Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Bank Dick (Universal, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I broke out volume 1 of Universal’s two boxed sets of films by W. C. Fields — the one I paid a bit too much for at to get the 1932 movie International House. Between them the two boxes contain 10 films, six made at Paramount between 1932 and 1936 and the four Fields actually made at Universal (Charles is a bit resentful at the way Universal, who acquired these films from MCA-TV after Universal and MCA merged in 1962, Paramount having previously sold its entire library of sound films from 1928 to 1949 to MCA-TV in the 1950’s, has slapped their modern logo on movies they had nothing to do with making). After Paramount fired Fields, Mae West and Marlene Dietrich in 1938 (for different reasons: Fields because his age and alcoholism were leading to long bouts with ill health during which stand-ins and doubles had to fill in for him; West because neither the quality nor popularity of her films had recovered from the Legion of Decency’s campaign in 1934 and the strict enforcement of the Production Code that resulted; Dietrich because a series of quirky but unpopular films had put her on Harry Brandt’s infamous “Box-Office Poison” list alongside Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn and Fred Astaire), Universal signed all of them and gave Fields the film You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Bergen and Fields had become a popular team on Bergen’s radio show but the chemistry didn’t work on film — You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man was a reasonably amusing film but not the laugh-riot it could have been and not the richer, deeper, more pathos-ridden work Fields had had in mind when he’d written the original story (under his usual pen-name, “Charles Bogle”).

Then Fields did My Little Chickadee with Mae West — the script was credited to both of them but in 1969 West told Life magazine that she’d written all of it except for one scene in a bar (and it was so clearly a parody of The Girl of the Golden West that if it had another author, it was David Belasco) — and after that Universal finally gave Fields near-total control of his movies and ended up with two masterpieces, The Bank Dick (1940) and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941). The Bank Dick, the film Charles and I watched two nights ago, is the last of Fields’ henpecked-husband movies, in which the hell his nice suburban house (with the typical ghastly floral wallpaper of the period — it looks a little better than a PRC set, but not much) has become from the three generations of his family sharing it with him is vividly dramatized by an out-of-tune trumpet soloist playing “Home, Sweet Home” every time it’s introduced on screen. Fields plays Egbert Sousé (“accent grave over the ‘e,’” he keeps explaining so no one will call him “Souse,” as in “drunkard”), who spends his days working crossword puzzles, entering contests and sneaking cigarettes and alcohol in his room when he’s not hanging out at the Black Pussy Cat Café in town, run by Joe Guelpe (Shemp Howard, who would later replace his brother Curly in the Three Stooges but was a first-rate comic actor on his own, frequently appearing with Abbott and Costello). The name of that establishment represents Production Code enforcement at its absolute dippiest: Fields originally wanted to call it the “Black Pussy Café” after a real bar his friend, British comedian Leon Errol, owned in Los Angeles. But the Production Code Administration vetoed “Black Pussy Café” as the name of a movie bar. Fields wrote a series of increasingly surreal letters saying basically that if the California Alcoholic Beverage Control Board didn’t mind there being an actual bar named “Black Pussy Café,” the Code people shouldn’t object to a fictional one. In the end the signs on the bar set had to proclaim its identity as the “Black Pussy Cat Café,” but both Fields and another actor say just “Black Pussy Café” in the dialogue. For The Bank Dick Fields got to write not only the original story but the complete script as well — he’d been upset at the changes Universal’s screenwriters had made to You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, especially that they’d eliminated almost all the sympathetic aspects of his character and turned him into a lout — a credit he took under the name “Mahatma Kane Jeeves.” One “Trivia” contributor said he got that from the call in plays of the period, “My hat, my cane, Jeeves!,” but when he was interviewed in the 1970’s by Richard Schickel for his series The Men Who Made the Movies, Orson Welles claimed Fields had come up with the name as a tribute to him. Welles had performed amateur magic shows under the name “The Great Mahatma,” “Kane” came from Citizen Kane (which was shooting at the same time as The Bank Dick but wasn’t released until a year later) and “Jeeves” from the butler character in P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster novels, which both Fields and Welles admired.

