I must confess to being a bit of a fan of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. Should I say that in hushed tones? (or is that saved for admitting to being a Ritz Brothers fan?). It almost seems like a guilty confession as the pair are frequently derided and the general consensus seems to be that their humour has dated badly. Currently I'm working my way through their pictures in order, and now after the ninth movie, I'm finally getting to see what it was that made them so popular.
In retrospect it's fairly obvious why they haven't had the lasting appeal of their contemporaries. To put in plainly, they are just not in the league of Laurel and Hardy nor the Marx Brothers. They neither have the innocent charm of the former, nor the anarchic bite of the latter. They are a classic case of having a little from column "A" and a little from column "B". History remembers the victors and Wheeler and Woolsey, like that other underrated 30's team, Clark and McCullough were just lost in the shuffle. And Bert Wheeler, like Bobby Clark, would sadly find his partnership cut short before its time.
However, they have been unfairly overlooked. While they may lack the universal appeal, the unbreakable on-screen friendship and the methodically worked out gags of Stan and Ollie, in their best films they more than hold their own. While it's true that a lot of the appeal today of Wheeler and Woolsey is in spotting the frequent occurrences of bawdy pre-code humour, they themselves as performers are far more than their reputation for (sometimes very) thinly veiled innuendo would suggest.
Nine films in, Bert Wheeler emerges as a versatile comic character, all smiles and innocence and easily coerced into Robert Woolsey's fast talking shyster's schemes. It's the sort of relationship that worked so well for Abbott and Costello a decade later, but performed with so much more style (and less violence) than the boorish Bud and Lou. However, ultimately their lack of lasting fame comes down to a lack of a consistent relationship between the two. Though ostensibly a double act, on film they frequently act like two solo performers, playing different characters who often don't meet until part way through the film. What sets Laurel and Hardy apart from practically every other double act in film history is the beautifully observed relationship between the two friends. And without this, no double act no matter how good, is going to last the test of time.
Anyway, as I said, I've been watching the boys sing their way through their early musical appearances in Rio Rita, The Cuckoos and Dixiana and then into their own star series. Both Caught Plastered and Peach-O-Reno were excellent and very amusing, but I found their ninth film, Girl Crazy to be their most satisfying to date (and yes, I know it's not going to last - I've heard their decline is quite painful to watch.Thank you very much Mr Hays.)
Girl Crazy works so well for a number of reasons - It has a sharp script, a plot loosely adapted from a Gershwin musical and a strong ensemble cast. Pulling this together is their frequent director, William A. Seiter a man most comfortable working with experienced comedians. Though Gershwin purists generally dislike this version of the musical, they forget that it is primarily a Wheeler and Woolsey comedy, not a full fledged Gershwin musical (that version would follow in 1943) and as such the few moments of Gershwin exist only to add a touch of class to their vaudevillian antics. However, whether the film is true to its source material is irrelevant as there is a well structured story that lets Wheeler and Woolsey do their characteristic shtick while keeping the various characters and sub plots moving along nicely.
The plot concerns a city slicker (Eddie Quillan) who rolls into a small town in Arizona where he sets up a dude ranch. He needs the skills of gamber Slick (Woolsey) in the casino so Slick hires a taxi (driven by Wheeler) to take him (with wife in tow) from Chicago to Arizona. Once there, Wheeler is unwittingly elected Sheriff not knowing that local heavy Lank (Stanley Fields) has sworn to kill the next man who takes the job. Add to that various love affairs and a couple of songs and hey presto!
Where Girl Crazy really shines however, is in the cast. Eddie Quillan and Arlene Judge do more than enough to engage as the male and female leads, with Quillan using his Sennett and Roach training to liven up proceedings with appropriate physical comedy. The pair even have a nice bit of pre-code dialogue at the start ("I take care of the mails in this section" says mail girl Judge, to which Quillan replies "What, all of them?" - wow did he see her future or what?). Stanley Fields is rather excellent as the classic Western heavy and lends an air of menace and blustering incompetence at the same time. It's a shame he never tied up with Laurel and Hardy as he would have made a great foil for them. There is a great running gag in the film where whenever "The West" is mentioned, all the cowboys take off their hats and stop for a moment of quiet reflection. Shades of Blazing Saddles, perhaps?
Other notables in the cast include Kitty Kelly as Robert Woolsey's equally fast talking wife. Her (and the film's) standout moment is the nightclub scene and her spirited rendition of "I Got Rhythm" (called "I've Got Rhythm" here) where spotlights are spun around the room as the song picks up pace, resulting in a delirious strobe like effect as the camera cuts to dancing cacti in the desert and stuffed deer heads on the wall moving back and forth to the beat. It's a truly jaw dropping scene of 30's exuberance and dizzy thrills.
The other stand out is the delightful Mitzi Green as possibly the only child star in history who acts like a brat without actually being one. She expertly manages to wind up and annoy the other characters precisely because she knows it annoys them. This extra dimension to her character shows her to be a very gifted actor at such a young age. She also does a great dance number and her impressions are pretty good too (especially her verging on the surreal but spot on George Arliss). I recently saw her in the Mary Brian and Kay Francis picture The Marriage Playground (1929) and she was really excellent so I may do a bit of digging and do a short profile of her at some time in the future.
The only downside to the wonderful cast is that the usual third man in the Wheeler and Woolsey act, Dorothy Lee is a bit sidelined and doesn't really have much to do. Sadly, she only made four more appearances with the boys and her slightly wonky charm is missed here.
As for Wheeler and Woolsey themselves, they get to do all the things expected of them that shocked and amused movie audiences so much. Though tame by today's standards, the free and easy nature to their comedies has a remarkably liberating effect, especially compared to the starchy comedy efforts of the subsequent decade. When Fields pokes a gun at Woolsey's behind and he thinks it's Wheeler goosing him, his remark to "Cut out that backgammon business" really takes the viewer by surprise. Though the slang is dated, the fact that there is a gay joke in a 30's light comedy musical is still an unexpected and disarming moment. But of course this is what audiences went to see their films for - the expectation of hearing something that most comedians wouldn't dare say. Everything is fair game and in this film Wheeler and Woolsey run the whole gamut from cross dressing to inebriation to infidelity and more. This run of "what can we get away with this time?" movies reached it's peak with the film So This is Africa, by which time the censors had had enough and the boys were sadly reduced to far tamer material.
Added to all these pre-code shenanigans there are some very well realised routines, from the epic cross country taxi ride and it's police bothering to the hilarious hypnotism routine at the end. Also notable is some great business at the start where taxi driver Wheeler manages to smash his windscreen while cleaning it, then throws the broken glass onto the road. He watches as all the cars burst their tires, all the time pretending to clean an invisible windscreen so no one realises he is to blame. It's a nicely observed bit of Harry Langdonesque comedy and shows Bert Wheeler to be a much under rated physical comedian.
At the end of the day, Wheeler and Woolsey are still and acquired taste, but Girl Crazy is the team really hitting their stride. It's a shame they are almost forgotten today but I suppose they burned out too early. Writer David Quinlan supposes that had Robert Woolsey lived longer, they would have given Abbott and Costello a run for their money in the 40's. I'm not sure if that's true as it seemed hard to get a studio in that decade that was able to make a creative comedy (as Laurel and Hardy found out to their cost). At the end of the day perhaps it's best that they will forever be associated with a particular time and place. They have no peers and should you take the time to get to know them, Wheeler and Woolsey can be funny, entertaining, subversive and shocking. and sometimes all at once. They are not for everybody but for me they are an increasingly welcome visitor on my TV screen.