For Bob Woolsey’s birthday, we consolidate all of our previous posts on the films of the comedy team of Wheeler and Woolsey into one big monster post. Looked at all at once, RKO’s star comedy team of the 1930s was surprisingly prolific. In fact, I’d assumed I’d pretty much seen all of their films (I’ve seen 15, and that seems like a lot), but I’m astounded to realize this morning that there are still SIX of their films together I haven’t seen (full disclosure: They are the short Oh! Oh! Cleopatra! (1931 — actually, I’ve half “seen” this one; the audio track is available on Youtube), and their last five. In light of their truly solid track record, I’ve begun to realize that their standing ought to be reassessed, for, pound for pound, they have a more consistent record of excellence than nearly any similar comedy team I can think of. Laurel and Hardy beat ’em clearly, but in just about any other case there’s an argument to be made for both sides. A topic for another time.
Rio Rita (1929)
The cinematic debut of the team. The movie was an adaptation of the 1927 Broadway hit, starring Wheeler and Woolsey and produced by Florenz Ziegfeld. The ’29 version replaced the stage Rita (Ethelind Terry) with the box-office insurance of Bebe Daniels, and the original Jim (J. Harold Murray) with John Boles.
The plot concerns a bandit known only as “the Kinkajou.” It’s set in Mexico, just over the border from Texas. Wheeler is supposed to be there to get divorced and remarried, with Woolsey as his friend and advisor. Wheeler learns that his divorce didn’t take though, so he has to avoid his new sweetie Dorothy Lee. Then the two get drunk and there’s a funny drunk scene. Then the first wife (Helen Kaiser) shows up and she’s inherited millions of dollars so now Woolsey wants her. Meanwhile Rita (who has suspected her brother of being the Kinkajou) makes to marry a Russian general…who turns out to be the real Kinkajou, so she is able to marry her true love (Boles). Got all that? As always there’s far too much of the dull romantic plot and far too little comedy. Fortunately future Wheeler and Woolsey vehicles nip that drawback in the bud.
Among the pleasures of this early talkie is that the last act is in two strip Technicolor, in a scene set on an implausibly large sailing ship travelling up the Rio Grande. Like all fantasies, it’s silly, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Rio Rita was later remade in 1942 as one of the first film vehicles for Abbott and Costello.
The Cuckoos (1930)
Ironically, this film began life as a Clark and McCullough vehicle, the 1926 Broadway hit The Ramblers. But Clark and McCullough were committed to their series of shorts for Fox — I’m sure they kicked themselves for this missed opportunity, for The Cuckoos ended up being the making of Wheeler and Woolsey, cementing their nebulous beginnings in Rio Rita into a proper screen team.
The Cuckoos is one of my favorite and one of the best Wheeler and Woolsey comedies, bringing to the table a joke-crammed script by Guy Bolton, and one of the strongest Kalmar and Ruby scores. Its only drawback is that (much like the Marx Brothers The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, which it much resembles) it is rather statically filmed and stage bound. However, unlike those films, but like Rio Rita and Dixiana, it has a two strip Technicolor sequence. Wheeler and Woolsey are terrific in their parts (even if you can’t stop yourself from imagining Bobby Clark doing the role that became Woolsey’s).
Wheeler and Woolsey play a pair of con artists who are down and out in Mexico just south of the border. Dorothy Lee is a girl whom Wheeler loves, though for some mysterious reason she is a member of a family of Gypsies. What a band of Gypsies are doing in Mexico, goes just as unexplained as why the American girl is among them. Jobyna Howland is very funny as one “Fanny Furst” (a play on the name of socialite novelist and suffragette Fanny Hurst), a rich dowager for Woolsey to romance. The show also has an obligatory pair of lovers and rivals, but the three actors are so perfunctory and stiff you can just go ahead and put them out of your mind. The real thing is the musical numbers and the comedians, and sensing their big chance, they bring their “A” game to this film.
