Film Forum’s W.C. Fields retro continues today with The Bank Dick, double-featured with Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.
WC Fields is pomposity underplayed. He’s also a reckless spectacle of of competition, cowardice, brutality, sexism, sloth and slapstick. In other words, Fields is America. Fields is also always drunk.
This smart self-hater is remarkably entertaining as he fumbles and smirks his way through every picture like a proto-Bill Murray. His body lumbers and his face is well-worn, but it’s his delivery that’s most notable. His throwaway lines are dished out sotto voice like the end of a “Screaming Pete” Roman Candle—BOOM, putter, putter, putter (peter out). He also makes every word fair play for absurdity in the sounds themselves:
“How’s your ping pong?” asks a matron in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man.
“Fine, how’s yours. Wanna make anything of it?” He answers defensively.
How to represent the genius of his particular delivery in typography is a challenge in writing about Fields. It was also a challenge met with ingenuity in the intertitles of the silent films that Fields made with director Gregory La Cava, like this one from Running Wild, screening Sunday:
Fields conceded once that La Cava, fellow alcoholic comic genius, was “the second funniest man in America.” This cocksure comment hints at Fields’s famous ungenerosity as a performer, which he made into a joke. “Never work with children or animals,” is one of his most identifiable lines. La Cava brought an expansiveness and generosity to the other players in the films he made with Fields that’s otherwise often missing in Fields’ filmography.
He’s always watchable, of course, yet Fields’s own disregard for the films themselves keeps many of his films from being much more than star vehicles. This is true whether he’s one of several orbiting stars who never connect (in International House and Six of a Kind), or battling bulls (in My Little Chickadee with Mae West), or the only real joy in the picture (in several of his best films and some of his worst, from It’s a Gift to Million Dollar Legs). His best film, where this petulance is the style, was The Bank Dick, made late in his career in 1940, a singular throwaway absurdity written by Mahatma Kane Jeeves (Fields under a pseudonym, so no wonder).
The film is all about the delivery, from the beginning:
“Egbert Souse!? Isn’t that an odd name?” is the first line, an outraged response to the main character’s name.
“It isn’t pronounced Souse. It’s Sou-sè. Accent grave over the ‘e’. Egbert Sousè,” instructs one woman to another.
Sousè (“accent grave over the ‘e'” as he is always introduced) stumbles his way into a few outrageous plots involving bank robberies, embezzlement, and a diverting subplot wherein Fields, sitting at the bar of the Black Pussy Café, is asked to direct a motion picture. “Wait,” he replies before turning to the bartender, “Was I in here last night and did I spend twenty dollars?” Upon confirmation that he was and didn’t just lose a 20-spot, he says, “Phew.” Then, priorities taken care of, he agrees to direct a movie. As the film that Fields is in (not the film within the film) switches from plot point to plot point, Sousé escapes back to the Black Pussy at every pivot.
One reason why the film works so well is the strong supporting cast who don’t compete with Fields or act as his straight men (this film has no straight men) but instead extend the woozy, incomparable line readings. Most notable is the underrated character actress Una Merkel as his histrionic daughter: “I’ll starve myself to death! It’s not hard to DO. (I tried it yesterday afternoon.)”