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With: W.C. Fields, Una Merkel, Cora Witherspoon, Franklin Pangborn, Shemp Howard, Grady Sutton
Written by: Mahatma Kane Jeeves/W.C. Fields
Directed by: Edward F. Cline
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 72
Date: 11/28/1940

The Bank Dick (1940)

4 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

No screen comic benefited from the coming of sound film more than W.C. Fields. Otherwise, he would have been lost among dozens of other forgotten comedians of the silent screen. But when he opened his mouth and spoke, and that loose, sideways, muttering drawl came out, he became a star for the ages.

Now the Criterion Collection has released two Fields DVDs; a collection of short films and arguably his finest feature film, The Bank Dick (1940). As usual, for Criterion, both are top quality; The Bank Dick was transferred from a 35mm master print, and the shorts look great, despite the fact that they were not preserved over the ages with the care that the feature was. Both discs include an English subtitle option for the deaf and hearing impaired, and also so that we may read every word uttered from Fields' lips (many times his under-the-breath mutterings are his funniest dialogue).

The Bank Dick is often accused of having no plot, but, as written by Mahatma Kane Jeeves (really Fields himself), the contrary is true. All of its elements and subplots tie together nicely into a cohesive story. It begins when Fields takes on the job of directing a film, then inadvertently catches a bank robber (taking the credit himself, of course). The film-directing subplot comes back in the end, after Fields has taken on the job of the bank dick and tried to waylay the bank examiner before he finds out that his future son-in-law has borrowed $500 to invest in beefsteak mine shares.

The film was made toward the end of Fields' career (he died only 6 years later) and it's nice to note that his style hadn't been tamed (except for whatever bits the Hays Code deemed unworthy). He's still a braggart and a drunk, interested only in hearing himself talk and in getting his next drink. Other people, and especially children, bother him. It's amazing to note that such a foul person would be so beloved by audiences, even sixty years after this film was made. It's all part of some kind of magic chemistry he possessed. (Bill Murray comes from this same school of curmudgeonly charm.)

It's also nice to note that The Bank Dick runs only 72 minutes and doesn't slow down for any "serious" subplots, romantic entanglements, or tirades about the evils of drinking like most of today's comedies would. As directed by Edward Cline (who also worked with Buster Keaton), the sole purpose of The Bank Dick is to be funny, and not to educate or preach. Its pace may not match the frenetic His Girl Friday released the same year, but it sure beats some of today's lumbering 120-minute comedies.

The second disc, W.C. Fields: Six Short Films includes all five of W.C. Field's sound-era short films, plus one silent. The silent film, The Pool Sharks, made in 1915, is a curio that proves how much Fields was helped by the coming of sound. Though he was an interesting physical comedian, he wasn't anything spectacular. Indeed, he looks a bit like a Charlie Chaplin knockoff. The Golf Specialist (1930) has Fields trying to impress the flirty wife of a hotel detective by showing her his golf swing (which he never gets to complete). It's my favorite of the bunch, mostly because of the nasty little girl with the piggy bank. That's followed by The Dentist (1932), easily the darkest of Fields' films, and the one that gets away with the most wickedness, as proven by the tooth-pulling scene in which the long-legged horse-faced woman straddles Fields with her foot in his pocket. The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933) is a very strange parody of Yukon movies, complete with off-kilter dialects and fake snow. The best joke, "It ain't a fit night out for man nor beast," is repeated half-a-dozen times, and it gets funnier every time. The Pharmacist (1933) and The Barber Shop (1933) are practically the same movie -- Fields operating a business and dealing with annoying customers and the occasional escaped felon -- but both have their funny moments.

My only quibble is that Criterion might have been able to fit all seven films on one DVD. As it is now, fans have to buy two. It's a small gripe, though, as you can't put a price on pure laughter.

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