Filmsite Movie Review
The Bank Dick (1940)
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The Bank Dick (1940) is an all-time classic comedy starring the great W. C. Fields. Directed by Edward F. Cline, the film is only a little over an hour long. It is one of his very best and funniest films (tied with Paramount's It's A Gift (1934)), his next-to-last major film role (he last appeared in Cline's Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)), and his first solo starring role in a Universal Pictures film. Fields wrote the original screenplay, but credits himself with the nom de plume of Mahatma Kane Jeeves (a play on the phrase often heard in English drawing-room comedies: 'My hat, my cane, Jeeves'). He was given considerable creative control over this film's script, direction and editing by Universal Pictures, unlike what would happen to him a year later.

The ramshackle film, originally titled The Great Man, is filled with Fields' brand of silliness and buffoonery. It satirizes and skewers film-making, family life and marriage, banking practices, and small-town behavior, in a series of short sketches. W. C. Fields plays the lead comic role, a penultimate characterization of a bullied, unemployed drunk who despises the members of his aggravating family and is talented only at telling (and believing) tall tales and imbibing alcohol at the Black Pussy Cat Cafe. [The name of the cafe, originally the Black Pussy Cafe and Snack Bar, offended Hollywood's censorship agency - the Breen Office. Even the film's title can be interpreted with two meanings, although 'dick' means detective. The film was released as The Bank Detective in the UK.] Inadvertently, the elbow-bending, gin-soaked lush trundles into 'directing' a film for a brief time, and is credited with capturing a bank robber and being a hero.

After being rewarded with the job of bank guard ('dick') to prevent future holdups, he involves his prospective son-in-law as a temporary embezzler when suckered by a con salesman to embezzle bank funds to finance a purchase of Beefsteak Mines stock - a fly-by-night mining enterprise. Mostly drunk throughout the film, he also holds off an inquisitive and persistent bank examiner with a Mickey Finn. In the end, he is rewarded for accidentally capturing another bank robber, and also given a lucrative contract for his 'improvised' screenplay. It climaxes with one of the greatest slapstick, getaway car chase sequences in film history (a throw-back to Mack Sennett days - director Cline had been an actor in Sennett's Keystone Kops). The car chase has been imitated in numerous films, including Bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc? (1972).

Plot Synopsis

Egbert Sousè (pronounced "Sou-zay" with an "accent grave over the e," something carefully explained) (W. C. Fields), a hapless, henpecked husband and the unemployed town drunk, lives with his shrewish, nagging, hypercritical wife Agatha (Cora Witherspoon) and annoying family in the sleepy town of Lompoc, California. [The town's name is consistently mis-pronounced in the film.] Agatha insists that her obnoxious mother Mrs. Hermisillo Brunch (Jessie Ralph) live with the family, that also includes two dreadful daughters.

In one of the film's first lines during a breakfast scene (accompanied by a sick-sounding trumpet playing There's No Place Like Home,) his grouchy mother-in-law complains to Agatha about an off-screen Egbert: "What's he up to now?" She criticizes Egbert's bad habits, threatening to move out and "go on the county" welfare instead, while complaining about her "lingering death":

Well, I bet you anything he's smoking up in his room again. Now this time, Agatha, you've got to just tell him to stop. Now, it's his smoking gave me asthma...If he don't (quit), I'm goin' on the county...Imagine a man trying to take care of his family, by going to theatre bank lines, working puzzle contests, and suggesting slogans...

Eldest daughter Myrtle (Una Merkel) is also thoroughly humiliated and embarrassed by her father: "My Sunday School teacher, Mr. Stackhouse, told me that he saw my father coming out of a saloon the other day and that Dad was smoking a pipe." The youngest daughter is bratty Elsie Mae Adele Brunch Sousè (Evelyn Del Rio). [Fields' two real-life sisters were named Elsie May and Adel.]

Mrs. Brunch complains further:

Smoking and drinking, and reading those infernal detective stories. The house just smells of liquor and smoke. There he goes again, down to the saloon to read that silly Detective Magazine. (Egbert appears from upstairs, deftly swallows his cigarette, and snatches his Detective Magazine from Elsie Mae. After she kicks him in the shin, he pops her on the head. She beans him with a hurled bottle of ketchup.) ...Imagine a man who takes money out of a child's piggy bank and puts in IOU's.

Flighty Myrtle is lovesick - engaged to marry the town fool, a dim-witted bank clerk named Og Oggilby (Grady Sutton). On his front porch, when Sousè is introduced to Myrtle's fiancee Og, he quips:

Og Oggilby. Sounds like a bubble in a bathtub.

On his way through town, Egbert offers his helpful advice to a chauffeur who is toiling over his stalled limousine. Egbert asks for a shifting spanner or monkey wrench and the sweet old lady in the back seat persuades her surly driver to let him help. With a single turn of a nut on the motor, the entire engine immediately drops out onto the ground. With a half-hearted apology, a sheepish Egbert departs and continues his walk to the bar. (Hours later, when Egbert happens to pass that way again, the chauffeur is still working to repair the damage.)