Dixiana was my first Wheeler and Woolsey film. W & W are the comic relief in this standard period musical, set in ante-bellum New Orleans, the main plot of which concerns the star-crossed romance between a young aristocrat (Everett Marshall) and the titular Dixiana (Bebe Daniels), the performing ward of traveling showmen Peewee (Wheeler) and Ginger (Woolsey). As he often does in their films, Wheeler gets a romantic interest of his own in the shape of shapely Dorothy Lee. The comedy and music of this film are fairly forgettable. What tends to stand out is its visual beauty, especially the film’s final third (the Mardi Gras scene), which was shot in two strip Technicolor. Joseph Cawthorn plays a stern, slave-owning plantation father; slave Bill Robinson gets to do his famous stair dance. It’s scarcely the most progressive film in the world, but at the time there was very little that would answer that description. Interestingly, this one still feels like an adapted stage musical, though it wasn’t one.
Half Shot at Sunrise (1930)
This is the first of the W&W vehicles to seem like a flat-out, original for the screen comedy, and not a stage musical. Wheeler and Woolsey are plum at the center. In this one, the boys are a couple of dough boys AWOL in Paris during World War One. They spend all their time sweet talking the ladies. Wheeler (as always) falls for Dorothy Lee, whose father just happens to be the colonel who’s been pursuing them. And Woolsey romances the colonel’s mistress (Leni Stengel), who has a bad habit of sending love letters to the colonel, a device which later allows the boys to blackmail themselves out of their difficulties. There are some battle scenes in the trenches, and a funny scene in which the boys are waiters, waiting on the colonel and his wife in a restaurant. The colonel’s wife is of course played by the inevitable Edna May Oliver. Interestingly, one of the screenwriters (among five) was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.
Hook, Line and Sinker (1930)
Directed by Eddie Cline. Though the comedians are in fine form, the plot of this one is very run of the mill…the sort of thing that would be remade many times over by Joe E. Brown, the Bowery Boys etc. Wheeler and Woolsey play insurance salesman who help heiress Dorothy Lee spruce up an abandoned hotel and make a resort out of it called the Ritz de la Riviera (some echoes of Cocoanuts?) Wheeler and she are sweet on each other. Her mother wants her to marry the family lawyer, who talks a good line, but is secretly a crook. He hires a bunch of murdering gangsters and a femme fatale named the Duchess to get W & W out of the picture (and steal jewels and money from the safe). But the movie contains lots of really funny lines and situations. Woolsey romances the girl’s mother. The gangsters keep trying to kill them. The moll keeps entrapping Wheeler. Hugh Herbert plays a funny hotel detective, who’s always sleeping. At the climax, a thunderstorm knocks out the lights and they confront the crooks in the dark. Machine guns, hand grenades, dynamite. In the end all is exposed, the crooks are vanquished and the heroes get rewards.
Everything’s Rosie (1931)
One of Woolsey’s few solo vehicles, directed by Clyde Bruckman. Early in their careers, Wheeler and Woolsey were each tried as solo stars by RKO as an experiment and to bolster their box office value in case the team didn’t work out. Everything’s Rosie was so interesting and enjoyable to me I was tempted to store it in my DVR queue in perpetuity. I found it hilarious; I wanted to steal every joke. Yet, though it was a modest box office success in a year when the Depression caused almost every other Hollywood picture to flop, its panning by the critics was near universal.
Intellectually, I can see why. It is an almost total rip-off of W.C. Fields’ Poppy: Woolsey plays a shady but lovable circus carny with a young female ward (Anita Louise) and the plot arc is near identical (the girl falls in love with a young local rich boy, and she and Woolsey are persecuted and framed because they are showfolk.) While Fields’s film Poppy wasn’t made until 1938, he had starred in the original Broadway play of it in 1924, and a silent screen version Sally of the Sawdust in 1925. Woolsey had been in the Broadway version. Even today, Woolsey can’t help but seem derivative, with his echoes of Groucho Marx, Walter Catlett, George Burns and the now equally obscure Bobby Clark (though Woolsey was much bigger star than the latter two at the time). And I can imagine that, in that day, its barrage of vaudeville one-liners (Al Boasberg was one of the writers) must have seemed passe and corny. Vaudeville was dying an agonizing death at that very moment. But from the perspective of distance, I see only charm and hilarity. Everything’s Rosie is a film I aim to own and steal from copiously.
