At one time during the 1930s, the comedy team of Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey was R-K-O’s insurance policy at the box-office: the vehicles made by the duo were by and large some of the biggest moneymaking hits produced by the fledgling studio, beginning with their debut appearance in 1929’s Rio Rita, based on the hit Broadway smash produced by Florenz “The Great” Ziegfeld, Jr. himself. (In fact, Wheeler & Woolsey were the only two members from the original stage cast brought over to the film adaptation.) The success of the film kicked off the vaudeville veterans’ silver screen career, and they ruled the roost at R-K-O until 1936, when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers took over as the stars that regularly filled the studio’s coffers. Wheeler & Woolsey’s partnership came to a tragic end in 1938, with the death of Bob Woolsey from kidney disease.
Despite their immense popularity in the 1930s, Wheeler & Woolsey go largely ignored nowadays—and there are reasons for this. Many people don’t find them particularly funny, and considering that the quality of their films dropped off sharply after the release of their last truly splendid vehicle, The Nitwits (1935), they certainly have a very strong argument. While Bert and Bob can certainly be admired for the fact that neither one of them was the “straight-man” per se (both men judiciously tossed laugh-getting wisecracks back and forth), their on-screen personalities never really inspired audiences to root for them, as in the case of Laurel & Hardy, for example. And speaking of Stan & Ollie, their films—along with those of the Three Stooges—gained a great deal of exposure on television beginning in the 1950s, and were geared primarily for children; the Wheeler & Woolsey films are a little too adult (some of them daringly risqué), with dialogue you may not have wanted Junior to repeat…unless he was planning to dine with the Algonquin Round Table later that evening.
The first time I became acquainted with Bert and Bob was seeing their 1934 classic Cockeyed Cavaliers featured in an old Blackhawk Films catalog—though I had neither the means (financial and physical) to see it at the time. (It has since become my personal favorite of Bert and Bob’s films.) The first W&W film I actually remember seeing was Mummy’s Boys (1936), which I videotaped off a late-night showing from TNT (back in their pre-TCM days) and while it most assuredly does not represent the team at its best, I’d like to point out that it did whet my appetite to see more of their movies—much in the same manner as I was exposed to Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, and Charley Chase through the shorts they made at Columbia in the 1930s/1940s as a 1960s child of television.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I like Wheeler & Woolsey—even their positively worst films have at least something to recommend. Bert & Bob are an acquired taste, much like Fred Allen and boiled peanuts (love Fred, hate boiled peanuts), but fortunately there a few like-minded individuals who I am proud to call friends: Cultureshark’s Rick Brooks, Rodney Bowcock, Stephen Cooke, and the-best-friend-to-classic-film-buffs-currently-toiling-in-the-corporate-salt-mines, Sony’s own Mike Schlesinger…who says he’d be up for bringing So This Is Africa (1933) to DVD if they didn’t have so many other films ahead of it in line. But since the bulk of the W&W films were cranked out at R-K-O, they fall under the purview of the Turner Classic Movies library…and they would be doing a great service to vintage movie fans in trying to get some of the better Bert & Bob vehicles out on DVD (Cavaliers, Kentucky Kernels, Nitwits, etc.). In the meantime, I guess we’ll have to make do with the mini-marathon of films shown on TCM last night (Warning: there may be spoilers):
The Cuckoos (1930) – This 1930 musical—based on the Broadway hit The Ramblers, which starred Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough…another forgotten comedy team who coincidentally worked for R-K-O but whose métier was the two-reel comedy short rather than feature films—was, I believe, the first of the only two W&W films I had not yet seen, so it was a real treat not only to view it last night but in its ninety-five minute entirely, complete with two-strip Technicolor sequences (for many years it has survived only in a seventy-five minute version, sans color). The film’s plot is a bit convoluted: our heroes are a pair of phony fortunetellers—Sparrow (Bert) and Professor Cunningham (Bob)—working out of a Mexican casino/resort that’s parked up against a gypsy camp for some odd reason, run by gypsy king Julius (Mitchell Lewis). Julius has sworn vengeance on Sparrow because one of his subjects, a gypsy girl named Anita (Dorothy Lee), has fallen for the lad; meanwhile, the Professor becomes enamored of wealthy dowager Fannie Furst (Jobyna Rowland, the poor man’s Margaret Dumont), whose niece Ruth Chester (June Clyde) ends up kidnapped by the gypsies at the behest of the sleazy resort owner, Baron de Camp (Ivan Lebedeff), who desires Ruth in a major way and is determined to keep her away from her boyfriend, aviator Billy Shannon (Hugh Trevor).
Got all that? Good, because now here’s all you really need to know—Cuckoos only really comes to life when Bert and Bob are onscreen; otherwise it’s one of those early static talkies where the staging of the musical numbers makes you glad that had Busby Berkeley not been born someone would have had to invent him. There are a few gems: I liked W&W’s song Oh, How We Love Our Alma Mater and Cuckoos also contains one of the best Wheeler-Lee duets, I Love You So Much (It’s a Wonder You Can’t Feel It). But as a general rule, anytime the musical numbers start the film comes to a screeching halt, Technicolor or no—my favorite in this category is Goodbye, a tune that sounds so much like Hello, I Must Be Going from Animal Crackers (1930) that the score’s creators, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, could have sued…if they weren’t responsible for also writing the score for The Ramblers in the first place.