Sousè attempts to escape his family by frequent visits to the Black Pussy Cat Cafe where bartender Joe Guelpe (Shemp Howard, one of the Three Stooges) serves him "depth bomb" drinks as he mumbles to himself about "boondoggling." In a memorable routine (improvised by Fields himself), he asks for a glass of water. He dips in his fingers to wash them, and dries them on a paper napkin that he crumples and rolls into a ball, tosses into the air over his shoulder, and neatly kicks away with the heel of his shoe.

During this early morning visit to the Black Pussy, he meets Mackley Q. Greene (Richard Purcell), manager of Tel-Avis Picture Productions - in town on a movie set during a location shoot for a one-reeler. Sousè is offered a proposition to direct the film, to substitute for inebriated director A. Pismo Clam (Jack Norton) [Pismo Beach is the actual name of a coastal California town] after he brags about his directorial experiences:

You're yellin' right down my alley. In the old Sennett days, I used to direct Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and the rest of 'em.

Greene offers Egbert a "gambler's chance on a percentage of the profits basis." Before making a decision, Egbert turns to the bartender to confirm his drunken and failing state of mind:

Egbert: Was I in here last night and did I spend a twenty-dollar bill?
Bartender: Yeah.
Egbert: Oh boy, what a load that is off my mind. I thought I'd lost it.

Then he brags to the manager: "I've had a script that I've had in mothballs for twenty years. I read it to Irving and Milton who run the Gem Cinema down here. They said to me, they said, 'Sousè, it's better than Gone With the Wind.'"

Totally drunk and balancing four drink glasses as he leaves, he is driven to the movie set where he meets the two main characters, a snobby, top-hat and tails-wearing matinee-idol/leading man Francois (Reed Hadley) with his short and vain heroine Miss Plupp (Heather Wilde). On the set, the drunken director is given coffee and being walked back and forth to sober up, but to no avail. Immediately, Sousè changes the script (something Fields did on a regular basis with the film itself) since it doesn't seem appropriate to the setting on Main Street:

Instead of it being an English drawing room dray-ma, I've made it a circus picture...

While discussing the plot, the drawing-room film quickly becomes a football scrimmage story with Francois the hero ("you kick goals, you make passes, you make the longest run with the ball that was ever made on the field"), while his romantic interest Miss Plupp is in the grandstands ("he sees ya in the $50 dollar seats, he immediately falls in love with ya, he can't take his eyes off ya"). His family happens to walk by as he is carried by four men Indian rajah-style on the director's chair platform. They are shocked to see him: "It's him...For the love of Pete... He makes me sick." His bratty, snarly youngest daughter, Elsie Mae, asks her mother:

Elsie Mae: Shall I bounce a rock off his head?
Agatha: Respect your father, darling. (Pause) What kind of a rock?

In his cinema debut, Sousè directs everyone: "We're making motion picture history here. I want quiet! Quiet from everybody," as his chair topples backwards off his majestic perch on the platform. Not too much shooting is actually accomplished. Elsa Mae observes: "Pa is drunk again!" but nevertheless, she goes over and demands a part in the picture. He diplomatically defers her request:

Elsa Mae: I wanna be in the picture.
Egbert: (patting her head) I'll put you in later on, dear. (She insistently tugs on his coattails.)
Elsa Mae: What's the matter, Pop? Don't ya love me? (Egbert threatens to slap his insolent child.)
Cora (defending Elsa Mae): Don't you dare strike that child!
Egbert: She's not gonna tell me I don't love her.

Then Elsa Mae bops him over the head with a large megaphone. When his wife comments, "the child's only playin' with ya, you fool," he mutters that he doesn't "understand her funning." When Egbert sees the bartender from the Black Pussy Cat Cafe hurry by, and when the professional director begins to sober up, he quickly leaves the set to go to his favorite destination - and tells his main star to "study that script."

Returning to town from the closed bar (a sign reads, "Closed to Tea, Joe"), Egbert is mistakenly credited with daringly knocking out one of two bank robbers: Repulsive Rogan/Filthy McNasty (Al Hill) and Cozy Cochran/Loudmouth McNasty - aka Wildcat (George Moran). They have just stolen $25,000 from the Lompoc State Bank (where Og works as a bank teller). Egbert sits on a Lompoc Municipal Bus Line bench that topples over onto already unconscious Loudmouth McNasty (the other robber Repulsive Rogan escapes without the money) and snares the criminal. Fortuitously, there are no witnesses, and he humbly credits himself with the capture and retrieval of the cash.

He elaborates the details to a group of admiring children, over-exaggerating the struggle to overcome the bandit, while he performs sleight-of-hand tricks with his smoking cigarette. [In most of Fields' films, however, he displays a disdain of children, regarding them as bratty and loathsome.] He credits himself for owning and using the gun that one of the robbers had thrown at him:

One or two bullets, I don't know. I was so busy shooting him, you know. That's the way I catch burglars.

