So I hope to be W.C. Fields when I grow up

I was aware of W.C. Fields as a rosy, round-faced comedian at a very early age. My aunt had a copy of one of his films alongside her Monty Python videos. (I watched those Pythons, but ignored the Fields.)

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This most closely approximates the trace memory of that specific VHS tape. 

My first real exposure to Fields occurred during my first days in undergraduate film studies. We viewed clips of The Bank Dick and I thought to myself, “Self, that’s a movie you should probably watch.” But here’s the thing about film school. You are constantly watching movies for reasons other than pleasure. There’s pleasure to be had, of course, in a formal cinematic education, but you’re so booked with screenings and research-watches that watchlists grow without and grow and grow until they’re more like Audrey II than a notebook with “To Watch” scribbled atop the first page.

Oh those simple, freewheeling days before Letterboxd.com. Cue South Park’s member berries: REMEMBER VIDEO STORES? REMEMBER NEVER BEING ABLE TO FIND THE MOVIE YOU WANTED!?

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Feed me more movies you’re never going to watch, Seymour!

Fast forward sixteen or so years. I sign up for the TCM/Ball St. online slapstick course. And what clip greets me in the early sound curriculum? That same Bank Dick scene where W.C. Fields walks into the bar. At this point, further avoidance of The Bank Dick offends my own sensibilities.

A sample:

I take one more step. I buy the W.C. Fields Comedy Collection Volume 1. I have no excuse now. Except for all the other movies I want to watch! Omigoodnesstherearealotofthem! Enter Cinema Shame. I put it on my list. I state my ignorance for the world to see. And I bring the W.C. Fields collection with me when we take the family to Santa Fe to visit my wife’s parents. I have the W.C. Fields DVDs and nothing else… except his Netflix subscription and my Vudu movies. So relatively speaking, I have *nothing* to watch.

So let’s get on with this. Let’s talk a bit about The Bank Dick.

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I’m wondering how I’ve lived this long without W.C. Fields and The Bank Dick in my life. I love movies about drunks. I especially love movies about amicable drunks that believe they’re the smartest and most capable men in any room. This is the general philosophy behind W.C. Fields’ persona and the guiding light that drives this, perhaps his best known film. Upping the stakes in The Bank Dick, not only is W.C. Fields the smartest drunk in the room, but he’s the smartest drunk in charge of security detail at a local bank.

Part of the charm of this W.C. Fields film is the ambling, directionless nature of the film (and this would prove to be a consistent part of Fields’ charm as an on-screen personality). The film opens with Fields enduring familiar breakfast table grief before wandering over to the bar to get soused (and here I would be remiss to overlook the brilliant gag that is Fields’ character’s name in The Bank Dick – Egbert Sousé) and then stumbling out of the pub to direct a motion picture and catch two bank robbers. All in a day’s hard-earned inebriation.

The high concept here is that by bumbling and exaggerating himself into heroism, the bank gives Egbert a job at the bank. Naturally, he’s a terrible security guard and oversteps his duties to give terrible financial advice in addition to the terrible security and soon everything looks bleak for our drunken sod… but in the end, everything just falls into place. I won’t spoil the machinations of the narrative, but Fields must keep a bank examiner occupied for days in order for his wrongs to be made right.

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The Bank Dick has no concern for strict continuity or narrative logic. W.C. Fields, even though he’d graduated to feature length comedies after a full career of shorts, still plays in the sketch sandbox. Some jokes come back around in the end, but by and large, Fields is most concerned with the short, even in a full-length narrative. The vision and genius lies within the individual scenes and within the melody of his purposeful, booze-soaked dialogue.

Luxuriate in this choice exchange:

Egbert: Ten cents a share. Telephone sold for five cents a share. How would you like something better for ten cents a share? If five gets ya ten, ten’ll get ya twenty. A beautiful home in the country, upstairs and down. Beer flowing through the estate over your grandmother’s paisley shawl.

Og: Beer?

Egbert: Beer! Fishing in the stream that runs under the aboreal dell. A man comes up from the bar, dumps $3,500 in your lap for every nickel invested. Says to you, “Sign here on the dotted line.” And then disappears in the waving fields of alfalfa.

The Bank Dick (and now that I’ve watched six of Fields’ films, I’m qualified to say this) stands out in the W.C. Fields oeuvre not just because of the finely tuned delivery, but also because the film embraces the spectacular potential of slapstick comedy better than any of his other films (at least those on Vol. 1). It’s not just the W.C. Fields persona working full throttle here; it’s also director Edward F. Cline (director of some Buster Keaton’s finest moments) taking W.C. Fields beyond his character’s standard set of old-timey linguistic gymnastics.

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The real coup de grace, of course, is an overlong madcap car chase that boasts some of the most impressive and almost orchestral stuntwork I’ve seen in an early Hollywood comedy. In many ways, The Bank Dick feels like a Keaton film with a verbose character at the center. This really is the best of all comedy worlds.

All that said, I’d have been just as happy spending 80 minutes in the bar with W.C. Fields. Someday, I too hope to be such a clever and witty drunken sod. I’m often a drunken sod, but I lack the certain, specific lexicon and energy that made Fields’ a legendary drunk. It’s something to which we can all aspire.

Or we can err on the side of lesser intoxication and just quote W.C. Fields more often. *Sigh* The latter is far more responsible after all. And I can’t hold my liquor quite like W.C.


 

2017 Shame! Progress:

The Magnificent Ambersons
Five Easy Pieces
The Gold Rush (watched, pending)
The Bank Dick 
The Black Pirate
Ride the High Country
My Darling Clementine
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Rope
Lifeboat
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Stop Making Sense
The Commitments (watched, pending)
Viva Las Vegas
Godfather Part III
Zatoichi 1-4 / 5-8 / 9-12 / 12-15 / 16-19 / 20-24

 

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