Wheeler and Woolsey: They Do Grow On Ya

Wheeler and Woolsey

 

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, who later left him to join the Stroud Twins. 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. He is also often compared to Walter Catlett. 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.

Wheeler (R), in 1941 with Tommy Riggs and Hank Ladd on the radio show “Tommy Riggs and Betty Lou”

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 DiplomaniacsHips, Hips, Hooray and Kentucky Kernels (1935) rank with good Marx Brothers movies, or very nearly. Read my full post on their films together here. 

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 Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

5 comments

  1. An excellent book was written on Wheeler and Woolsey by Edward Watz about 15 years ago. The author discusses Woolsey’s connection to Walter Catlett as well. I highly recommend the book, it’s still in print from Amazon.

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  2. I think Woolsey’s early death at age 50 was a great tragedy.
    Imagine if Groucho Marx had similarly died at age 50 in 1940. Imagine, he hadn’t done “You Bet Your Life” from 1948 to 1961 on radio and television, and hadn’t made over hundreds of appearances on radio and television shows in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, the 10 movies that the Marx brothers made from 1929 to 1939 would have slipped into obscurity and would probably be known only by a few thousand film scholars, as opposed to the tens of millions of people who still love and enjoy their films.

    One can easily imagine continued success for Woolsey and Wheeler along the lines of Abbott and Costello. If they had done a successful television show in the early 1950s, they would likely be as well known as Abbott and Costello are today.

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