Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Hold 'Em Jail (1932) - Wheeler and Woolsey Beat The Marx Brothers at Their Own Game (Almost)

I’m unashamedly becoming an enormous fan of Wheeler and Woolsey and I’m finding that in watching their films in order they seem to just get better and better. Of course, I know that the Hays Code and studio apathy towards comedy eventually ends their run of good pictures but with Hold ‘Em Jail, their eleventh feature together, one can see a comedy double act at the height of their powers. Of course, for a lot of people the main point of interest is in the contribution of writer S. J. Perelman, one of the Marx Brothers most lauded scriptwriters. In this case the interest lies in the similarity between elements of this film, and Perelman’s previous effort, the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers. Both pictures concern college football and end with a climactic, gag filled football match. Without knowing the background to the writing of the two films, the similarity is odd and suggests either a startling coincidence or an even more startling lack of ideas. Whatever the reason, the Wheeler and Woolsey version, whilst not as well known, certainly pulls its weight in the comedy stakes and in some ways *whisper* is the funnier of the two films.

Hold ‘Em Jail manages to poke fun at two different genres, the football picture and the prison picture, and by combining them does so in a rather unique way. The film is set in probably the world’s most incompetently run prison, which also happens to have the worst prison football team. The warden is being laughed at by the other wardens and risks being thrown out of the prison football league if he loses the upcoming derby (he also stands to lose all his money due to a bet he’s put on). In a desperate measure he hires a mobster to recruit for “the old alma mater”. The substitution of a college for a prison is a clever one as it highlights the lack of difference between the two. The football game is more important than running the prison as indeed the game is always more important than academic achievement of a college. The “recruit at all costs” idea also gives the plot a lot more comic mileage as career criminals are convinced to get arrested “just for the football season”.

Of course, the satire takes a back seat to our stars, the irrepressible Wheeler and Woolsey. The pair play a couple of joke salesmen who get framed for a hold up and then, once in prison get mistaken for star football players. Along the way we get the familiar romantic pairings, (Bert Wheeler gets the young pretty girl, Robert Woolsey hooks up with the Margaret Dumont substitute) fast talking, lowbrow gags and the knockabout humour which regularly made up the successful Wheeler and Woolsey formula. However, where Hold ‘Em Jail really shines is in its excellent casting and in its polished script.

A fantastic cast is assembled for the film, full of familiar faces and comedy veterans, but perhaps the most inspired casting is of Edgar Kennedy as the prison warden. The film even opens with a variation of the famous Kennedy slow burn and throughout the film he positively sizzles with pent up frustration and rage. His first scene with Wheeler and Woolsey, in which they try to sell him novelties (they shower him with confetti, horns, balloons and lock him in a Chinese finger puzzle) is a breathtaking set piece of back and forth talking and constant subtle comic business. Such is the pace that I can’t imagine how long they spent rehearsing the scene but the end result looks utterly natural and smooth with each performer making the other two really work to keep up the pace. Kennedy really holds the picture together in his scenes and it reminded me how good he was as a straight man who could react against others to get his own laughs (a very difficult skill). It’s in scenes like this that the S.J. Perelman influence can really be seen, especially in Robert Woolsey’s cigar smoking wise guy routine (even down to his seduction of a frumpy older woman). Although this had been established as his character in most of the previous films, he is especially Groucho-like in this film, though in this case he manages to stamp his own personality on the familiar situations.

Speaking of frumpy older women, if you can’t get Margaret Dumont, the next best choice has to be Edna Mae Oliver, in her third film with the double act and clearly having a great time. She plays Kennedy’s sister who constantly feigns a prim and proper exterior, only to reveal her slightly more liberal and cheeky ways at the drop of a hat. It’s a really clever and assured performance from her and she wrings every bit of innuendo out of her comic exchanges, showing great chemistry with Woolsey. Memorably she declares that she learnt to sing after “I spent four years in Paris, though of course I’m not virtuoso”. Woolsey fires back, “Not after four years in Paris, no”. With a raise of the eyebrow she stops playing the piano and responds, “I trust we’re both talking about the same thing?”

The rest of the cast is just as well chosen, with appearances from Roscoe Ates, Robert Armstrong, Warren Hymer and comedy veterans Stanley Blystone, Monty Banks, Monte Collins and the ever-wonderful Charlie Hall. The only disappointing member of the cast is a very young Betty Grable as the love interest for Bert Wheeler. While she is fine in the role and does very well, it’s really the part traditionally taken by Dorothy Lee in these pictures and a Wheeler and Woolsey film without her just doesn’t feel right.

Along the way there is lots of very silly comedy. After all, audiences did not expect sophistication from this team. There is a brilliant bit of business where the boys try to get Roscoe Ates’ ball and chain removed by sticking his leg in a fire. As his whole leg goes up in flames, Ates sheepishly notes, “I think my foot is burning”. Wheeler looks at it and replies, “Yes, looks like it is…it’s burning” There’s a long pause while the three men vacantly stare at the burning leg. This vein of absurd humour showcases itself well in the climactic football match at the end of the film. While it’s not as polished as the similar game from Horse Feathers, it certainly has a knockabout charm and at times looks positively under rehearsed. They do all the usual stuff like running the wrong way, physical pile ups (puny Wheeler getting crushed by the burly opposing team), using decoys and hiding the ball, all to good comic effect, though you have to wonder what the response from the public would be, with Hold ‘Em Jail being released only a month after Horse Feathers.

