Wednesday, June 16, 2010

At the (old) movies: 'The Bank Dick'

Some notes from a recent presentation by the local cinephile society:

Agatha Sousé and her little daughter, Elsie Mae Adele Brunch Sousé, are watching Egbert Sousé make a fool of himself in public.

Elsie Mae: Shall I bounce a rock off his head?
Agatha: Respect your father, darling. (Pause.) What kind of a rock?

W.C. Fields' movie characters tend to fall into one of two categories: the incorrigible, smooth-talking con man (The Great McGonigle in "The Old-Fashioned Way" and Eustace McGargle in "Poppy" are prime examples) and the family man who can't get a break from anyone, including (and sometimes especially) his family, although his older daughter might be on his side, especially if she's from a previous marriage.

"The Bank Dick" (Universal, 1940) is kind of a hybrid. Egbert Sousé doesn't get respect from anyone in his family, and he doesn't necessarily deserve it, because as lovable as he is (at least to Fields fans), he's a little bit like the other kind of Fields character.

Although Edward F. Cline directed the movie, Fields wrote it under the name of Mahatma Kane Jeeves.

I won't go as far as to say that the plot defies description, but I will say that it defies common sense, and, given the star, I might be sorely disappointed if it didn't. Let's just say that Egbert accidentally foils a bank robbery, is hired as a guard at the bank (where his older daughter's boyfriend works), becomes the target of a conman selling shares in a "beefsteak mine," talks the boyfriend into embezzling money to buy shares, and then the bank examiner comes to town.

But, again, in this kind of movie the plot plays second fiddle to the memorable (perhaps even immortal) bits and set pieces.

Who, after having seen "The Bank Dick," will ever forget the bank president's "hearty handclasp"? Or Shemp Howard as the bartender?

My favorite scenes involve Franklin Pangborn as J. Pinkerton Snoopington, the bank examiner. Pangborn appeared in scores of movies, always playing basically the same fussy, officious character. In terms of range, he was about as one-note as an actor could be. But nobody played that one note better, and his scenes with Fields are quite possibly the best work he ever did.

I have no understanding of the art of ballet, but, at the risk of sounding blasphemous to any balletomanes out there, I can't help suspecting that watching Fields and Pangborn work together makes me feel the way dance fans felt when they watched Nureyev and Fonteyn.

My mouth almost waters as I think of Shemp drugging Pangborn's drink; Fields trying to get Pangborn into his hotel room; Fields telling the severely nauseated Pangborn that he could arrange for him to have a coconut cream pie -- and Pangborn's reaction; later, at the bank, Fields trying to fend off Pangborn's audit by smashing Pangborn's hand and breaking his glasses.

With all the logic of the kind of dream that you yourself might have if Shemp were your mixologist, the Pangborn subplot (and Pangborn himself) go by the wayside as the bank is robbed again, leading to the endearingly hokey climax and the last scene, in which Egbert (like Fields fathers before him) is vindicated.

It's true that Fields is an acquired taste -- several people walked out at intermission -- and I wouldn't want to watch one Fields film after another. But an occasional visit can be at least as restorative as anything Eustace McGargle ever peddled.

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