He tells them:

I'll teach ya when ya grow up. I never smoked a cigarette until I was nine.

He celebrates with a few drinks in the Black Pussy Cat. Returning home totally Sousèd, he shows off a special edition of the Lompoc newspaper - the Picayune Intelligencer - with an exaggerated account of his exploits:

Well Known Citizen is Hero of the Hour

He is heralded as the "hero of the hour." However, at home he is shown little respect - in fact, his ghastly mother-in-law snatches the paper and tosses it away unread. Dismayed but resigned, Egbert decides to go upstairs to his room, but he distractedly walks into a bookcase and wall next to the stairs. His mother-in-law puts her finger in her mouth and makes sucking - smoking - puffing noises, reminding Agatha to tell him to not smoke upstairs.

At the bank the next morning to "get a reward or a job or something" from the bank president, Egbert finds that there is only one teller on duty. Whenever he gets to the window, he is told to stand by, and other customers step forward to be helped. At a second teller's window (after the first one closes), he embellishes the tale of his exploits with the bandits:

Oh, well as can be expected after that tussle I put up with those two bandits...I went to see the doctor. And he says as a result of that scrap, I'll probably have to have a kidney and my gall bladder removed. He said I also may need an appendectomy.

Again, he finds himself behind a black gentleman who is brought to the front of the line, wishing to withdraw his entire account. The teller wonders why and is told: "Yas, sir, I'm scared. Every time I come in here you got your hat on. It look like you gettin' ready to take off! It keeps me nervous." When the teller explains that he wears a hat because of hay fever, Egbert and his fellow depositor are not too sure.

In his office, Mr. Skinner (Pierre Watkin), the grateful, but pompous bank president, congratulates Egbert on his daring, gallant deed:

And I wish to personally give you a hearty handclasp.

Skinner avoids shaking Sousè's outstretched hand, barely touching the tips of his fingers to his palm. Sousè is presented, with the company's compliments, a free 1940 bank calendar (illustrated with a painting of "Spring in Lompoc"). He is rewarded with a bank guard position:

...or to revert to the argot of the underworld, a bank dick.

Skinner suggests possible job advancement from the bottom up: "Who knows? Within a short time, you may become my vice president. My first and only vice." When told that the bank opens at 10, Sousè warns: "Well, if that's all right, if I'm not here on time, just go right ahead without me. I'll catch up with ya." In the arrangement, part of his salary will be deducted each week to pay off his home's mortgage, preventing foreclosure. Sousè promises to be there on Monday morning: "I'll bring my detective disguises with me." In the lobby, he tells Og, in confidence, that he won't be recognized easily because he will be using masterful disguises:

There's more to this detective business than meets the eye. It requires cunning and resourcefulness. And I have both. Now, I have a thousand disguises at home. I'll come in here with one of those disguises on, so if you recognize me, you go, uh... (He gestures with a slight back-and-forth wave of his hand.) Now if you don't recognize me, go, uh...well, if you don't recognize me, you won't know what to do. And you won't recognize me.

Preparing for work on Monday morning, a uniformed Sousè with an outsized badge practices drawing his gun in front of a mirror in the bar. At the Black Pussy Cat, he orders a "depth bomb" drink and water for his familiar routine. For the second drink, he asks for fresh water for finger washing, and explains: "Never like to bathe in the same water twice."

Sousè is recognized as an easy mark and sucker by fast-talking con salesman J. Frothingham Waterbury (Russell Hicks), who is impeccably dressed in expensive clothes and a white panama hat. Sousè is hustled, given a slick patter in a sales pitch for "pie in the sky" riches by investing in stock. Waterbury explains that Sousè can benefit from his sad personal misfortune and predicament. He would almost rather sell his grandmother's old paisley shawl than sacrifice his stocks in Beefsteak Mines:

I'm in the bond and stock business. Now I have 5,000 shares of Beefsteak Mines in Leapfrog, Nevada that I want to turn over to your bank...Now these shares are selling for 10 cents a share...Naturally you're no dunce...If 5 will get you 10, 10 will get you twenty, 16 cylinder cars, a big home in the city, balconies upstairs and down, home in the country, big trees, private golf course, stream running through the rear of the estate, warm Sunday afternoons fishing under the cool trees, sipping ice cold beer.

Sousè has to interrupt: "I can almost see the foam!", salivating at the thought of a mansion in the country and fabulous wealth. Waterbury promises him instant, unlimited wealth after painting a picture of him sitting in his country estate - with an armored car from the bank delivering coupons worth hundreds of thousands of dollars - all Sousè has to do is sign receipts. Sousè is already dreaming of his fortune when he responds: "I'll have a fountain pen by then." Waterbury summarizes the deal offering:

That's what these bonds mean. I'd rather part with my dear old grandmother's paisley shawl or her wedding ring than to part with these bonds...But it's now or never. It must be done so take it or leave it.

Sousè accepts by assuring that they will meet in an hour at the bank to exchange $500 for the shares.

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