and imitations at other studios depicted a whitewashed view of family life with saintly mothers, wise fathers and adoring if mischievous offspring, Fields presented the family as a hotbed of resentments. In The Bank Dick, two scenes in particular are almost nightmare visions of the typical Hollywood family; one occurs in which his wife, mother-in-law and younger daughter interrupt his chance to direct a film by demanding he make a role for the daughter and another in which his attempts to tell the family about his "heroic" capture of a bank robber are met with indifference and hostility In addition, the film's depiction of Egbert's triumph, with a family that now adores him because he has made them rich, leaving him all the time he wants in which to get drunk, seems to thumb its nose at conventional morality and the middle-class work ethic. The Bank Dick is the only film in which his character not only triumphs because of his departure from conventional values but makes it through to the final frame without any hint of reforming himself.

The Bank Dick was the first solo vehicle Fields made under a new contract at Universal Pictures after declining box office and studio interference led to a parting of the ways with Paramount. He had come to the studio in 1939, but initially they had hedged their bets by teaming him first with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy in You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939) and then Mae West in My Little Chickadee (1940). The box office successes of both films, particularly the latter, brought him back with full control over this film.

Biographers have suggested The Bank Dick gives some insight into Fields' contempt for his Hollywood bosses. During the sequence in which he attempts to direct a film, he takes the stars aside and completely changes the picture's plot. As absurdity piles upon absurdity, a production assistant takes down his off-the-cuff ideas. Later, Egbert learns that the studio's management has bought his absurd plot, convinced it will make a great movie. In a sense, that's exactly what happened when he got Universal to bankroll The Bank Dick.

by Frank Miller

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teaser The Bank Dick (1940)

In Creepshow (1982), Leslie Nielsen watches a video of The Bank Dick before Ted Danson's ghost turns up to haunt him.

When Fields enters The Black Pussy Cat Cafe early on, he whistles "Listen to the Mockingbird," the theme song for the Three Stooges movies. The bartender is played by Shemp Howard, whose brothers Moe and Curly were members of the team and who eventually took over when Curly began having health problems.

It has often been noted that the episodic nature of The Bank Dick and other W.C. Fields movies follows the comedian's vaudeville act and the skit structure of Broadway revues such as the Ziegfeld Follies.

Fields' off-screen reputation as an alcoholic is also part of his on-screen persona and usually a major character trait of his movie protagonists.

by Frank Miller

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teaser The Bank Dick (1940)

W.C. Fields' contract called for a fee of $125,000 per film. In addition, his writer's allowance brought him $25,000.

Fields named his younger daughter in the film for his sisters Elsie May and Adel. Her full name is Elsie Mae Adele Brunch Sous.

According to rumors, Al Hill, who played bank robber Repulsive Rogan, was originally employed by the mob to keep an eye on their motion picture interests. He asked for a small role in one of the film's he was supervising for them, and nobody could turn him down. He enjoyed acting so much, he switched to it full time, frequently playing gangsters.

Egbert wins his shot at directing a film by bragging to the producer that he once directed Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton and other Mack Sennett stars. Director Edward F. Cline had worked with Sennett and co-directed some of Keaton's early shorts.

Memorable Quotes from THE BANK DICK

"Shall I bounce a rock off his head?"
"Respect your father, darling. What kind of rock?" -- Evelyn Del Rio, as Elsie Mae Adele Brunch Souse, and Cora Witherspoon, as Agatha Souse.

"Father, this is Og Oggilby."
"Og Oggilby! Hmmmm, sounds like a bubble in the bathtub." -- Una Merkle, as Myrtle Souse -- introducing fiance Grady Sutton, as Og Oggilby, to her father, W.C. Fields as Egbert Souse.

"Was I in here last night, and did I spend a twenty-dollar bill?"
"Oh, boy! What a load that is off my mind. I thought I'd lost it." -- Fields, as Egbert Souse, questioning Shemp Howard, as Joe Guelpe.