Indeed, not only Fields’ character and his screenwriting credit have typically Fieldsian names, but so do virtually all the dramatis personae in the film; his hellish family consists of his wife Agatha Brunch Sousé (Cora Witherspoon), his mother-in law Hermisillo Brunch (Jessie Ralph) — who runs the house with all the compassion and love of a commandant in a German concentration camp — and his daughters Myrtle Sousé (Una Merkel, surprisingly good as an ingénue even though she was old enough to have played Ann Rutledge in D. W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln a decade earlier, and her portrayal of Fields’ daughter is considerably edgier and less sympathetic than Mary Brian’s in The Man on the Flying Trapeze and Rochelle Hudson’s in Poppy) and Elsie Mae Adele Brunch Sousé (child actress Evelyn Del Rio), a mouthful of a name whose attempts of the other players to pronounce it in full are themselves funny. Myrtle has a boyfriend, Og (short for “Oglethorpe”) Oggilby (Grady Sutton, a frequent actor in Fields movies who lasted long enough in the business to play the head of the school board in the Ramones’ vehicle Rock ’n’ Roll High School), who’s a teller at the Skinner National Bank in Lompoc, the small town where all this takes place. (When I saw this movie as a kid I assumed W. C. Fields had made up the name “Lompoc” and the makers of the hilarious Roger Ramjet cartoons in the 1960’s had ripped it off from him, so I was astonished to find there was a real California town named Lompoc; according to an “trivia” poster, the Lompocians pronounced the name “Lom-poke” instead of the “Lom-pock” version heard in the movie, and it was also founded as a “dry” town in which alcohol would not be available — and therefore they were not happy that one of the most celebrated drunks in movies not only depicted their city but put a bar in the middle of it.) What’s amazing about The Bank Dick is that, even more than the starring vehicles Fields had made before it, it and its successor, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (Fields’ last film as star, though he made guest appearances in three more movies before his death in 1946), is how totally it sits in the world of W. C. Fieldsiana: his own script (not just the story but the actual screenplay), his favorite director (ex-Keystone Kop Eddie Cline, whom he’d brought in to do his scenes in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man after George Marshall, a first-rate comic director for Bob Hope, had proved unable or unwilling to fit his work into the Fields ethos), and a land in which not only Fields’ own character but virtually everyone in the movie had an elaborate cognomen — Charles declared that “Fields was the best nomenclator since Dickens,” and while he seemed more interested in getting a rise out of me for using the word “nomenclator,” the comparison is apt since Dickens was Fields’ favorite writer and Fields was superb as Mr. Micawber in the 1935 MGM film of David Copperfield. (One of Fields’ great unrealized ambitions was to star in an adaptation of The Pickwick Papers, though to my mind the tragically unmade Fields movie was one in which he would have played Shakespeare’s Falstaff.)

The plot of The Bank Dick, to the extent it has one, consists of Egbert Sousé’s more-or-less drunken ramblings around Lompoc, during which he stumbles into Mackley Q. Greene (future Captain America Dick Purcell), production manager for a movie company shooting a one-reeler on location in Lompoc. When the official director, A. Pismo Clam (played by fabled movie drunk Jack Norton), goes on a bender after he gets a dear-John letter from his wife, Our Hero volunteers to take over and boasts, “In the old Sennett days, I used to direct Fatty Arbuckle, Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and the rest of ‘em.” Eddie Cline had co-directed Keaton in several early films, including Sherlock, Jr. (from which he “borrowed” a great stunt gag in which a motorcycle cop drives through a trench filled with diggers, upends them out of the trench and ends up gripping the handlebars of his bike without the rest of it — this bit appears in The Bank Dick as part of the vertiginous final car-chase scene) and Fields himself had worked for Sennett, but well past Sennett’s prime in a series of early-1930’s sound two-reelers (The Dentist, The Pharmacist, The Barber Shop and the awesome vest-pocket masterpiece The Fatal Glass of Beer). Sousé starts dictating a script which the studio stenographers take down, though ultimately a clash with his family literally knocks him out of his director’s chair (for some reason it’s on rockers) and Clam re-takes over the production. Then a couple of bank robbers played by Al Hill and George Moran try to hold up the Skinner bank — there’s some confusion as to their character names (the credits list Hill as playing “Filthy McNasty” — a name Horace Silver later appropriated as the title of one of his jazz originals — and Moran as “Cozy Cochran,” but in the actual dialogue Hill is called “Repulsive Rogan” and Moran “Loudmouth McNasty” — and Sousé sits down on a bus bench under which Moran’s character has just fallen unconscious. Sousé is given credit for catching and incapacitating the man — and naturally he exaggerates the life-threatening peril he was in, saying the man held an “assegai” on him, a long knife which takes on broad-sword dimensions and grows with each of his retellings — and he’s rewarded by bank president Skinner (Pierre Watkin) with a job as the bank’s on-site security person — “a bank dick,” Skinner helpfully explains. Sousé tells his daughter’s boyfriend Og that he’ll come in disguise and Og is supposed to wave to him if he recognizes him — Og demonstrates the wave and it’s such a Gay hand gesture Sousé snarls, “Not so obvious” (yet another one of those weirdly homoerotic gags Fields sometimes threw into his movies — the most famous one is in International House, when Franklin Pangborn tells him “Wu-Hu” to inform him where he is — Wu-Hu, China — and Fields looks down at the flower in his lapel, throws it away and says, “Don’t let the posy fool ya’”) — though when Og does give him the wave Sousé can’t for the life of him remember why. On his first day as “bank dick” Sousé collars an obnoxious kid with a toy pistol, and when the kid’s mom takes umbrage Sousé asks, “Is his gun loaded?” “No,” mom replies, “but I think you are!”

