Mister Total Irreverence

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. 

In The Bank Dick (1940), directed by Edward Cline, 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.

Egbert Souse (W.C. Fields, left) tries his best to distract bank examiner J. Pinkerton Snoopington (Franklin Pangborn) from auditing the branch office records in THE BANK DICK (1940).

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.

Gangster Rupulsive Rogan (Al Hill, left) forces Egbert (W.C. Fields) to be his getaway driver in THE BANK DICK (1940).

The origin of The Bank Dick was the result of improvisation (The working title was The Great Man and it was released in the U.K. as The Bank Detective). Originally, Universal’s Vice President Matty Fox had suggested to Fields that he play a dishonest card shark in Christy Cabanne’s 1940 comedy, Alias the Deacon, but the comedian had already done that in My Little Chickadee the same year 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.

Egbert (W.C. Fields) is constantly harrassed and insulted by his wife (Cora Witherspoon, upper middle), daughter (Evelyn Del Rio) and mother-in-law (Jessie Ralph, right) in THE BANK DICK (1940).

Despite this, 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 Rupulsive Rogan, the dangerous bank robber who creates chaos in the final reel. Shemp Howard, who is best known for his work as one of the Three Stooges (he was the brother of Moe and Curly Howard), is particularly memorable as Joe, the bartender at the Black Pussy. Former MGM contract player Jessie Ralph (David Copperfield, Camille) is also on hand in the role of Mrs. Hermisillo Brunch, Souse’s cantankerous mother-in-law.

Shemp Howard (left) plays Joe the bartender opposite W.C. Fields as Egbert Souse in the 1940 comedy THE BANK DICK. (In the background is Russell Hicks as scam artist J. Frothingham Waterbury.)

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?”

Egbert (W.C. Fields) is briefly hired to replace drunken film director Pismo Clam (Jack Norton) on a local movie set in THE BANK DICK (1940).

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.

Compared to the making of his final film, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, 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.”

Publicity still portrait of American comedian and actors WC Fields and Billy Mitchell in the comedy film ‘The Bank Dick’ (Universal Pictures), 1940. (Photo by John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images)

The snarky humor of The Bank Dick seems surprisingly contemporary more than 80 years later although there is one mercifully brief comic bit involving an African-American bank customer (Billy Mitchell) that is in the tradition of the typical racial stereotypes of that era (think Stepin Fetchit). Still, Fields is often the butt of his own jokes as evidenced by this exchange between a small boy and his mother about Egbert:

Clifford: Mommy, doesn’t that man have a funny nose? 

Mother: You mustn’t make fun of the gentleman, Clifford. You’d like to have a nose like that full of nickels, wouldn’t you?

When The Bank Dick was released in 1940, Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times: “No one who fancies madcap comedy can reasonably afford to miss the spectacle of Bill creeping up and pouncing upon a kid with a cap-pistol in the bank; or of Bill solicitously attending a bank examiner whom he has fed a “Michael Finn”; or of Bill at the wheel of the car in which a desperate bandit is attempting to escape…In fact, for anyone who simply likes to laugh at the reckless manities of an inspired buffoon, we recommend “The Bank Dick.” It’s great fun.”

A bank employee removes a quill from the head of bank detective Egbert Souse (W.C. Fields) in one of many sight gags in the 1940 comedy THE BANK DICK.

The film’s eternal appeal, of course, resides in Field’s anarchic screen presence. Author Dennis Perrin in his essay on The Bank Dick for The Criterion Collection states that “Fields was in full command of his powers” when he made his film and goes on to say, ”…what makes the comedy unique, especially for its time, is that Fields grants no one moral high ground. Everyone has an agenda, is on the take, is insipid or simply meddlesome; the worst character traits usually belong to Fields himself. Although this style of comedy is sometimes tried today (the best recent example was Seinfeld, part brainchild of Larry David, a truly dark absurdist who never met a protaganist he seemed to like), rarely is it done with the subtle malice of which Fields was a master.”

Bank examiner J. Pinkerton Snoopington (Franklin Pangborn, center), the victim of a ‘Mickey Finn’ cocktail, is escorted to his boarding house by Egbert Souse (W.C. Fields) in THE BANK DICK (1940).

Over the years, The Bank Dick has been released in various W.C. Fields’ DVD Collections by Universal but in August 2000 The Criterion Collection released a stand-alone DVD of the film which was a slight improvement in terms of the visual/audio quality. The film still warrants a major remastering upgrade to Blu-ray. After all, The Bank Dick was selected by the National Film Registry in 1992 for historic posterity.

*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

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