"Take off your hat in the presence of a gentleman." -- Fields, as Egbert, addressing a closed bottle of whisky, something he does several times in the film.

"The bank opens promptly at ten."
"Oh, well, that's all right. If I'm not here on time you just go right ahead without me. I'll catch up with ya." -- Pierre Watkin, as Mr. Skinner, giving Fields his working hours.

"I'd rather part with my dear old grandmother's paisley shawl than to part with these bonds."
"Yes, it must be tough to lose a paisley shawl." -- Russell Hicks, as J. Frothingham Waterbury, conning Fields.

"Take a chance. Take it while you're young. My uncle, a balloon ascensionist, Effingham Huffnagel, took a chance. He was three and a half miles up in the air. He jumped out of the basket of the balloon and took a chance of alighting on a load of hay."
"Did he make it?"
" didn't. Had he been a younger man he probably would have made it. That's the point -- don't wait too long in life." -- Fields, convincing Sutton, as Og Oggilby to embezzle for him.

"Don't be a luddy duddy! Don't be a moon calf! Don't be a jabbernowl! You're not those, are you?" -- Fields, clinching the deal with Sutton, as Og.

"Mommy, doesn't that man have a funny nose?"
"You mustn't make fun of the gentleman, Clifford. You'd like to have a nose like that full of nickels, wouldn't you?" -- Bobby Larson, as Boy in Bank, and Jan Duggan, as Mother in Bank, commenting on Fields' appearance.

"Oh, I knew this would happen! I was a perfect idiot to ever listen to you!"
"You listen to me, Og! There's nothing in this world that is perfect." -- Sutton and Fields.

"Mr. Souse, if duty called, I would go into the tsetse fly country of Africa and brave sleeping sickness if there were books to be examined." -- Franklin Pangborn, as J. Pinkerton Snoopington.

"The resale value of this car is going to be practically nil when we get through with this trip." -- Fields, driving the bank robber's getaway car.

"Give me that wheel!"
"[Pulling wheel free and handing it to him] Here it is, but it won't do you any good in that back seat." -- Al Hill, as Repulsive Rogan, trying to get control of the getaway car from Fields.

Compiled by Frank Miller

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teaser The Bank Dick (1940)

After making My Little Chickadee (1940), W.C. Fields signed a new contract with Universal Pictures that gave him complete artistic control over his films. Then he took his time finding his first project. As executives grew impatient they suggested a new version of LeRoy Clemens' play Alias the Deacon, which they had filmed twice before and were preparing to re-make. Fields felt the role of a cardsharp in the old West was too similar to My Little Chickadee, however, and turned them down. At the same time, he said he was working on his own script, set in the present day, that would feature him as the kind of hard-drinking, misanthropic family man he had played in such classics as It's a Gift (1934) and Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935). When he assured them the film would be less expensive, they not only agreed to wait, but granted him a small writing allowance.

Fields submitted his plot treatment in January 1940 along with a request that the studio borrow Ann Sothern and Mickey Rooney from MGM. He got neither of them. He also requested Grady Sutton, with whom he had worked on three other films, as his comic foil. When Universal persisted that they wanted one of their own contract players in the role, he had to threaten to quit to get his way.

Once the script for The Bank Dick was completed in July, Joe Breen of the Production Code Administration, the industry's self-censoring board, submitted his objections in a letter that rivaled the screenplay for length. Among his pettier complaints was the suggestion a doctor's instructions to take two pills "in a glass of castor oil for two nights running" was toilet humor because of the medicine's reputation as a laxative. Fields offered to change it to cod-liver oil, then kept the original. A bigger battle raged over the name of Fields' favorite watering hole in the film, The Black Pussy Cafe and Snack Bar. Breen thought it a dirty joke, even after Fields claimed he had named it after comedian Leon Errol's bar in Santa Monica. Finally, Fields agreed to make it The Black Pussy Cat Cafe, but that name only turned up on the sign outside the bar room. Whenever it was referred to in the dialogue, it remained The Black Pussy Cafe.

