21 November 2005 | theowinthrop
Chickens have pretty legs in Kansas
It was W.C. Fields' last lead role in a film - and his last knock at the system that gave him immortality. In THE BANK DICK Fields took several aims at making movies - from his drunken film director A Pismo Clam to his screenplay that was better than GONE WITH THE WIND (which he actually does sell at the end of the film). But there were many targets in THE BANK DICK. NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK is a film about making movies. Fields is trying to sell his next picture to Esoteric Pictures, which is run by Franklin Pangborn. The crazy story line begins with him proudly seeing an advertisement billboard for THE BANK DICK, only to find two little brats razzing it. He and his niece, Gloria Jean, are both trying to get into business with Esoteric, and Pangborn is actually willing to sign up Gloria Jean - but she slaps him when he bad mouths her Uncle Bill. We see a rehearsal at Esoteric for Gloria Jean, and see the incongruities of the studio system when Pangborn, carried away by the music, finds himself also carried away by two actors dressed as Nazi soldier goose stepping. So it goes throughout the film, even ending with a mad car chase to get a woman to her destination - except she is taken to a maternity hospital that she did not want to go to. But, as THE BANK DICK showed, all comedies should end with a mad chase.
There are references to other comics in the film, especially Fields' rivals the Marx Brothers. His interview with Pangborn is interrupted by Madame Pastrami, the cleaning lady - whom an angry Fields calls "a Groucho Marx" (actually she's a "Chico"). And the leading lady he tries to romance for her money in his film - Mrs. Hemoglobin - is none other than Margaret Dumont, Groucho's usual girlfriend. Field's past with Ziegfeld is brought in too (although not his film career it led to his film career). His rival for Miss Dumont is Leon Erroll, his old fellow Ziegfeld comic. One also wonders if the Marxes and Ziegfeld are the only references thrown in. The incongruous appearance of an ape on top of Mrs. Hemoglobin's mountain retreat is similar to the ape on the swinging rope bridge in the alps in Laurel & Hardy's SWISS MISS.
The film lacks structure, so it is not as well received as THE BANK DICK, IT'S A GIFT, of THE OLD FASHIONED WAY. But Field's crazy script raises an issue - do we really need structure to enjoy a funny film? Years before Monty Python discovered that a sketch did not need to reach a logical conclusion to be successful, Fields demonstrated it in this full length film. He finds structure a nuisance. Look at how he openly tells the audience that his sequence in an ice cream parlor should have been in a bar. And the audience appreciates the hint.
Nothing has to be straightforward, because we understand that everything means something else. Fields sings of chickens and their legs in Kansas, and we realize that the song is not about poultry, but about the legs of pretty ladies (like the stewardesses who smile while he sings). The film flows on, making a mockery of film making but celebrating it at the same time.