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.