When Universal executives received Fields' script, they complained that it was too short for a feature. He assured them he had kept the script short to allow room for improvisation and physical bits that would be developed on the set. Nonetheless, they assigned a series of script doctors to work on it. Each time he received a new script, Fields refused to work with it, pointing out that in each case the "critic" assigned - he refused to refer to them as "writers" - had actually changed his script completely. He also made the case that "When the star finally appears upon the screen and if it is a dud the critic's name will not be mentioned or condemned. I am the one who will take it on the chin." After receiving three unacceptable re-writes, Fields went over the executives' heads to Universal President Nate Blumberg. Blumberg ordered that the film be made with Fields' original script, reminding his underlings that anything else would violate the star's contract.

Fields gave some of his characters "ticket names," names that reflect their characters or occupations. In addition to his hard-drinking character's being named Souse, the bartender is named Joe Guelpe and the bank examiner J. Pinkerton Snoopington. The movie director's name, A. Pismo Clam, is a tribute to the town of Pismo Beach, CA, noted for its succulent clams. Ironically, Pismo Beach is not that far from Lompoc, CA, whose name Fields borrowed for his small-town setting.

by Frank Miller

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teaser The Bank Dick (1940)

On the first day of shooting The Bank Dick, in September 1940, the cast and crew were ready punctually at 9 a.m. as instructed by W.C. Fields. He showed up at 11 a.m., followed onto the set by his secretary, who carried his flask. Nobody acted as if he were late, including Fields. They simply went straight to work.

The filming actually started with one of the last scenes, the family breakfast in the new home that was purchased by bogus stock investment. As Fields rose to leave for work, his elder daughter, played by Una Merkel, kissed him on the forehead. He apologized for his breath, which smelled of alcohol. Merkel replied, "Why Mr. Fields, on you it smells like Chanel Number Five." She remained a favorite of his throughout the shoot.

Although his experiences with Mack Sennett had prepared director Edward Cline to direct slapstick scenes like the film's climactic car chase, nothing could have prepared him for Fields' ad-libbing. The star rarely delivered a line as written. For one scene in The Black Pussy Cat Cafe, Fields was supposed to share some dialogue with actor Bill Wolfe. Instead, he improvised a lengthy monologue, then simply left the set, with Wolfe gazing after him dumbfounded. That was the shot used in the finished film.

During another scene in the bar, Shemp Howard, cast as bartender Joe Guelpe, couldn't find the prop water glass for Egbert's usual, whiskey with water chaser. Instead, he used an old fashioned glass. Fields added to the joke by treating the glass as a finger bowl. He then dried his fingers on a paper napkin, balled it up, tossed it over his shoulder and kicked it back up with his foot.

On the day they filmed the scenes in which Egbert tries to direct a movie, Cline, as a gag, had some men carry him to the set in a sedan chair. Fields immediately appropriated it and used it for Egbert's entrance to the location shoot. He improvised a series of jokes around the chair that had the crew paralyzed with laughter.

Shooting on The Bank Dick ended in mid-October. At that time, Fields directed that his writing credit should go to a pseudonym, as usual, with none of the "critics" acknowledged. For The Bank Dick he used the name "Mahatma Kane Jeeves." The name was a take-off on British drawing room comedies, in which the butler usually was named Jeeves, and the leading man would at least once prepare to leave the house and order the butler, "My hat, my cane, Jeeves." That line was actually in the script, at the end of the final breakfast scene, but Fields had decided not to use it.

After the film's preview, Fields polished some of the comic lines, then post-dubbed them. The new lines are easy to spot, as he couldn't be bothered to synch the new lines properly with the lip movements on screen. Most critics feel this obvious error actually adds to the film's comic effect.

