Monday, November 29, 2010
“I'm very fond of children…girl children, around 18 and 20…”
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
William Claude Dukenfield — aka comedian W.C. Fields — reached the ripe old age of 60 in January of 1940…and though The Great Man had been ravaged somewhat by his tendency to drink to excess (his period of cinematic activity between Poppy in 1936 and The Big Broadcast of 1938 in 1938 was explained by his “drying out” in a sanitarium) he was still at the peak of his comedic powers. Universal had signed him to a film contract ($125,000 a picture, with an extra $15,000 for his “screenplays”) based on his renewed popularity on radio, feuding with comic ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy on The Chase and Sanborn Hour; in fact, his first film project at the studio featured him verbally sparring with his aural nemeses in You Can’t Cheat a Honest Man (1939).
Fields’ second Universal film was My Little Chickadee (1940), in which he was teamed with comedienne Mae West…and the legend has it that W.C. met his match in West, which is why so many of his scenes were written separately. His third Universal picture, however, would dispel any notions that he’d lost his touch; considered a masterpiece of surrealistic Fieldsian nonsense, The Bank Dick (1940), which was released 70 years ago on this date, remains one of the master comedian’s funniest and finest films.
It’s a bit difficult to describe the plot of Dick — probably because there really isn’t one. What we do have onscreen is the trials and tribulations of one Egbert Sousé (“Accent grave upon the e”), another in a long line of Fields’ small-town (Lompoc) ne’er-do-wells, and this time saddled with the most obnoxious family ever (even his teenage daughter, usually a source of support for his character in other vehicles, is a bit of flake — delightfully played by character actress Una Merkel). Sousé, who starts his day by taking over directing a picture originally helmed by the incapacitated A. Pismo Clam (beloved cinematic inebriate Jack Norton), manages to foil a bank robbery and for his efforts is rewarded with a position at the financial institution (along with a “hearty handclasp” from the president, played by Pierre Watkin).
The chief bank clerk is a creampuff of a man named Og Oggilby (Grady Sutton) — his moniker “sounds like a bubble in a bathtub” according to Sousé — who has intentions of marrying Sousé’s daughter Myrtle once he’s able to support her, and his future father-in-law hurries that along by convincing him to embezzle funds from the bank in order to purchase worthless shares in a Nevada beefsteak mine, purchased from a sharpie (Russell Hicks) Sousé encountered at his hangout, the Black Pussy Café (how Fields got that past the censors I’ll never know). Og isn’t really stealing the money; he’s “borrowing” it, fully intending to replace the missing funds once he receives a $500 bonus from his employer. But with the arrival of bank examiner J. Pinkerton Snoopington (Franklin Pangborn) on the scene, Sousé must put “Snoopy” out of commission before he discovers the discrepancy in the books. By arranging for bartender Joe Guelpe (Shemp Howard) to doctor a libation (Sousé asks if “Michael Finn” has been in the café), Snoopington is incapacitated with nausea, and his condition isn’t helped when Sousé mentions gastronomical delicacies like chili con carne and cocoanut custard pie.
With the sort of deux ex machina luck that befalls all of Fields’ film characters, the beefsteak stock turns out to be a financial windfall — and Sousé is also assisted by collecting $10,000 for a film script and a hefty reward for capturing one of the bank robbers who temporarily escaped but returned to the bank to make another huge withdrawal. His family now on Easy Street, we learn that even though Sousé is now a member of the Fortune 500 old habits — his smoking and drinking — are still hard to break.
There’s never been any film star with a more fascinating screen persona than W.C. Fields. At a time in the industry when self-righteous film censors were determined to moralize and sugarcoat life in the movies, Fields’ character — an individual who drank, smoke, lied, cheated and gambled…and more often than not ended up rewarded for that very same behavior — was a man to both behold and admire. He said and did the things polite society frowned upon, and many of his films spotlighted a warped view of small-town life with obnoxious busybodies clucking their tongues at his outrageous behavior. He had also developed a reputation for despising children (though this has been exaggerated throughout the years), though in Dick you certainly can’t fault him for the negative energy he focuses on his youngest brat who, when she asks her mother if she can bounce a rock off her father’s head is told: “Respect your father, darling…what kind of a rock?”
