Wednesday 30 November 2011

1,001 Films: "The Bank Dick" (1940)

The Bank Dick opens with fifteen minutes so chockful of non-sequiturs that it may well comprise the most fluid (or random) opening of any movie of the studio period. W.C. Fields' perennial drunk Egbert Souse leaves his truly horrid family behind him for the day, just resisting the urge to brain his bratty youngest daughter with a rock; he assumes his usual position at the bar of the Black Pussycat Lounge, then stumbles onto and off a film set. The Bank Dick then shifts gears to become a heist movie, bestowing upon Egbert accidental-hero status, and the uniform befitting the figure of the title. (And we note that no-one in the 20th century's latter half could have got away with that title, or indeed with having characters refer with such obvious relish to "the Black Pussy".)

With Preston Sturges regular Franklyn Pangborn in a key supporting part, there are similarities to Hail the Conquering Hero in the film's vision of American success as an entirely arbitrary concept: in this world, a drunk can become a director can become a cop-for-hire, and as Souse's experiments in the stock market (tip: beefsteak mines) only go to demonstrate, your value is just as likely to go up as it is down with baffling regularity. Fields remains Fields throughout, however, muttering punchline-substitutes, chewing up (and thus getting past the censors) some fairly close-to-the-knuckle material ("I like children - girl children - between eighteen and twenty years of age"), and refusing to grant us the reassurance of conventional jokes or narrative structure: just about the only thing we can be sure of is that the names (which extend from "Filthy McNasty" to "J. Pinkerton Snoopington") will be funny.

I was left ambivalent upon first encountering Fields (in It's a Gift); second time around, I became convinced his is an utterly unique comic aesthetic, albeit one so cussedly eccentric in its ways and means that it'll take a while for modern audiences (or maybe just me) to get a hang on it - unlike the immediately comparable and comprehensible Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton. (Presumably 1940s audiences - better schooled in Fields' radio and variety work - must have had far greater chance to acclimatise themselves to the comic's flights of fancy and shambling, unrehearsed-seeming delivery.)

Groucho, to cite another of Fields' contemporaries, sold the viewer his gags, so we knew exactly what was being offered up to laugh at. With the exception of the peerless action-comedy finale (Souse to the bank robber holding him hostage in a speeding getaway car: "Shall I point out some places of interest?"), everything here is tossed out in parentheses and dispatches, to be happened upon and tucked away in your back pocket, or left unexplained altogether. (The very last gag is as unfathomable as anything David Lynch ever came up with, a closer that spits "that's all, folks?" before heading off down the saloon once more.) That it is real comic termite art, to borrow Manny Farber's coinage, can be gleaned from the following brisk exchange of scene-setting, which just so happens to contain the funniest line in the whole darn thing:

Souse: "How's it going, Doc?"
Doctor: "Oh, fair, fair... I don't suppose we'll get another whooping cough epidemic any time soon."

The Bank Dick is available on DVD through Metrodome Distribution.

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