Fields and Universal received complaints from residents of Lompoc, CA. Not only did they resent Fields' depiction of their town as boring and culturally backwards, but he mispronounced the name throughout as "Lom-poke," giving it a risque sound. Lompoc had been founded as a dry town, which gave its inhabitants another reason to resent the film.

Both Mack Sennett and William Saroyan suggested the script should be honored with an Academy Award®, but Fields knew better, telling Sennett they usually forgot the clowns at Oscar® time. He was right. He was never voted an Oscar® nomination.

by Frank Miller

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teaser The Bank Dick (1940)

In The Bank Dick (1940), W.C. Fields satirizes small town America, poking fun at family life, law enforcement and the banking profession. You couldn't find a more perfect embodiment of Fields' peculiar brand of humor than the character of Egbert Souse (accent grahve over the e) who displays total irreverence toward authority: he constantly lies to his nagging wife, repeatedly gets into scrapes with hostile cops, offends upper-class snobs with his caustic wit, and prefers to spend his time downing whiskey at the Black Pussy Cafe. However, Souse's days as an unemployed lay about soon come to an end when he is rewarded with a job as the guard at the local bank after accidentally capturing a bandit. Once ensconced in his new position, Souse begins badgering bank teller and future son-in-law, Og Oggilby (Grady Sutton), to make some risky investments with the bank's money. Naturally, the deal goes sour and Souse invents an elaborate charade to keep J. Pinkerton Snoopington (Franklin Pangborn), the bank examiner from checking the books. Before the ruse is discovered, another bank robber shows up, leading to one of the wildest car chases since the days of the Keystone Cops.

Among most Fields' enthusiasts, The Bank Dick is considered one of his best films, right up there with It's a Gift (1934). It's also the only film in which Fields enjoyed full creative control and it would be his last. His final starring role in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) was an unhappy experience and turned into one long battle with the Universal top brass over scripting and censorship issues. By contrast, the set of The Bank Dick was a tranquil one though Fields' fondness for improvisation added an unpredictable element to the proceedings. Co-star Reed Hadley later said, "The fascinating thing about working with Bill was that each take was different. Here I was, having studied the script, expecting a specific cue from Mr. Fields. But he would usually say something quite different, and the first few times actors would be a little startled. But whatever he said, Bill would usually express the general idea of what was actually written in the script."

The origin of The Bank Dick was also the result of improvisation. Originally, Universal's Vice President Matty Fox had suggested to Fields that he play a dishonest card shark in Nat Perrin's comedy, Alias the Deacon but the comedian had already done that in My Little Chickadee (1940) and proposed an original script of his own. With Fox's approval, Fields began sending bits and pieces of the script to Universal for review and also began casting the film. He wanted Gloria Jean and Ann Sothern for key roles but was denied them both and even MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer refused to allow the loan-out of Mickey Rooney whose talent Fields greatly admired. Nevertheless, Fields succeeded in hiring some of his favorite character actors like Grady Sutton, Franklin Pangborn, and George Moran. He also cast Una Merkel as Myrtle Souse and Al Hill, who was reputed to be a former mobster, in the role of Repulsive Rogan, the dangerous bank robber who creates chaos in the final reel.

When Fields' script for The Bank Dick was finally submitted in full (under the pseudonym of Mahatma Kane Jeeves), the Breen Office responded with their usual list of censorship demands and script changes. Here are a few of Fields' responses to some of their more ridiculous requests, like Breen objecting to "castor oil" being used in close proximity to the word 'running': "How anyone could read any vulgarity or obnoxiousness into castor oil is beyond me and Snoop's following line about exercise is beyond me....The word "hell" is used in "Gone With the Wind." There is no venom meant in our case, nor will it be construed as such...With reference to the name of the cafe, "The Black Pussy," Mr. Leon Errol, the renowned comedian runs a cafe on Santa Monica Boulevard called "The Black Pussy." It can be changed, but why?"

