Thursday, February 16, 2012

New On DVD - And As Randy As Ever: Wheeler & Woolsey

Before I could spring for the upcoming, much-awaited UPA and Paramount cartoon DVD sets, Warner Archive beat 'em to the punch by releasing four vintage comedies starring RKO Radio Pictures' ever-wisecracking 1930's team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey.

Tops among the quartet is Diplomaniacs, which pre-dates the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup and shares with that opus the distinction of "most nose-thumbing, convention and gender-bending, take-no-prisoners American feature comedy" until Mel Brooks' The Producers and Blazing Saddles decades later.

Those who are easily offended or view ancient movies strictly on Level One, PLEASE, don't even bother taking the plastic cover off the DVD on this one. The film's modus operandi is to get away with as much as humanly possible - A.K.A. barbeque sacred cows to a crisp, offend everyone and have tons of fun in the process.

Diplomaniacs was written by Joseph L. Manckiewicz - yep, the same guy who deliciously skewered the world of showbiz in All About Eve - during his "insane pre-Code comedy" phase that began with the following memorable 1932 Paramount Pictures opus, Million Dollar Legs.

Next in line and the only release of this quartet that isn't from a newly restored master is one of three W&W features released in 1934, Kentucky Kernels.

Co-starring in Kentucky Kernels is Our Gang star George "Spanky" McFarland, a pint-sized comedian if there ever was one. While Spanky is quite the scene stealer, he has his work cut out for him sharing the screen with Bert and Bob!

The Rainmakers (1935) and On Again Off Again (1937) present a different proposition: a sanitized, post-Code W&W, as vigorous Production Code enforcement began on July 1, 1934. I personally find both films very funny and entertaining, but enforcement of the hated Production Code arguably harmed Wheeler & Woolsey even more than it straitjacketed Mae West; good-natured lechery was as much a cornerstone of W&W as sexy one-liners defined Miss West

The Rainmakers is also the last Wheeler & Woolsey comedy to cast Dorothy Lee in her invaluable supporting role as pert ingenue. Dorothy brought an incalculable degree of spunk, charm, fun, good humor and likeability to the W&W films and is remembered today as an unofficial third member of the team.

Dorothy left the series after Silly Billies in 1936, and by the time the team began shooting in 1937, Robert Woolsey was increasingly suffering from kidney disease.

Robert makes a go of it under difficult circumstances in On-Again-Off-Again, but looked clearly ailing in the subsequent High Flyers.

Although Wheeler and Woolsey stopped making movies in 1937, the team still has devoted fans.

For example, here in 2012, there is a Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey tribute group on Facebook!

L to R: Bert Wheeler, Robert Woolsey, Milton Berle, Joe Penner, Victor Moore, Benny Rubin


John said...

Enjoyed the article very much Paul. Nice to know there's such a great interest today in their work. Keep spreading the word!

Brian Paige said...

The Rainmakers gets a really bad rap. It's certainly the best Fred Guiol directed W & W film and has a lot of fun moments in it (the cellar routine, the song Isn't Love the Grandest Thing that manages to combine a romantic duet with a comedy routine, the whole train finale, etc.).

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Dorothy Lee is absolutely charming in The Rainmakers.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the plug, Paul!
Great to finally see more W&W on DVD! Although Kentucky Kernels has a slight soundtrack problem- wish they had taken the time to restore it.
Warner Archive said on their Facebook page that even more of Bert n' Bob is on the way later in the year. Here's hoping for Cockeyed Cavaliers!