Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: The Bank Dick (1940)
Studio Line: The Criterion Collection/Home Vision

W.C. Fields stars as Egbert Souse, an unemployed, henpecked drunk who spends most of his time at the Black Pussy Cat Café. But things take a turn for the absurd when Souse inadvertently captures a bank robber and is rewarded with a job as a security guard. Written by Fields under the pseudonym Mahatma Kane Jeeves and featuring one of his most hilarious performances, The Bank Dick is an undisputed classic of American comedy. Criterion is proud to present Fields' last major film in a new digital transfer, with English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired.

Director: Edward F. Cline
Cast: W.C. Fields, Cora Witherspoon, Una Merkel, Evelyn Del Rio, Jessie Ralph, Franklin Pangborn
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Mono; subtitles English; single sided - single layered; 19 chapters; rated NR; $29.95; 72 min.; street date 8/15/00.
Supplements: Essay Booklet.
Purchase: DVD | The Complete Films of W.C. Fields - Donald Deschner

Picture/Sound/Extras: C-/C-/D-

As I noted in my review of 6 Short Films, my familiarity with the caricatured image of W.C. Fields is strong, but my knowledge of his actual work is weak. To be frank, I don't think I'd ever watched a complete film of his before I got these DVDs - not even one whole short! That's changed thanks to these new DVDs from Criterion. I can't call myself an expert about Fields' work, obviously, but at least I'm a bit better educated about the man and his movies.

1940's The Bank Dick comes toward the end of Fields' career. Indeed, he would be dead a scant six years after the release of this movie, and it marks his second-to-last feature role; after 1941's Never Give A Sucker An Even Break, Fields only chipped in a few cameos over the subsequent years.

Although TBD shows Fields in deteriorating health, he managed to make a pretty witty and entertaining film nonetheless. In a way, it's a mistake to regard TBD as separate from Fields' short films. For one, at a meager 72 minutes, it's not very long.

However, even if it lasted another half hour, it would still owe a serious debt to his prior work. That's because TBD doesn't feature much of a plot and it really comes across as a conglomeration of shorts; this film's a group of sketches loosely connected by an overall theme. I don't regard that as a terrible thing, for TBD has plenty of solid company in that category; in fact, what are probably my three favorite film comedies - This Is Spinal Tap, Pee-wee's Big Adventure, and Quick Change - provide only the loosest of plots to link them.

Instead, as with TBD, we find lots of wonderful little bits of funniness to maintain our interest. Nothing in TBD stands out as unusual in the Fields' canon, but it works quite well and can be very witty at times. Despite his less-hardy exterior, Fields displayed excellent comic timing and keeps things loose. The supporting cast is also generally quite strong, though they remain little more than foils for Fields.

Fields wrote the screenplay under the nutty pseudonym Mahatma Kane Jeeves and continues the string of odd names with his own character: Egbert Sousè. Note that accent at the end; it means the name should be pronounced "soo-say". Yeah, it's a cheap gag, but I liked it anyway; if something's good enough to be stolen by SCTV - who once had a minor character named "Beaver", which was pronounced "bee-vay" - then it's good enough for me.

Add to that some surprisingly off-color content as well; after all, Fields plays the titular dick, a man who loves a bar called the Black Pussy. Yes, the movie shows lots of shots of the dick entering the Pussy! How they got all that past the Hays Office is a mystery to me.

I won't call The Bank Dick a great piece of work, because it's not. However, it offers a pretty funny and entertaining experience. My experiences with old-time comedy have been pretty hit or miss, as I like some of the acts but don't get the appeal of others. Although I've not seen a lot of W.C. Fields' work, I've been pleased with the films I've watched and wouldn't mind checking out more of his pictures in the future.

The DVD:

The Bank Dick appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although it doesn't seem especially weak for its age, the picture shows quite a few flaws that mar the presentation.

Sharpness generally appears fairly clean and accurate, with only occasional fuzziness to detract from the presentation. Moiré effects and jagged edges arise on a few occasions - Fields' hat causes most of the latter - but they remain very minor throughout the film. Black levels seemed nicely deep and rich for the most part, with acceptable contrast, though the image sometimes appeared slightly too bright. Shadow detail was perfectly acceptable and didn't cause any parts of the picture to seem excessively thick or heavy.

The main problem I found with the image stemmed from the omnipresent print flaws. Speckling is the worst offender, as these white dots crop up throughout the majority of the movie. I also witnessed quite a lot of grain, and other defects appear from time to time, such as black grit and scratches. Do these flaws seem radically more prevalent than is typical for a film from this era? No, but they are pretty heavy nonetheless, and I felt the image of The Bank Dick deserved no higher than a "C-".

The film's monaural soundtrack appeared equally drab. Dialogue seems consistently intelligible but was harsh and tinny, with little distinctiveness. Effects were relatively clear but also hollow and edgy, though they lacked substantial distortion. The music sounded decent for the most part; it didn't feature any form of dynamic range but it was acceptably clean and smooth. A fairly significant layer of background noise appears throughout the movie. As with the picture, the audio quality wasn't significantly worse than I'd expect from a nearly 60-year-old movie, but it seemed weak nonetheless.

Although Criterion's releases are often noted for their excellent supplements, The Bank Dick provides almost no extras. All we find is a fairly informative and entertaining essay from writer David Perrin that appears in the booklet. An audio commentary from Perrin or another film historian would have been a nice addition, but none is to be found.

Of all the comics of his era, W. C. Fields comes across as one of the more clever and inventive, and I've enjoyed the few works of his that I've now seen. The Bank Dick is a faulty piece but it provides enough laughs and silliness to merit interest. The DVD offers flawed picture and sound that aren't atypically bad for their era but show many problems nonetheless; it also includes virtually no extras. While I'm not sure I can endorse a purchase, The Bank Dick at least merits a rental.

Support DVD Movie Guide, visit our sponsors.

Menu: DVD Movie Guide | Archive | Top