Then an obvious con artist named J. Frothingham Waterbury (Russell Hicks) comes into the bank looking for a buyer for his 5,000 shares in beefsteak mines, and of course Sousé falls for it; he recommends that Og buy the shares and “borrow” the $500 from his teller drawer to pay for them. Both figure the money won’t be missed until the bank pays Og his bonus four days later, but they don’t reckon with the sudden arrival of bank examiner J. Pinkerton Snoopington (Franklin Pangborn, who instead of his usual “pansy” cliché is a character of Javert-like singlemindedness and obsession; it’s probably his best performance ever), who shows up with an imperious manner and a determination to examine the bank books. Og expresses deathly fear in that peculiarly baby-ish way Grady Sutton expresses such emotions, and Sousé takes it upon himself to get Snoopington incapacitated (he takes him to the Black Pussy [Cat] Café and asks Joe, “Has Michael Finn been in today?” “No, but he will be,” Joe answers, signaling that he’s received the message that he’s supposed to serve the bank examiner a drugged drink) and look after him in the New Old Lompoc House hotel, but Snoopington has too much of a sense of duty to be deterred. When he shows up at the bank with pince-nez to look at the books, and he confesses that he’s blind without his glasses, Sousé manages to get him to drop them to the floor, then crushes them under his foot. No matter, says Snoopington; he opens his attaché case and he has at least four spare pair. While all this is happening the local newspaper, the Lompoc Picayune-Intelligencer (it looks like Fields looked around for the two silliest names for real newspapers he could find and jammed them together), reports that the beefsteak mines have proved a bonanza for their lucky owners — a plot twist that in a modern story would be called “magical realism — and con-man Waterbury tries to get Og to sell him back the shares, only Sousé reads the newspaper story in time to stop him. Then Repulsive Rogan returns for a second crack at robbing the bank and commandeers Sousé’s car and Sousé himself as his getaway driver. The cops give chase and the cars drive through dirt roads and farms until Sousé gets the bad guy stuck on the edge of a cliff. He gets the reward for Repulsive Rogan’s capture as well as a movie contract to buy the rights to the story he outlined earlier and direct the film himself, and the final scene shows Sousé and his family in a larger, better appointed house with decent wallpaper instead of the floral horror they started out with, and with the trumpeter who announces their abode with “Home, Sweet Home” at least playing it in tune (a clever touch). A butler gives him a hat and a cane as he leaves for the final fade-out.

The Bank Dick remains a comedy classic, savagely funny mainly due to Fields’ relentlessness, his ability to create a multi-faceted comic character from which he can spin off a wild set of gags and plot circumstances to set them up. Though the film is disjointed (virtually all Fields’ films are) and some of the plot points are improbable, to say the least (the bit about the beefsteak mines turning out to be a bonanza seems Fields’ own tongue-in-cheek satire on how normal moviemakers relied on nearly as improbable gimmicks to make their leads successful and bring about a happy ending), we don’t have the sensation, as we do in too many modern so-called “comedies,” that the authors are willing to do anything to get a laugh, character consistency be damned. The Bank Dick is 200-proof W. C. Fields, a jaundiced view of the world, and his follow-up, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, is even wilder — in that one Fields is a filmmaker and Franklin Pangborn is his producer, to whom he’s outlining his new story and it’s deliberately kept unclear how much of what we’re watching is “real” and how much is the plot of Fields’ proposed movie. (W. C. Fields, ancestor of Fellini.) Though Fields was losing his ability physically to sustain a leading role — comparing his swollen, bloated appearance here to what he looked like in Cline’s Million Dollar Legs eight years earlier (in which Fields, though hefty and with the famous bulbous nose, was fit enough he could play a super-athlete and get away with it) is sad — his comic instincts were as sure as ever and he created a rich, personal and very funny comic masterpiece.