Fool me once, W.C. Fields, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. It goes to show that in my Rapid Response to “It’s a Gift” just how little I knew about Fields or his movies. Roger Ebert’s Great Movies piece of “The Bank Dick” informs that you don’t have to be familiar with Fields’s movies to be considered a movie buff, and yet if you have never come across him, you’re hardly a movie lover at all.
Ebert describes him as a man who seemed to be drunk at all times, whose louse behavior was par for the course, and whose movies were not especially good, but whose best moments were spread across numerous features and shorts. His best known feature, “The Bank Dick,” made eight years after “It’s a Gift,” shows just how little Fields’s formula had evolved in that time. And to watch the two films in close succession, you begin to develop an affinity for their patterns and their sillier shared qualities.
That doesn’t mean I exactly enjoyed “The Bank Dick.” It’s perhaps even more formless of a story than “It’s a Gift,” and yet taken together it’s much easier to respect the work Fields is doing and the effort that’s gone into making these films, as dumb as they are.
As in “It’s a Gift,” Fields plays a man with another vaguely French name that gets mispronounced as a double entendre wherever he goes. He has a family full of people who despise him and are nagging, exaggerated drama queens. Fields of course responds with passive aggressive distance and casual child abuse in cartoonish fashion. It’d be very simple to judge this family and how poorly their values and their representations have aged, but then Fields will swallow his cigarette just with a quick, simple flick of his tongue, and you’ll forget to notice all the other red flags.
I also grew fond of his cotton-mouthed, puffed up wheeze, this baritone drawl in which he says every word. He always seems a step behind, a beat slow of everyone else’s dialogue, and yet he has a grace on his top-heavy figure. He makes tiny little jumps and spasms that will punctuate a slower moment and make you do a double take, in the way that Curly might on The Three Stooges.
I tend to prefer some of the visual gags that appear so effortless. In one, Fields is driving a robber’s getaway car (don’t ask how he got there, it makes no sense). The robber shouts, “Give me the wheel” and Fields literally hands him the steering wheel as the car begins to collapse. “Here you go!”
But others will pick up on the absurd dialogue. They’re not “jokes” so to speak, with set ups and punch lines. And they’re hardly quotable in regular conversation, but in recalling them they call attention to their absurdity. How about the banker’s “hearty hand clasp,” which seems like a throwaway line until it comes back in the film’s climax? Or when Fields’s daughter says she’ll starve herself to death? “It’s not so difficult to do. I tried it yesterday afternoon.” The line that doesn’t mean a thing to you will be gold to someone else, and vice versa.
W.C. Fields has proven to be highly polarizing since his day, but after watching several of his films, you have to at least give the guy some credit. Love or hate his movies, he has a distinct voice, character and brand. Many comedians can never get even that far, and Fields managed to do it all without even being sober.