Hook, Line and Sinker (1930) – An early W&W effort that’s one of my favorites; they reunite with leading lady Lee and Rowland to play a pair of insurance salesmen who decide to come to Lee’s rescue: she’s Mary Marsh, a flat-broke socialite who’s on the run from her mother (Rowland), who wants her to marry a man (Ralf Harolde—his presence alone should convince you she’s making the right call) she doesn’t love in order to restore the family’s fortunes. She’s been left a rundown hotel in her uncle’s will so Ganzy (Bert) and Addington (Bob) decide to restore the decrepit joint to its former glory despite being saddled with an ancient bellboy (George F. Marion) and a screwy house detective (Hugh Herbert, who’s pretty funny here)—but their plans hit a snag when a gang of bootleggers descend upon the resort, along with mother Rowland and lawyer/fiancé Harolde…who coincidentally is in league with the bootleggers!
There are several reasons why I like Sinker; for one, it eschews the musical numbers that are often the bane of the early Wheeler & Woolsey outings (my blogging compadre Operator_99 is correct when he asserts that Dorothy Lee has “allure”—but her singing voice sometimes has all the appeal of the whine from a dentist’s drill). It’s also capably directed by comedy director Eddie Cline, a crony of Buster Keaton who also directed Bert and Bob in Cracked Nuts (1931), On Again Off Again (1937), High Flyers (1937), and the previously mentioned Africa—not to mention classic W.C. Fields comedies like Million Dollar Legs (1932), The Bank Dick (1940), and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941). But perhaps the biggest selling point of Sinker is that it’s one of the few W&W’s to slip into the public domain…meaning that you can locate it easily on DVD, along with Dixiana (1930) and Half Shot at Sunrise (1930). This movie, along with the notorious Check and Double Check (1930), did boffo box-office for fledgling R-K-O.
Caught Plastered (1931) – After trying their luck at solo films—Wheeler with Too Many Cooks (1931) and Woolsey with Everything’s Rosie (1931)—Bert and Bob return to their successful teaming with this little gem that features them as down-and-out vaudevillians helping an elderly Lucy Beaumont keep her drugstore out of the grubby paws of no-goodnik Jason Robards, Sr. Dorothy Lee returns for this one as well; as the daughter of police chief DeWitt Jennings who—naturally—falls head over heels in L-O-V-E with Bert…though she eyes him a bit warily in the beginning when Robards hints that the duo may not be on the up-and-up. Our heroes turn the failing drugstore into a huge success, introducing a host of snazzy fixtures like a soda fountain/diner, book shop and a radio station that broadcasts W&W twice a day (“YMI Broadcasting”)—in fact, they have everything except a drugstore (there’s an amusing bit where Woolsey has to get a customer’s prescription filled down the street). Of course, no W&W comedy would be complete without a background of menace—which comes in the form of the aforementioned Robards, who secretly moonlights as a bootlegger and gets the drugstore’s clientele (including Lee) completely schnockered on a lemon soda syrup that’s fifty-percent alcohol.
Plastered is another favorite of mine, it’s crammed with hoary old vaudeville gags and risible double entendres but a majority of them do make me laugh and as AllMovie’s Hal Erickson points out, “it also has more ‘heart’ than usual, especially the wonderful scene wherein the boys cheer up Mrs. Talley by performing their gloriously awful vaudeville act” (a fun highlight that features the duo tap-dancing to The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady). Bert and Dorothy duet on the wonderful I’m That Way About You and you’ll spot a few familiar character faces in Charles Middleton (as a scowling railroad dick) and perennial screen drunk Arthur Houseman. Directed by William A. Seiter (who was also responsible for Laurel & Hardy’s immortal Sons of the Desert  and the much-maligned Marx Brothers vehicle Room Service ), Plastered was R-K-O’s top moneymaker that year.
Peach O’Reno (1931) – Viewing this film last night was a fait accompli in that I have now seen all of the twenty-one feature films starring Bert and Bob; I had several people offer high recommendations on this one and I have to admit, it’s definitely one of their best. Our heroes play a pair of Reno divorce lawyers who are not only raking in the big bucks from nine-to-five (the now-famous “quickie divorce” law in The Biggest Little City in the World had been recently passed, offering up the fodder for Reno’s plot) but earn a little pin money during the nighttime hours when their offices are transformed into a casino. A disgruntled married couple, Joe (Joseph Cawthorn) and Aggie Bruno (Cora Witherspoon), seek out Bert and Bob for a divorce after twenty years of marital bliss—with Bert becoming Joe’s attorney and Bob Aggie’s. The decree is vociferously objected to by the couple’s two daughters, Patience (Dorothy Lee) and Pansy (Zelma O’Neal)—guess which one ends up with Bert?—but that’s the least of the comedic duo’s worries; their lucrative legal practice is being threatened by a rival firm who’s managed to get one of its members appointed as a judge (Sam Hardy) and Bert is being menaced by a man (Mitchell Harris) out to kill him for representing his wife. (This prompts Bert to have to don drag, an act that provides many of the movie’s ribald laughs.)
The highlight of Reno is its climactic courtroom scene; though the screenplay was written by Tim Whelan, Ralph Spence, and Eddie Welch, the dialogue in the courtroom sounds as if it was lifted from a Clark & McCullough comedy (and, to a lesser extent, the Marx Brothers). It’s chock-a-block with double entendres and non-sequiturs, and features Eddie Kane as a radio announcer covering the divorce trial (for radio station GIN, “the breath of Reno”) and Monte Collins as a peanuts-and-popcorn vendor (a wry commentary on the circus-like proceedings). Reno also spotlights a pair of entertaining musical breaks; Wheeler and Woolsey do a routine that’s a combination of tango and Apache dance, and Bert and Dorothy give out with the infectious From Niagara Falls to Reno. Bill Seiter directed this one as well, and would also return for two more go-rounds with Girl Crazy (1932) and one of the best of the W&W’s, Diplomaniacs (1933).