Stars of Slapstick #144: Wheeler and Woolsey
Originally posted in 2009.
Robert Woolsey’s birthday is today.
Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey weren’t actually a vaudeville team but a vaudevillian and a musical comedy star who were teamed for the movies.
Wheeler, born in 1895 in Paterson, New Jersey, started out as a teenager with the Gus Edwards company. He moved on to a two act with his first wife Betty. In 1923 he inked a five year contract with Ziegfeld to perform in the Follies, and was a big time vaudeville star on his own.
In 1926 Ziegfeld teamed him with Woolsey for the show Rio Rita. A 1929 film version of Rio Rita brought them a national audience. The team seemed to click, managing to do 21 feature films before Woolsey died in 1938. Among them are: Dixiana (1930), Diplomaniacs (1933), and Hips, Hips, Hooray! (1933).
Woolsey, with his tortoise shell glasses, big phony grin and cigar, is a sort of gladhand, always rubbing his hands together and cooking up the schemes that drive the plot along. As such he is a sort of lesser stand-in for Groucho Marx or Bobby Clark (with more than a modicum of George Burns), although he does seem a bit more grounded in reality and therein may have been the attraction. Far more intriguing is Wheeler, who had been a solo star in vaudeville, and had an ethereal, “pixie”-ish quality, that was somehow feminine without being effeminate. Rather than seeming like a sissy, he seemed more like a three year old boy, with a high pitched voice and a naivete that always got him into trouble. Benny Rubin called him “the sweetest little man you ever met in your life”. A former headliner at the Palace, after Woolsey’s death in 1938, the remainder of Wheeler’s career was a struggle, managing to secure only a few more parts in films, and to make his living from night club dates, but with nothing like the fame he had formerly known. Wheeler passed away in 1968.
It’s been a joy discovering their films over the last few years. It helps fill out one’s picture of 30s comedy. We can’t all be the Marx Brothers. And some of their pictures, such as Diplomaniacs; Hips, Hips, Hooray and Kentucky Kernels (1935) rank with good Marx Brothers movies, or very nearly.
For more on slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.