Cracked Nuts (1931)
Directed by Eddie Cline. The film is interesting for many reasons. One is that, much like Burns and Allen’s 1939 Honolulu, the two comedians are kept separate through a great deal of the picture, to test whether they could work separately outside the context of the team. Secondly, it is the first of the zany satires set in a mythical European kingdom, setting the template for later comedies like Million Dollar Legs (1932), their own Diplomaniacs (1933),and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933). Released in the depths of the Depression, Cracked Nuts was RKO’s biggest grossing film of the year.
The plot? Young millionaire Wheeler woos his debutante gal Dorothy Lee during a transatlantic voyage. Her aunt (Edna May Oliver) doesn’t think much of him, so he arranges to finance a revolution in her native country of El Dorania (she is vocal in her dislike of the President). Meanwhile, back in El Dorania, Bob Woolsey wins the crown of the king of El Dorania in a crap game. You do the comedy math! Also in the cast is a pre-Frankenstein Boris Karloff as a Revolutionary. And a sight gag by Ben Turpin!
Caught Plastered (1931)
In this one, the boys play a couple of failed vaudevillians who decide to help a little old lady named “Mother” save her drug store by having performances (including a radio show) on the premises. Unfortunately, Mother owes money to a man named Harry (Jason Robards, Sr) who convinces them to sell a certain”lemon syrup” which he supplies. The syrup is a big hit, but is laced with alcohol, which gets them in trouble with the authorities, this being the Prohibition era and all. This plot twist also explains the now obscure title of the film. It’s a play on “court plaster”, an item then found in most drug stores, and “plastered” — which everyone gets when they drink the lemon-syrup. As usual Dorothy Lee plays Wheeler’s love interest, and look for Lee Moran in a bit part as a drunk.
Oh! Oh! Cleopatra (1931, short)
An interesting beast, co-produced by RKO and The Masquers, which was like Hollywood’s equivalent to the Lambs. Apart from assorted cameos, Wheeler and Woolsey almost exclusively made features; shorts were Clark and McCullough turf. But apparently The Masquers had their own series of shorts, and Wheeler and Woolsey agreed to star in this one. For some reason, just the audio portion is available to listen to on Youtube, but it gives a flavor. A professor develops a pill that allows a person to go back in time. W & W, experience what it is like to Marc Antony and Julius Caesar (if Antony and Caesar behaved like Wheeler and Woolsey) and they cavort with Cleopatra (Dorothy Burgess). It was directed by Joseph Santley, who co-directed the Marx Brothers’ The Cococanuts.
Peach O’Reno (1931)
I really love the title of this one. There’s the obvious wordplay, but I can just hear Bob Woolsey use that expression in reference to a pretty girl: “Man, is that a Peacherino!” Further, the film sounds like a hoot: the boys play a couple of divorce lawyers, each of whom are separately advising an estranged husband and wife (Joseph Cawthorn and Cora Witherspoon), telling them each to dally with decoy correspondents. On top of this, their law office converts into a gambling casino at night; there are some clips of this process on Youtube. I’ve seen it copied in later comedies, like Bob Hope’s The Lemon Drop Kid. And naturally, some mean guy wants to kill Woolsey for helping his wife to divorce him. Wheeler has a drag scene in the film.
Girl Crazy (1932)
The film was adapted from the hit Broadway show from a couple of years earlier which boasted a book by Guy Bolton, songs by the Gershwins, and Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers among its stars. Considerable changes were made to the film version. Here it has morphed into a much zanier vehicle appropriate for this team, no date largely through the influence of adapted Herman J. Mankiewicz, who’d also had a hand in such madcap madness as Million Dollar Legs, Meet the Baron and several Marx Brothers movies (before of course his epochal contribution to Citizen Kane). Girl Crazy lost money when it was released, but I found it mighty funny.
