Jans and Whalen: Two Good Boys Gone Wrong

Jans and Harold were a popular vaudeville team from 1922 through 1935, whose unique act was a combination of peppy comedy crosstalk, song and dance. The team consisted of  Harold Whalen (1894-1940) and Harry Jans (1898-1962).

Whalen first emerges in Columbia Wheel burlesque in the mid teens, as a juvenile in two shows produced by I.H. Herk and written and staged by Frank Damsel: The Pacemakers (1916-1917) and The Beauty Trust (1918-1919). Damsel was also in these shows, as was Jack Pearl, to whom Whalen played straight man. Then in 1919 and 1920 he’s in a tab show put on by Elizabeth Brice that originated in New York as Toot Sweet and later went out to Chicago and San Francisco as The Overseas Revue. This show got good reviews, and seems to have had a World War One theme,

Jans was originally from New Haven,and is said to have danced with Irene Castle early in his career. In 1921, Variety reported that he was with an act called Eleanor Pierce and Company, also featuring Clarence Clark. Pierce seems to have formed the act in 1920. A 1922 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal mentions an act called Harry Jans and Company hitting town. He must have teamed up with Whalen in the latter half of the year; that’s when you start to see “Jans and Whalen” appearing in bills.

Their formula of nutty dialogue and dance seems to have been instantly popular; they played big time vaudeville, night clubs, radio, Broadway and films, and even released record albums.

After two Broadway shows, Padlocks of 1927 and The Greenwich Village Follies of 1928, they made the Vitaphone short for which they are best known today: Two Good Boys Gone Wrong (1929). In the film they do a version of the “Niagra Falls” sketch, and a tap number punctuated with comedy, among other bits.  Some of the material from the film was also released as a 78 record. Modern commentators are apt to call the material corny, but it got them this far! They were kind of legendary in the business for a time. A sketch of theirs called “Packing the Trunk” is said to have been adapted by burlesque comedians as “Dressing and Undressing”, newly peppered with risque jokes.

In 1930 the team did two more Broadway shows: The International Revue with Harry Richman et al, and the musical Luana.

In 1933 they starred in Wild People, a Technicolor short for MGM with the politically incorrect premise of a radio station on a South Seas Island. Later that year, they went into the Broadway show Tattle Tales to replace Richy Craig Jr and and Benny Rubin, who in turn had replaced Frank Fay.

In 1934, they sailed to England on the Aquitania with soubrette Helen Thompson to perform at the London Palladium. They initially bombed and were fired but got reinstated and finished out the run, and then toured to other English venues. Author Gail Chumbley writes about this episode in her book River of January.

In early 1935 a short in which they appeared, Revue a la Cart, was released. It was essentially a filmed vaudeville show featuring them, Tom Patricola and other acts.

At this stage, they broke up. Posterity does not record why. Perhaps they felt they’d hit a brick wall as a team. American vaudeville had died by this point, a likely reason why they had done the English tour. They had gotten much farther than about 95% of vaudeville acts. There were only a few rungs left for them to reach for:  headline stardom in feature films or comedy shorts or their own Broadway vehicles or their own radio show. They clearly didn’t see any of these things happening so they went their separate ways.

Initially, they both worked with other partners. Jans teamed with Bert Wheeler for a date in Chicago in February 1935 (which is interesting — his screen partner Robert Woolsey didn’t die until two years later.) Apparently, Jans’ pride couldn’t take the lopsided dynamic. Wheeler was making ten times his salary for the engagement and his name dominated the marquee. So Jans didn’t work with him beyond this occasion.

Meanwhile, that same year of 1935, Whalen became straight man to Russ Brown (previously of Brown and Whitaker).

Jans went on to work as a supporting player in films (14 of them ) from 1936 through 1937 . He usually played a henchman or a reporter; the best known of the pictures today is probably Charlie Chan at the Race Track. 

Whalen appeared in the Broadway shows Off to Buffalo (1939) and the 1939 edition of George White’s Scandals. He died in 1940.

Incidentally, there was a Jackie Whalen,who was a producer, comic and emcee in burlesque and night clubs from the late 1930s through the early 1950s. Jackie had performed with Eddie White (who also made a memorable Vitaphone) in Atlantic City in the ’40s.  I haven’t been able to ascertain yet whether Harold and Jackie were related.

As for Harry Jans, he has no film credits after 1937, but he remained in Los Angeles until his death of a heart attack in 1962.

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