The Breen Office wasn't the only group that wanted to tamper with the script of The Bank Dick. So did the studio, which altered Field's original screenplay without his permission. But the comedian took his case directly to Nate Blumberg, president of Universal Pictures, stating "I assure you if I am forced to do this picture as is now written it will not only be detrimental to me, but to Universal Studios." Blumberg wisely ruled in Fields' favor, allowing the comedian to complete his film in complete freedom, and The Bank Dick proved to be a financial success as well as a critical one. Only the citizens of Lompoc, California (a real town that was the setting for The Bank Dick) were upset by the film because Fields constantly mispronounced the town's name and they felt he portrayed them as foolish and backward.

Producer: Jack J. Gross
Director: Edward F. Cline
Screenplay: W.C. Fields (as Mahatma Kane Jeeves)
Production Design: Jack Otterson, Richard H. Riedel
Cinematography: Milton R. Krasner
Costume Design: Vera West
Film Editing: Arthur Hilton
Original Music: Charles Previn, Heinz Roemheld (uncredited), Frank Skinner (uncredited)
Principal Cast: W.C. Fields (Egbert Souse), Cora Witherspoon (Agatha Souse), Una Merkel (Myrtle Souse), Evelyn Del Rio (Elsie Mae Adele Brunch Souse), Jessie Ralph (Mrs. Hermisillo Brunch).
BW-72m. Closed Captioning.

by Jeff Stafford

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Awards & Honors

In 1992, The Bank Dick was voted a place on the National Film Registry.

This film was named one of the 50 greatest comedies of all time by Premiere magazine in 2006.

Critic Reviews: THE BANK DICK

"Showmen whose customers are addicted to yearning for the W.C. Fields of other years and/or the comedies that were Keystones are now in a position to promise them satisfaction of both those yearnings in one and the same film.Press-shown at the Hillstreet Theatre, Los Angeles, a cinema serving metropolitan and transient trade, where the audience laughed itself to the verge of hysterics."
- W.R.W., Motion Picture Herald

"It's a crazy-quilt pattern aiming for laughs, and achieves the purpose adequately. Several times, Fields reaches into satirical pantomime reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin's best effort in that line during Mutual and Essanay days. Directorial guidance by Edward Cline (graduate of the Keystone Kop school) smacks over every gag line and situation to the fullest extent."
- Walt, Variety

"The Bank Dick is the long-waited reward for the followers of cob-nosed comedian W.C. Fields. The reward is the more rewarding because his recent pictures were impeded by the disconcerting presence of irrelevant comics. In this one, the Sultan of Sloth finally achieves the kind of delightful outrage which has made his fan list long and faithful. There are 74 minutes of almost clear Fields -- as much a one-man show as the fences of cinema formula will allow."
- Time

"old Bill has the time of his life -- growling, feinting, being official and forever preserving his fly-blown dignity. No one who fancies madcap comedy can reasonably afford to miss the spectacle of Bill creeping up and pouncing upon a kid with a cap-pistol in the bank; or of Bill solicitously attending a bank examiner whom he has fed a 'Michael Finn'; or of Bill at the wheel of the car in which a desperate bandit is attempting to escape."
- Bosley Crowther, The New York Times

"When the man is funny he is terrific...but the story is makeshift, the other characters are stock types, the only pace discernible is the distance between drinks or the rhythm of the fleeting seconds it takes Fields to size up trouble coming and duck the hell out."
- Otis Ferguson

"Imperfect, but probably the best Fields vehicle there is: the jokes sometimes end in mid-air, but there are delicious moments and very little padding."
- Halliwell's Film & Video Guide

"W.C. Fields had virtually complete freedom in making The Bank Dick...and the film demonstrates his screen character in its most fully developed form...There is also an evocation of the classic silent film chase directed by Edward Cline, a graduate of the Mack Sennett school."
- The Oxford Companion to Film

"By far the best of Fields' last comedies, with the great man trundling through an impeccably loony scenario of his own devising...Totally ramshackle and marvellous."
- TimeOut Film Guide

Compiled by Frank Miller

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