The Bank Dick
Films in BOLD will Air on TCM * | VIEW TCMDb ENTRY
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