Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Two Guys I Like: Wheeler And Woolsey


I dig comedians/comediennes in no uncertain terms and require laughs daily. And, as anybody who reads this blog has probably figured out, I especially go for those double-entendre packed early 1930's comedies!

The zany, high-spirited feature-length and short comedies of the early 1930's were unquestionably a balm for those battered by the Great Depression.

The stars were the hilarious likes of the iconic Mae West, W.C. Fields and Eddie Cantor, as well as a host of lesser-known but equally funny comedy greats: the delightful Polish-American singer-comedienne Lyda Roberti, the very underrated Marion Davies and three way over-the top comedy teams, the Marx Brothers, zany Clark & McCullough and Wheeler & Woolsey.

Among those
outrageous wisecracking lechers who cut their artistic teeth in burlesque and vaudeville are the subjects of today's blog: Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey.

Big box office stars who cranked out comedy features for RKO from 1929 to 1938, Bert n' Bob were fast-talkin' wiseacres and talented "song and dance men", capable of sweetness, unabashed silliness and verbal zingers in the Groucho Marx/Bobby Clark tradition.

The boys' good-natured lechery exemplified double entendre humor as Laurel & Hardy defined the art of slapstick and Charley Chase the comedy of embarrassment.

Co-starring with Bert and Bob in many of their films was the singer-dancer-ingenue who, with charm and chutzpah to spare, owned the patent on "cute and adorable", Miss Dorothy Lee.

The next four clips are from one of the best W&W films, the unapologetically outrageous Diplomaniacs (1933).

Diplomaniacs is a close cousin to the contemporaneous wacko fantasy romps Million Dollar Legs (1932) and Duck Soup (1933), and with good reason: the screenplay was penned by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who began his career with wacky Depression-era comedies - and fully deserves the highest measure of silver screen immortality for writing both Million Dollar Legs and All About Eve (the 1950 Oscar winner for Best Picture)!

Bert shares the screen with another very talented and funny musical comedy performer, Marjorie White. They are hilarious and it's a darn shame they never appeared in another film together.

Bert & Bob attempt to sing their way out of sure trouble in a sleazy dive:

This production number conveys both the surreal and Pre-Code flavor of Diplomaniacs

Last up is a favorite musical number of mine, from Hips Hips Hooray, directed by the great Mark Sandrich, whose credits ranged from wild and crazy Clark & McCullough two-reelers to the big-budget features of Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers.

This production number starts off sweet with Bert and Dorothy, then, about three minutes in, gets wonderfully silly. It also offers a chance for co-star Thelma Todd, a terrific but frequently under-utilized comedienne, to be funny. Here, as in Charley Chase's 1932 classic The Nickel Nurser, Thelma gets to do her stuff, where in many of her films she is just cast as eye candy.

In closing, I recall my father telling me about a W&W routine in which they sing "It's A Wonder You Don't FEEL IT", while beating the crap out of each other. Sounds both indescribably, side-splittingly funny and among those guilty pleasures that Wheeler & Woolsey no doubt relished giving to their fans. . . then and 80 years later.


East Side said...

Nice to see another W & W fan out there. "Diplomaniacs" is one of the great under-rated -- nay, unknown -- comedies of its time. I keep hoping there's an afterlife so I can finally meet them!

paul etcheverry said...

Great to hear from you - and I totally agree with you about "Diplomaniacs"! If I'm not mistaken, I recognize your nom de plume from comments on The Third Banana and Greenbriar Picture Shows, two superlative and informative blogs.

Bert n' Bob, IMO, have a certain likeability found in very few comedians, including their contemporaries(Fields, The Bros. Marx and the often edgy Clark & McCullough). As the clips here indicate, W & W can both dance, too! I would have much enjoyed seeing them as comic relief in one of Mark Sandrich's Astaire & Rogers flicks.

Wonder to what extent Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, ace gagmen and excellent song writers who worked with the Marx Brothers, were all over the W & W pictures. Their contributions to the clips here border on the sublime.

I understand that many W & W titles, like a fair number of lesser known 1930's films, were issued on laser disc but never made it to DVD. Alas, I do not own a laser disc player and have not seen 16mm prints of these films offered for less than an absurd amount of $$$.

paul etcheverry said...

A handful of the early W & W features are available on DVD. Here's the list from Amazon.

A lot more Wheeler & Woolsey films got released on laserdisc. Thanks to Paul J. Mular for the following list:

1930 Hook Line & Sinker
1931 Peach O' Reno
1933 Diplomaniacs
1934 Hips, Hips, Hooray
1934 Kentucky Kernels
1935 Nitwits
1935 Rainmakers
1936 Silly Billies
1936 Mummy's Dummies
1937 High Flyers

Don J. Long said...


I recall watching many of their wonderful old-time RKO comedies on television as a boy growing up in the 1950s, when they were first-run (and probably last-run too!)
W&W are one of my favorite old-time comedy teams, along with Olsen & Johnson (who?).
Two of my favorites by the boys are HALF SHOT AT SUNRISE (1930) and THE COCKEYED CAVALIERS (1934).
It was always a delight to see stern pokerface Robert Woolsey chewing on his cigar while staring down his nose at boyish Bert Wheeler, who did his best to cower like a kid at him.

I wonder what the current copyrights are on these antique 1930s features. Perhaps AOL-TW, which already owns half of all screen entertainment, owns these by rights of their acquiring the RKO backlog of film titles. Who knows? What we would love to see, of course, is all of W&W's classic comedies lovingly restored and released on DVD.
Great remarks, Paul!
Cheers, Don

paul etcheverry said...

Wheeler and Woolsey were originally to star in a college spoof entitled "Frat Heads", but after the success of Laurel & Hardy's The Devil's Brother (1933) and Roman Scandals (1933) with Eddie Cantor, RKO decided to make a costume period piece. All that remains of "Frat Heads" are a few publicity stills.

This ended up being the right call, not only because Cockeyed Cavaliers is a riot, but because Paramount Pictures soon cranked out College Rhythm, starring Jack Oakie, the wonderful Lyda Roberti and 1934's biggest radio star, Joe Penner. While this ranks high among comedies with 30 year olds pretending to be collegians, Harold Lloyd's The Freshman is the heavyweight champ of that genre.

Cockeyed Cavaliers is another W & W that actually utilizes the talents of Thelma Todd. She and the always pert and likeable Dorothy Lee co-star!

paul etcheverry said...

Note: found that note about "Frat Heads" on imdb.com. If any comedy film historians out there in cyberspace can confirm or deny this, or have posted the stills. . .

East Side said...

Here's a site that seems to have all the Wheeler & Woolsey movies on DVD (don't tell RKO Radio!):

Nick Santa Maria said...

By the way, it wasn't "It's a Wonder You Don't Feel It" they are singing when they beat the hell out of each other....that was the hit song from THE CUCKOOS, sung by Bert and Dottie. The scene your Dad referred to is from their first film, RIO RITA, and they weren't singing, their girls were. The song was, "Sweetheart We Need Each Other". Here's to Bert, Bob, and Dottie (who was a dear friend of mine).

Tboneator64 said...

A 9-title Wheeler & Woolsey RKO comedy collection is listed among the Warner Archive's upcoming October/November 2012 releases! Here's hoping "Cockeyed Cavaliers" & "So This Is Africa" will be among them!