However, some nice gags are dug up in between, such as an amusing scene where Wheeler’s pants get ripped off while running away, leading to some embarrassed looks (and Edna May Oliver remarking “I didn’t know football was so interesting!”) as a towel is put up while he changes. Generally Bert Wheeler’s physical skills make the whole football sequence worthwhile as he clowns and pantomimes his way through the final reel and its rough and ready climax. His staggering towards the line to score the winning touchdown is just so over the top and stupid that you can’t help but cheer as he somehow manages to win the game for his team. Whereas the Marx Brothers try to subvert the rules of football, Wheeler and Woolsey are just lucky to survive, such is their lack of smarts. Remember, no highbrow stuff here.

While the dialogue generally isn’t as pre-code and racy as in some of their previous films, the writing in Hold ‘Em Jail is particularly sharp and Wheeler and Woolsey carry it off with impeccable quick fire timing worthy of the Marx Brothers at their best. The confidence and exuberance shown in this film and the few before it show a team that is really getting into its stride. Wheeler and Woolsey aren’t the most likeable comedy team in film history, but they exude the brash Depression era spirit that makes us root for them. No team in film comedy is so much of their own time, these are two guys cut from the same cloth as Joan Blondell, Glenda Farrell and all their Warner Brothers ilk.

Of course, Horse Feathers is undoubtedly the better film, but Hold ‘Em Jail is by far the more enjoyable of the two. Whether S.J. Perelman used some of his left over ideas for the script remains a mystery to me, but it seems, whatever his eventual contribution to the script that Hold Em Jail, unshackled by high expectations rewards in a far more carefree and endearing manner.


  1. “Hold ‘em Jail” is a great solid entry in the W&W oeuvre. I like that it serves as sort of a bridge between Laurel & Hardy’s “Pardon Us” and the Marx Brother’s “Horsefeathers.” As you state, it is greatly bolstered by the addition of a formidably comic supporting cast, particularly Edgar Kennedy, Edna Mae Oliver and Roscoe Ates “in there pitching,” as the reviewers of the day were fond of writing.

    This is just conjecture on my part, but I can’t help but think that the writers, producers and/or directors of the original 1970s film “The Longest Yard” saw and maybe even studied “Hold ‘em Jail” for inspiration. And while we’re on the topic of football films, TCM really should offer a whole day of goofy football comedies as counter-programming to the Super Bowl. The brothers Marx and Wheeler & Woolsey’s grid-iron classics could be joined that day by The Three Stooges’ “Three Little Pigskins,” “1000 Dollars a Touchdown” with Joe E. Brown and Martha Raye, the Bowery Boys’ “Hold That Line” and even Bert Wheeler’s solo “Cowboy Quarterback,” to name a few.

    Speaking of TCM, they are running two of the finest Wheeler & Woolsey offerings on August 30th during their tribute to luminous comedienne Thelma Todd: “Hips Hips Hooray” and “Cockeyed Cavaliers” are required viewing for anyone even remotely interested in this comedy team. An extra added bonus is that Dorothy Lee is in both of those films, doubling the quotient of beautifully funny girls.

    I’ll leave with a plug for my favorite W&W film (which will in turn lead to a plug for my own blog): the post-code “The Nitwits” directed by George Stevens is quite a sturdy, well-constructed laugh-fest and proves (in my opinion) that W&W could have continued knocking ‘em out of the park even with code restrictions. Alas, Stevens was just too good and lured off to more high profile assignments. But “The Nitwits” is a first-class mystery/horror-comedy (and here comes my plug for my blog-to-book project on classic Hollywood horror-comedies, “Scared Silly” which you can check out at If imitation is indeed the highest form of flattery then you can mark “The Nitwits” as quite flattered as its premise seems to have inspired several films to come including Olsen & Johnson’s “All Over Town,” Red Skelton’s “Whistling in the Dark,” Abbott & Costello’s “Who Done It” and Brown & Carney’s “Genius at Work.”

    “The Nitwits” also contains an underwhelming Betty Grable performance, but she’s not annoying, and Bert and Bob are at their best here with some good supporting players. I consider it the perfect “popcorn” comedy and really there is only one bit in the whole film that falls flat (you’ll know it when you see/hear it – a pointless scene of Bob getting tongue twisted while telling Bert to say hello to Betty for him). But it has so many hysterical and utterly charming moments (you’ll never forget the scene on stilts, nor the glow-in-the-dark skeleton finale) that that one faux pas is easily forgiven. If you see “The Nitwits” turn up in the TV listings, be sure to give it a look.

  2. Thanks for your comments and it's good to hear from another admirer of Wheeler and Woolsey. As I said, I've really been enjoying watching the films in order and have now got to the point where I'm slowing down so I don't watch them all too quickly. I'm relieved that at least one of their post Hays Code films is worth watching as I had generally heard that after Kentucky Kernels that their output was pretty bad. You have given me something to look forward to! I'll also check out your blog as it sounds very interesting.

  3. Hold 'Em Jail is a really fun W & W outing, though for whatever reason to me it ranks as a slightly 2nd tier outing for the duo. Maybe it's the lack of a song from Wheeler here? I heard the original print had a couple of songs that were so weak they were cut.

    KY Kernels is hardly this Post Code sell out flick that some may view it as being. The Nitwits is after Kernels and as Paul noted was a memorable one. I don't necessarily mind The Rainmakers either, but the 1936 movies for Fred Guiol are both pretty bleh (Silly Billies, Mummy's Boys). Stevens knew how to work around the Code, Guiol didn't.

    The last 2 in 1937 have their moments as well, but it was too late by then and Woolsey's health was failing.

  4. about 3 years late posting, but I just found this cool site via google.
    Always glad to see that there are such passionate W&W fans out there! I think Mummy's Boys is a post code film that is underrated, as it feels like a A&C film to me.
    One thing, I just saw Hold "em Jail, it was Warren Hymer not Roscoe Ates that the boys were trying to take the ball and chain off of.