Stream On: Woody Allen called him a ‘comic genius’—W.C. Fields

By on August 19, 2021

After he inherits some money, New Jersey grocer Harold Bissonette drags his family to California to run an orange ranch in ‘It’s a Gift.’ (IMDb.com)

W.C. Fields’ last hurrah might have been when the Beatles portrayed him on the cover of 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He was still well-known despite having died in 1946, mostly through reruns of his movies on TV.

William Claude Dukenfield began his show business career in vaudeville and gained international recognition with the Ziegfeld Follies as a juggler. He became a star in 1923 in the Broadway musical comedy Poppy, in which he played a colorful con man, and by the time of his last appearance, playing himself in the Sensations of 1945, had come to be regarded as one of the greatest comedians of the 20th century—and already a legend—and a pariah in Hollywood. Here are my favorites of his films.


[IMDb.com] [scene]
[Amazon.com; Odnoklassniki] 1934

The plot of this lesser-known masterpiece is almost secondary to the series of routines that make up the film. Over the course of the picture, New Jersey grocer Harold Bissonet (Fields), who is determined to buy an orange ranch in California, fails to prevent a blind customer (and Baby LeRoy) from turning his store into a disaster area; attempts to share a bathroom mirror with his self-centered, high-pitched, gargling daughter; has a destructive picnic on private property; and in the film’s lengthy centerpiece, is driven to sleep on the porch by his haranguing wife, but kept awake all night by neighbors, salesmen, and assorted noises and calamities. [^]

With a 93% score on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s my favorite Fields movie. It’s based on The Comic Supplement, a 1925 play by “Charles Bogle” (Fields) and J.P. McEvoy (The Ziegfeld Follies).


[Amazon.com; Internet Archive; Odnoklassniki] 1940

Bank guard Egbert Sousé, center, tries to thwart bank examiner J. Pinkerton Snoopington, to rescue his daughter’s boyfriend from a charge of embezzlement. (IMDb.com)

Hard-drinking family man Egbert Sousé (Fields) has strained relations with his wife and mother-in-law over his drinking, smoking, and taking money out of the piggy bank of his younger daughter Elsie Mae and replacing it with IOUs. When he tries to hit Elsie May with a concrete urn, he is interrupted by his older daughter Myrtle introducing him to her fiancé, Og Oggilby.

When A. Pismo Clam, the director of a movie which is shooting in town, goes on a bender, the producer offers the job to Sousé. While on his lunch break, it appears that he has caught one of the two men who robbed the bank where his prospective son-in-law, Og, has a job as a teller. The grateful bank president Mr. Skinner gives Sousé a job as the bank’s “special officer,” a bank detective (or “dick”) just as Og “borrows” bank funds to invest in a shady scheme.[^]

Written by Fields under the pseudosym Mahatma Kane Jeeves (think “My hat, my cane, Jeeves“), The Bank Dick is a tour de force of sight gags, physical comedy, minced oaths (“Godfrey Daniel!”) and puns, starring Fields’ onscreen persona of a drawling, hard-drinking ne’er-do-well. In a saloon, he asks the bartender, “Was I in here last night, and did I spend twenty dollars?”

“Why, yes, you did.”

“What a load off my mind that is! I thought I lost it!”

On the strength of his box-office successes with You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man and My Little Chickadee, Fields was able to get complete creative control on this film. Fields’ habitual co-stars Grady Sutton and Franklin Pangborn, are present, along with Shemp Howard (The Three Stooges). The Bank Dick has a rating of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. In a list submitted to Cinema magazine in 1963, director Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove, 2001, etc. etc.) named it his eighth favorite film.


[IMDb.com] [faux trailer]
[Amazon.com; YouTube et al.] 1941

Bill Fields (“the Great Man”) pitches a bizarre movie idea to an unamused producer, Mr. Pangborn, his wife, and Mrs. Pastrami, the cleaning lady. (IMDb.com)

Fields went full meta with this bizarre tale of a fictionalized version of himself pitching a movie idea to a producer at “Esoteric Studios” in Hollywood. (Fields had often chafed against the constraints of the studios and the Hayes code of morality.)

Bill Fields (“the Great Man”) pauses to admire a poster of himself in The Bank Dick when he’s abused by several passers-by, including a passing fruit merchant shouting “raspberries” as his car’s tire repeats the sound of a “raspberry,” aka a Bronx cheer. When an actor comes up to ask for a part, Mr. Fields says, “How’d you like to hide an egg and gurgitate a few saucers of mocha java?” before entering a diner and greeting the surly waitress with “Good morning, beautiful! What do you hear from Borgia?”

Written by John Neville and Prescott Chaplin from a story by “Otis Criblecoblis” (Fields), it’s the story of a fictionalized Fields pitching a film to his producer at a chaotic Hollywood studio. His script is played out as a movie within the movie, and the whole affair is laced with odd characters, sight gags, slapstick and jokes.

The plot makes no sense, but Sucker gives space for singer Gloria Jean, playing Fields’ niece Gloria Jean, to display a lovely coloratura soprano in a few numbers both in the film and in Fields’ pitch, and singer Susan Miller delivers a jumpin’ jive version of “Coming Through the Rye.”

At the studio, the receptionist (Carlotta Monti, Fields’ real-life mistress and biographer), is talking on the phone: “Someday you’ll drown in a vat of whiskey!”

Fields, to himself, mutters, “Death, where is thy sting?”

The producer, Mr. Pangborn (Franklin Pangborn, The Bank Dick) is incredulous at the surreal story Fields proposes to shoot, which is beyond description and makes up the bulk of the movie.

After the pitch he enters a soda shop and addresses the camera, “This was supposed to be a saloon, but the censors cut it. It’ll play just as well.” It was Fields’ last starring role, and he was often drunk on the set, but on camera lived up to his reputation as a comedy master. Universal Pictures picked up Bud Abbott and Lou Costello and dropped Fields.

The users of IMDb.com gave Sucker a 7.2/10 rating.

Next time, railroad dramas to keep you on the edge of your coach seat.

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

Click here for more Stream On: What to watch on TV columns by Pete Hummers.




Comments are closed.