For those of you who have been following my blog, you may have noticed my unshakable love for W.C. Fields. His hapless heroes, only looking for everyone to leave him alone so he can have some enjoyment, is timelessly funny. Throughout the 1930s Fields treated audiences to a string of classic comedies from the early shorts like The Dentist, The Golf Specialist, and The Fatal Glass of Beer to his more technically polished feature length films like The Man on the Flying Trapeze and It’s a Gift. After a few duds – The Big Broadcast of 1938, The Old Fashioned Way – Fields proved he was not yet out of steam in 1940 with one of his best and most observant comedies The Bank Dick, a pointed satire of American success and celebrity.
Egbert Sousé (accent grave over the e, as he continually points out) lives with his indifferent wife, nagging mother-in-law, and his two daughters, one disrespectful and disobedient, the other disinterested in anything except boys. It’s not clear what Egbert does for a living other than read detective magazines and sneak drinks at the Black Pussy Saloon. (Egbert to Joe the bartender: “Oh, Joe. Did I come in here last night and did I spend a $20 bill? Joe: “Yeah.” Egbert: “What a load off my mind that is. I thought I’d lost it.”)
Fortune smiles on Egbert when he inadvertently apprehends a bank robber and the townspeople mistake his clumsiness for heroism. He is promptly rewarded with a job as the bank’s security officer – or the bank dick. This will give him an income, the bank manager discreetly informs Egbert, and prevent him from having to foreclose on his house. This leads to one unlikely opportunity after another that could lead to fortune for our hero all culminating in a hilarious chase as all the pieces come together.
Fields is lampooning a culture that values celebrity over hard work and deliver success to people who have stumbled onto it. After all, if Egbert was a lazy no-account before, why would a job change that? When Edgar asks the bank manager what time the bank opens, the manager tells him ten o’clock. “Well, that’s OK,” Egbert responds, “if I’m not here just start without me. I’ll catch up.” Even in 1940 we were already overvaluing celebrity, however dubiously earned.
The promise of the American dream, that hard work will bring success is cynically and hilariously undermined. Every time he turns around Egbert Sousé stumbles into a new opportunity not because he’s qualified or creative, but because he blusters and tells tale tales. At one point he convinces a desperate movie producer to hire him in place of his drunken director with bogus tales of past movie experience. Success is there for the taking for those bold enough to take it, even if that means lying, cheating, by whatever means necessary, so long as actual work is not involved.
Egbert exercises his unarticulated philosophy when he convinces his daughter’s fiancée, Og, to abuse his position as a bank teller and “borrow” they money they need to invest in a get-rich-quick Beefsteak Mine stock deal. The deal gets sticky when J. Pinkerton Snoopington, a fastidious bank examiner unexpectantly shows up, forcing Egbert to distract and sidetrack the straight-laced, conservative examiner – the first real work he has to do through the entire film.
It is wealth and celebrity that afford respect, no matter how they are achieved. Notice how the attitudes of his family change by the film’s end, not because they love him or he’s changed in any substitutive way, but because all of his schemes have miraculously paid off, making him a millionaire. Fields is parodying the hypocrisy of our commonly held principles, that claim to value labor and industry but in reality any buffoon can stumble into wealth (or any bully can muscle his way into it) and be respected for it. He’s making us more self-aware of the paradoxes of the American Dream in the modern world. Thankfully Fields is able to make his point and make us laugh at the same time.