It’s set in the town of Custerville, Arizona . Woolsey and his girl (Kitty Kelly), two down and out vaudeville performers, are called out west to run a casino. To get there they take Bert Wheeler’s taxi — all the way. Wheeler’s troublesome kid sister (Mitzi Green) stows away to come along for the ride. The town folk are going to lynch them at first until they are saved by a busload of chorus girls bound for the night club/dude ranch, which is run by a New York playboy (Eddie Quillan) who has been sent west to stay away from girls! He falls for Dorothy Lee, the unofficial third member of the Wheeler and Woolsey team. Along the way there is much nonsense about running Wheeler as a patsy in the highly lethal job of sheriff. At any rate, I really go for the high absurdity in these early 30s comedies. This version of Girl Crazy is one of those happy surprises that your correspondent lives to find.
Hold ‘Em Jail (1932)
In this one, one of their funnier ones, the boys get their turn at a funny football game, in a feature directed by Norman Taurog. The title is a play on the Ivy League cheer “Hold ’em, Yale!” Here, the boys are framed and sent to prison, then forced to play on the warden’s team (a possible model for The Longest Yard?) The warden is played by the omnipresent Edgar Kennedy, Rosco Ates is one of the players, their frequent foil Edna May Oliver is in it, and it contains an early performance by Betty Grable!
So This is Africa (1933)
Directed by Eddie Cline, written by Norman Krasna. Esther Muir plays a lady entrusted by a movie company to make a nature documentary in Africa, but there’s one hitch: she’s afraid of animals. To complete the picture ,the company hires Wheeler and Woolsey, a couple of out-of-work vaudevillians with a lion taming act (the lions are aged and toothless). They are on the verge of jumping off a ledge when we meet them. Then they try to steak a donkey for horsemeat to feed their lions. Finally the producers catch up to them. Then there is a nightclub number and FINALLY they are off to Africa for the obligatory Tarzan gags, guys in gorilla suits and Wheeler’s hook-up with the unspeakably sexy jungle woman Miss More (Raquel Torres, from Duck Soup. That’s not the only Marx Brothers borrowing. The movie contains a Strange Interlude parody notably similar to the one in Animal Crackers.). Then they are all captured by a murderous tribe of Amazon babes, but the boys are only too glad to be captured. (Amazingly, this movie avoids overt racism — sort of — by completely omitting depictions of dark-skinned people. Africa is populated by leopard-skin wearing Caucasians.) A total eclipse of the sun arrives and the women go into their usual night time frenzy. Our heroes disguise themselves as native girls until a tribe of randy men come to seize the Amazons as their “wives”. Unfortunately Wheeler and Woolsey are taken in the dragnet. A year later they are doing laundry and we assume they have become these native men’s bitches! But in a reveal we learn they are the happy husbands of Muir and Torres.
This crazy comedy was penned by Herman Mankiewicz who had written Million Dollar Legs and would produce the Marx Brothers early vehicles, including the similar Duck Soup. The plot starts out with Wheeler and Woolsey operating a barber shop on an Indian reservation. Since the Indians wear their hair long and generally don’t have much facial hair the shop has no business. When one of them utters the phrase “foreign relations” the boys are sent off to meet the Chief, who rides around in a limousine and has an Oxford accent. The Chief is going to make them delegates to the international peace conference on behalf of his tribe, to try to engineer world peace. There is a shipboard segment (as there always seems to be in 30s comedies) and then the last act is at the conference. The most tasteless bit has an exploding bomb blacking the faces of all the delegates – so they do a minstrel** number! Contains a few likable songs. Louis Calhern plays a scheming delegate (just as he would later in Duck Soup).
Hips, Hips, Hooray (1934)
In this musical comedy, one of the team’s better remembered ones, (co-written by Kalmar and Ruby) the boys become salesmen for beauty magnate Thelma Todd’s new flavored lipstick. Dorothy Lee, as usual is Wheeler’s romantic interest, and Ruth Etting has a musical number (reduced from a much larger part). Numbers include “Keep Romance Alive” and “Keep Doin’ What You’re Doin'”. Check out the pre-code outfits on those Goldwyn Girls!
Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934)
Directed by Mark Sandrich. This is rated one of the team’s best comedies, and just like their previous film Hips, Hips, Hooray it pairs them with the double whammy of Dorothy Lee and Thelma Todd. And, as in the previous film the boys are masquerading as somebody they’re not. In this case it’s the king’s physicians (they’re just a couple of country bumpkins). Oh, did we mention the Medieval setting? That’s what makes it special and the movie gets much mileage out of the history gags, which put it in a league with films like Roman Scandals, The Court Jester and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Kentucky Kernels (1934)
This is an extremely funny movie, written by Kalmar and Ruby, and featuring Spanky McFarland from Our Gang and Margaret Dumont. It’s essentially The Kid meets The Little Colonel meets Our Hospitality meets Duck Soup meets any number of Depression Era stories. A guy tries to commit suicide by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. He is caught in a fishing net by W & W. They convince the guy—who is despondent over the loss of his girl – to adopt a kid. They go to pick up the kid from the adoption agency (it’s run by Dumont). Spanky is a perfect child, except he has a compulsion to break glass. This results in much hilarity and embarrassment throughout the picture. Unfortunately the guy gets back together with his girl, leaving W & W to look after Spanky. This turns out to a blessing when it emerges that Spanky is heir to a fortune in the form of a Kentucky estate. They go down to claim it but quickly learn that Spanky’s family and another are locked in a bitter and violent feud. They are able to forestall violence for awhile until Spanky sets off the powder keg by exploding a light bulb. The last scene has the heroes trapped in the manor surrounded by scores of the enemy family. In the end they are rescued by a telegram informing them that Spanky is not a relative at all. In addition to innumerable funny lines and bits and songs, the film features the stereotypical comedy stylings of Sleep N Eat!
The Nitwits (1935)
Directed by no less than George Stevens. In this middling caper comedy, the boys work at a cigar store. Woolsey is an inventor who has created a machine that makes anyone tell the truth. Bert is a songwriter who wants to marry his girl Mary (Betty Grable). Meanwhile a killer named the Black Widow is murdering people all across town, and the head of a music company that employs Wheeler’s girl is being threatened by the same killer. The man is murdered, and Mary is suspected. The boys have to solve it.In the end they trick the private investigator into sitting in the truth machine—he reveals that he is the culprit. Sleep n Eat (Willie Best) has a couple of turns. The movie feels like a precursor to endless similar comedies of the forties starring, well, everybody…
Okay here are there last few, none of which I’ve seen — once I have I’ll add to this post. Some are available on DVD, so at point I’ll get to ’em:
The Rainmakers (1935)
Drought was a topical story idea during the years of the Dust Bowl. Here, the boys take on a crook whose swindling honest folk with a phony rainmaking scheme.
Silly Billies (1936)
A western comedy, with the boys as frontier dentists! A dozen years before Bob Hope in The Paleface!
Mummy’s Boys (1936)
A mummy comedy — two full decades before Abbott and Costello’s!
On Again-Off Again (1937)
A musical comedy in which the boys are partners in a pharmaceutical firm, who keep quarreling and want to split up but really need each other. Eventually they decide to determine the fate of the company with a wrestling match. Woolsey was already physically ailing by this point.
High Flyers (1937)
The pair’s last film teams them up with Lupe Velez, almost like a passing of the torch to the Mexican Spitire, whose own comedy series started just two years later. W & W play a couple of phony pilots who get tricked into doing some illegal smuggling. Wheeler also does his Charlie Chaplin impression, which had been a highlight of his vaudeville act prior to teaming with Woolsey. And Woolsey, though not yet 50, definitely looks ill — he had been sick since the previous year.
There are also these Bert Wheeler solo vehicles, none of which I’ve seen, but are on my to-do: Too Many Cooks (1931), The Cowboy Quarterback (1939); Las Vegas Nights (1941); and then two shorts a decade later two Columbia shorts: Innocently Guilty (1950) and The Awful Sleuth (1951) . Wheeler worked in tv til 1962.
To learn more about comedy film history 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.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.