Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Master of Comedy and Another Master

Films: The Bank Dick, The King of Comedy
Format: DVDs from Rockford Public Library on laptop (Bank) and big ol’ television (King).

W.C. Fields is one of those actors of whom everyone has heard and can picture in their mind’s eye—straw boater, white gloves and a cane, bulbous nose bright red from too much booze, gravelly voice. A sizable selection of people who could pick Fields out of a crowd would also know of his predilection for drinking too much (at least in character) and his hatred of, in no particular order, women, children, and animals. Sadly, though, most people have probably not seen one of his films.

In The Bank Dick, Fields plays Egbert Souse (pronounced soo-SAY) essentially the quintessential Fields character—a drunk loser whose family hates him. He’s a disappointment to everyone who comes in contact with him except for his local saloon keeper, Joe (Shemp Howard!). Egbert reads detective magazines, drinks, smokes, and tries to support his family by thinking up slogans in contests. His wife Agatha (Cora Witherspoon) is a shrill nag, his mother-in-law (Jesse Ralph) detests him, his older daughter Myrtle (Una Merkel) is embarrassed by him, and his younger daughter Elise (Evelyn del Rio) frequently attempts to do him physical harm. In short, if you’ve ever seen anything Rodney Dangerfield starred in, you’ve met this character before, since it becomes immediately evident that Fields is who Dangerfield based his screen persona on.

The early part of the film is there simply to give Fields something to do until the plot starts working. He does a lot of mild slapstick, reacting not in the exaggerated way that might be expected but with what looks like real annoyance. He goofs around on the set of a film for a bit, leaves, and accidentally manages to capture a thief who has just run off with $25,000 from the local bank.

As a reward for his “heroics,” Egbert is given a new position at the bank, that of the bank’s private detective, or as the bank president says in the underground argot, the bank dick. On his first day on the job, Egbert encounters a con man in the local saloon. The con man is selling shares in a mine for ten cents apiece. Egbert convinces one of the bank employees, Og Ogglesby who also happens to be his potential son-in-law, to embezzle $500 from the bank until his bonus comes in to invest in the scheme.

Trouble arises when, just after the sale of phony mine shares is complete, a bank examiner (the wonderfully named J. Pinkerton Snoopington) arrives to go over the bank’s books. Much of the rest of the film concerns Egbert doing his best to keep the examiner away from those all-important books until Og’s bonus comes in. Of course, this is a comedy, so no one is going to end up in jail, but poor Og can’t even manage to stay conscious when the bank examiner is around, since the sight of the man makes him faint.

Essentially, the film isn’t much in the way of plot, but it really isn’t intended to be. It’s existence is nothing more than a vehicle for the continued and constant antics of Fields, who is a true master of comedic timing, diction, and attitude. Everything the man does in this film is funny—some of it is broadly funny and quite a bit of it is subtle. He’s the master of the double take, and does these throughout the film, always to good effect. He’s also got a great cast to work with here. Everyone in the picture is just believable enough in their role to make the film work. The whole thing ends with a ridiculous high-speed car chase that is a masterwork of stunts and comedy.

If you’d rather see a more modern version of this film, you can watch Dangerfield’s Easy Money, and while it’s plenty funny, it doesn’t have the same energy as this one. Fields should be better known today, and films like this one should show up on television a lot more often than they do. This is grand stuff.

When it comes to Martin Scorsese, the question isn’t whether or not he can direct, but whether or not he can direct comedy. He tries to answer that question with The King of Comedy, and he chooses as his comedic muse…Robert De Niro? Seems like an odd choice. Of course, in the years since this film was made, De Niro has done a number of comedy films, not the least of which are Meet the Parents and Analyze This. Before this, not so much.

De Niro is Rupert Pupkin, a wannabe comic who is desperate for his big break. To get that break, he has his sights set on the Jerry Langford Show. Langford (Jerry Lewis) is the film equivalent of Johnny Carson, and getting on his show is akin to making it in a very big way. The problem is that Pupkin is a nobody, he’ll always be a nobody, and his chance of getting on the show are nil.

So he comes up with a plan. The plan is to kidnap Langford and force himself onto the show. And this is precisely what he does because Langford doesn’t (or can’t) give him what he wants. Rupert lives in the world of the psychotic fan, a world inside his own head where Jerry Langford calls him for advice and where he is the most famous man in the world with the star as his best pal and confidant. He flashes in and out of fantasies interrupted by his mother shouting down into the basement (complete with laughing audience wallpaper) from the top of the stairs. Funny, and at the same time completely pathetic.

For me, the biggest downside to this film is the presence of Sandra Bernhard as psycho stalker fan Masha. I have an intense dislike for Bernhard and always have. She’s like nails on a chalkboard, or Fran Drescher’s voice.

This is a dark film for being essentially a comedy. Pupkin’s world is grim except inside his own head, and Langford’s world, for all the fame and money, isn’t that much better. He craves his privacy, but also seems very lonely, eating dinner alone with only his dog for company. It’s not necessarily that the grass is always greener, it’s more that while everyone wants what Langford has, Langford is the one who seems to understand that it’s not really worth getting.

The revelation here in terms of the cast is Jerry Lewis. He’s definitely an acquired taste, and there are plenty of people in the world who have decided not to acquire the taste. He plays a character here that I think may be much more like his real personality than his stage personality, and thus he’s a lot less zany than he typically comes across on screen. At times, he’s even sedate.

The message of the film, at least the message I got from it, is that there’s a little bit of Rupert Pupkin in all of us. There’s not an average Joe or Jane who hasn’t wondered at least for a few minutes what it would be like to have just a taste of that life of being recognized and beloved by millions of fans. The King of Comedy just takes us into the very sad and very twisted mind of one man who would stop at nothing to get there. Not content to be interviewed by Jerry Langford in his head, he does everything he has to for the reality, if only for a few minutes.

Of course, what the ending doesn't really tell us whether or not what's happening is real or simply another one of Rupert's mental vacations.

Why to watch The Bank Dick: The best work of one of early filmdom’s greatest comedians.
Why not to watch: Crime pays…and it’s funny.

Why to watch The King of Comedy: Blacker than black, incisive comedy.
Why not to watch: Too much reality.


  1. I've seen The Bank Dick a bunch of times. I taped it off A&E in the 1990s and I had it on VHS for years and years. I haven't seen it for a while but it was on TCM recently. It's so funny! From start-to-finish hilarious. From Una Merkel threatening to kill herself through starvation to Grady Sutton as Og Oggilby to Fields warning Og about being a moon-calf or a jabbernowl to the Black Pussycat Café to Francois and Miss Plupp, it's non-stop hilarious. Also, the little daughter! I don't think I've seen her in any other movies but she scratched out her place in film comedy history with her performance here.
    It's my favorite Fields film, but it's stuck in a four-way tie with It's a Gift, The Man on the Flying Trapeze and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.

    1. The truth of Fields is that his movies aren't really plot-driven. It's all about giving Fields a chance to do his schtick loosely tied together. I'm okay with that--Fields was genuinely funny, and that's enough for me.

  2. To your opening question, my answer is no. Scorcese does not do comedy well.
    Comedy is not left hand work, it is one of the most difficult genres to do. Scorcese's infatuation with unlikable characters is just one of his problems.

    1. We'll disagree on this. I don't think it's his forte, but I think he does it well enough if the comedy is black enough.

      Honestly, I think Scorsese's goal is to make unlikable characters not likeable, but compelling in some way.