Call security

Purchase of a second-hand edition of James Curtis’ biography of WC Fields, which I figured had to be interesting, and it is, led me to revisit THE BANK DICK.

OK, it’s not as good as IT’S A GIFT, but few things are.

I was struck by a gratuitous moment (there are many) of Fields entertaining some kids with cigarette tricks. Sticking a ciggie in his ear and exhaling smoke from his mouth is all very fine, and Fields would probably have been horrified to learn it’s the kind of thing Chaplin might do. Sticking the cigarette into the crevice between his cheek and the ala of his swollen nose is curiously repellent, implying the presence of some secret orifice possessed only by the Great Man.

Curtis tells us that the Breen Office warned that the character of J. Pinkerton Snoopington must not be depicted as camp or sissy, which must have been a note added after the casting of Franklin Pangborn was known. There’s nothing in the writing to imply homosexuality, indeed the character speaks of his wife and children, not that that proves anything. The order must have reached Pangborn, because in spite of the innate prissiness that’s an essential part of his comic armoury, he really doesn’t push it this time. Indeed, after Fields slips him a mickey, he’s so “straight,” not only sexually but dramatically, as to be quite pitiful, a sincere performance of a man experiencing calamitous ill-health, and Fields comes to seem pretty monstrous.

But this flexible approach to audience sympathy is typical of Fields, who vacillates between free-range misanthropy with himself in a protective bubble at the centre of the universe, and an all-encompassing loathing that begins at home, with the self. Maybe this is a consequence of Fields playing a character: “He’s me, so I’m on his side, but he’s also NOT me, so I detest the man.”

10 Responses to “Call security”

  1. Production code strictures against effeminacy were in reaction to the “Pansy Craze” of the 1930s — when wildly effeminate gay men were regarded as “fashionable” in certain circles. One appears quite prominently at the close of Cukor’s “Our Betters.” And leave us not forget Jean Malin

  2. Pangborn occasionally plays non-pansy, but walked a very thin line for most of his career, tolerated by the censor as long as some level of (im)plausible deniability was maintained.

  3. Not difficult to do as Pangborn never got sexual with anyone. Made no “passes” or anything like that.

  4. However as Vito Russo points out in “Only Yesterday” he IS given a boyfriend.

  5. Yes! A striking development. Not played for laughs, either.

  6. David E, that record has made my night.

  7. I feel like the “all-encompassing loathing” you write about is most pronounced here and in “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break”, arguably the two most surreal films in the Fields canon — a movie like “It’s a Gift” (a masterpiece) still takes place in a universal that resembles ours, albeit caricatural, but by the time we get to “The Bank Dick” we’re through the looking glass, and even Fields himself seems to be inhabiting his screen persona as though it’s an artificial beard he occasionally tugs off his face, just to show us it’s not real. (Not a criticism, as “The Bank Dick” and “Never Give a Sucker” still make me laugh my fool head off, but I think that’s why when I was a kid I found “The Bank Dick”…vaguely unsettling; even the best Marx Brothers movies have them entering a solid, stolid world and disrupting it, whereas in “The Bank Dick” EVERYTHING is elastic, from plotting to characterization to how the jokes themselves are constructed).

  8. So glad your night is made, Simon. Go forth and “Google” Jean Malin. it’s quite a story

  9. The earliest example of Fields working in a mode where reality is completely suspenmded is the amazing short The Fatal Glass of Beer, which seems to make James Curtis quite uncomfortable. I once watched it with a successful comedy producer who sat stony-faced, quite perturbed by the laughter around her.

  10. I can’t believe I forgot about “Fatal Glass of Beer”! That’s egg on my face — or more appropriately, fake snow. “And it ain’t a fit night out, for man or beast!”

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