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W.C. Fields was and remains a comic hero to the world’s misanthropes. His perennial character was a thinly disguised version of his offscreen personality: a man who wanted primarily to be left alone, and if he was obliged to be bothered with other people, he wanted at least one drink, if not a bottle, nearby for the duration of the encounter, as it was likely to be unpleasant. In his early shorts, Fields’ character verged on the sociopathic. Kicking babies, insulting everyone within earshot and compounding the insults after their backs were turned, attempting to steal money from little children, he exhibited man’s worst qualities, inspiring shocked, uncontrollable laughter in the process.
The Bank Dick is a latter-day Fields film, originally released in 1940. It finds him playing Egbert Souse (accent grave over the e, as he repeatedly explains), a man of limited means and seemingly unlimited torments. His wife, mother-in-law and daughters pound away at him relentlessly; when they’re not insulting him or refusing him the right to smoke in his own house, they’re throwing things at him. Fields doesn’t reply in kind, as he might have in an earlier film. Here, he’s a softer version of himself. Indeed, in the film’s somewhat soporific middle, he almost seems to be trying out for the role of the drunken uncle in It’s A Wonderful Life. This is a well-meaning, hapless Fields, not the bilious sloth we’re familiar with. The old wit is there, but he’s placed himself in such a subservient position throughout the script that it only shows up intermittently, like he’s afraid someone will catch him cracking wise and his life will get even worse.
Everything that happens to Souse/Fields in The Bank Dick happens by accident. In a brilliant sequence he stumbles into a day’s work directing a film. Through no effort of his own, he foils a bank robbery and gets the titular job. While working for the bank, he and his pathetic son-in-law-to-be are tricked into buying worthless stock with the bank’s money (which. of course. is eventually proven to be a bonanza opportunity after all).
There are glimpses of the old, vicious Fields. Probably the best is a scene in which, on the job, he spots a small boy dressed as a cowboy and playing with a gun in the bank lobby. Fields immediately sneaks up on the child when his mother’s back is turned, and begins throttling him until he’s yanked away. Fields’ question? “Is that gun loaded?” The irate mother responds “No, but I think you are."
Another scene deserves special mention: Fields before the mirror, newly flush with power as an armed bank security officer, pulling his gun and attempting menace. This performance will render the viewer incapable of watching Robert De Niro’s “You talkin’ to me?” scene from Taxi Driver ever again without bursting into lunatic laughter. Aside from these brief moments, though, this is largely a tame W.C. Fields. Which doesn’t make the movie any less funny. It’s still great, exhibiting a far superior sense of wit and comic timing than virtually any film released in the last twenty years. It’s just not in the league of early shorts like The Dentist or The Golf Instructor, or an earlier classic feature, It’s A Gift. As odd as this sounds, The Bank Dick is a W.C. Fields movie that parents could watch with their children.