The Bank Dick, like most Fields vehicles, features the thinnest of plots; mere pegs on which he hangs his physical slapstick and absurdist humor (he delighted in offbeat wordplay; Dick is crammed with words like “assegai,” “paternoster” and “catalpa trees”). Dick was directed by Edward F. Cline, an old Mack Sennett veteran who had also worked alongside Buster Keaton as co-director and gag man, who first met up with Fields on one of my favorites in the comedian’s oeuvre, Million Dollar Legs (1932). Cline also directed a portion of W.C.’s aforementioned Honest Man (the classic Ping Pong match scene) and the entirety of My Little Chickadee, but with most individuals chosen to ride herd on a film starring Fields he was content to just sit back and let The Great Man do his thing. It has been said that Cline (who would also helm Fields’ last starring film, 1941’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break was a favorite of the comedian because he was the only person in Hollywood who “knew less about making movies” than William Claude.
The screenplay credit on Dick went to “Mahatma Kane Jeeves,” a Fieldsian play on dialogue often heard betwixt a society swell and his butler (“My hat…my cane, Jeeves”). It’s crammed with some of W.C.’s most memorable and funniest dialogue:
ELSIE MAE ADELE BRUNCH SOUSÉ: What's the matter, Pop? Don't you love me?
EGBERT SOUSÉ (raising his hand in anger): Certainly I love you!
AGATHA SOUSÉ: Don't you dare strike that child!
EGBERT SOUSÉ: Well, she's not gonna tell me I don't love her…
EGBERT SOUSÉ: Was I in here last night and did I spend a twenty dollar bill?
JOE GUELPE: Yeah…
EGBERT SOUSÉ: Oh boy, what a load that is off my mind! (Chuckling) I thought I'd lost it…
EGBERT SOUSÉ: My uncle, a balloon ascensionist, Effingham Hoofnagle, took a chance…he was three miles and a half up in the air…he jumped out of the basket of the balloon and took a chance of alighting on a load of hay…
OG OGGILBY: Golly! Did he make it?
EGBERT SOUSÉ: Uh... no…he 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…
OG OGGILBY (after learning he’s been sold a bill of goods): Oh... I knew this would happen! I was a perfect idiot to ever listen to you!
EGBERT SOUSÉ: You listen to me, Og! There's nothing in this world that is perfect…
And of course, there’s Sousé’s immortal admonition to his future son-in-law when Og gets cold feet about stealing from the bank and investing: “Don't be a luddy-duddy! Don't be a mooncalf! Don't be a jabbernowl! You're not those, are you?” (Fields claimed he found those words in a dictionary — further evidence of the man’s lifelong love affair with words and turns of preposterous phrases.)
The Bank Dick was blessed with a dream lineup of supporting players; Sutton and Pangborn had, of course, worked with Fields on earlier occasions but the cast was rounded out with old pros like Merkel, Hicks, Watkin, Norton, Cora Witherspoon and Jessie Ralph. Second banana Shemp Howard, who was no stranger to supporting comedians as well as taking a turn in the spotlight himself, was cast as bartender Joe Guelpe, the Black Pussy proprietor who administers Sousé’s “poultices” and “depth bombs.” Shemp, however, committed the cardinal sin of being funnier than the star — during filming, he livened up the proceedings with the wild ad-libbing he would later become known for once he replaced his brother Jerome “Curly” Howard in the Three Stooges troupe…something that did not endear him to W.C., whose jealousy of other comics was legendary. Sadly, much of Shemp’s improvisations ended up on the cutting room floor — but I sometimes can’t help but grin when I watch Dick and notice that Shemp’s entrances are accompanied by his whistling of “Listen to the Mockingbird”…a tune that used to signal the start of a Stooges two-reeler (before being replaced by the better-known “Three Blind Mice").
After the release of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, W.C. Fields was relegated to guest star appearances and featured bits in outings such as Follow the Boys (1944) and Song of the Open Road (1944). His many years of “partying hard” ultimately took its toll and he left this world for a better on (not too ironically) Dec. 25, 1946. But he left behind a rich cinematic legacy that continues to draw admirers and fans into the big tent with each passing year; even though film critic Roger Ebert rightly points out that The Great Man may not be as popular as he was at one time he also declares: “No doubt the wheel of memory will revolve to bring him back into fashion, because his appeal is timeless: It is the appeal of the man who cheerfully embraces a life of antisocial hedonism, basking in serene contentment with his own flaws. He is self-contained.” The Bank Dick is the culmination of that cogent observation, and an essential starting point to become acquainted with a true cinematic original.