Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Diplomaniacs (1933) - Wheeler and Woolsey Go to a Peace Conference, Freedonia and Klopstokia Are Not Invited...

Diplomaniacs is, simply put, a work of sheer insanity. It attempts to catch lightning in a bottle in its heady synthesis of Broadway chutzpah and stream of consciousness, rapid fire surrealism. Nothing makes sense, nothing is taken seriously and everyone is fair game for being offended.. Upon watching the movie, you have to wonder how this sort of stuff ever got made. Was everyone at RKO drunk on bootleg gin? Did Wheeler and Woolsey have carte blanche to do whatever whey wanted as long as it made money? Did the desperate need to be entertained in the height of the Depression lead to a style of humour that was only intelligible at that particular time and largely baffling otherwise? There are so many questions, but I suppose it really all comes down to context. Context is everything.

It’s always difficult to untie a film from the social and artistic circumstances of its creation. Diplomaniacs is no different, as it exists both as an entertaining comedy in its own right, but additionally as a film that is difficult to untangle from the context of not only the Depression but two of its very famous contemporaries: Million Dollar Legs and Duck Soup. While the purpose of this little assessment is to look at it in isolation, it would be remiss of me not to make brief mention its esteemed cinematic bedfellows

All three movies share a similar plot and a bizarre sense of humour, combined with broad satire and a number of shared actors and writers to form a trilogy of sorts. Million Dollar Legs (released by Paramount in July 1932) starring Jack Oakie and W. C. Fields got the ball rolling in a tale of a mythical small country that decides to join the 1932 Olympics. Woven around this story is a satire on international relations told in a free wheeling surreal manner. Next on the radar is Diplomanics starring Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey (released by RKO in May 1933) and also dealing with international relations, but this time in the form of a peace conference. The same irreverent sense of humour is present due to the fact that both films share the same writer in Joseph Manciewicz. These two movies could be seen as companion pieces of sorts if not for the very obvious elephant in the room in the shape of the most famous about diplomatic relations, the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (the last of the bunch, released by Paramount in November 1933). The most well known, better written and depending on your tastes, possibly funnier of the three if anything is the most restrained and coherent (and incidentally produced by Joseph Manciewicz’s brother Herman)

Much could be written about the links and shared heritage of the three films but perhaps that is for another day. To me, all three films do the same things in subtly (and some not so subtly) different ways, and the success or otherwise of the results are up to personal preference. However, in this fight, I’m all for Team Wheeler and Woolsey.

One of the reasons I like Wheeler and Woolsey so much is due to the haphazard nature of their comedy. Whereas much has been written of the Marx Brothers’ ability to undermine societal institutions with their unrestrained anarchy, their best work (though wonderful) always struck me as too well thought out (or even intellectual) and structured to be truly anarchic. This is in part due to the endless theatrical touring the Marx Brothers did to get the routines and concepts of their theatrical features hammered into shape. The end result is brilliantly realised but often lacks a certain level of spontaneity. Rather, it is a measured anarchy they present, and one that would be diluted as studios got more involved with their creative process. What sets the Marx Brothers apart from their contemporaries is their uniform presentation of a rebellious attitude. They are a close knit and clearly defined band of rebels whose primary purpose is to deflate pompous authority. Also, their tightly written and perfectly performed routines meant that they were more consistently entertaining, hitting the target more often than not.

Now, all of the above is what makes the Marx Brothers so good. Ironically, I find that it is the exact opposite that makes the best of Wheeler and Woolsey’s comedies that tiny bit superior to the Marx Brothers in the anarchy stakes. Their lack of critical praise, and their looser approach to structure gives them a hint of danger, a position of real comedy outsiders. Their movies give the sense of two performers not really caring what they say or do, not caring who likes them or what the critics think of them, and this attitude gives flight to some truly absurd, insane, anarchic and downright offensive material. As with any comedians working in this manner, the results are somewhat hit or miss, but the best bits (and some of the worst bits too) are some of the most gloriously inventive gags your are likely to see, years before Hellzappopin’ supposedly set the benchmark for surreal, ‘anything can happen’ screen comedy.

Diplomaniacs is a perfect example of Wheeler and Woolsey at the height of their powers and exuding a confidence that leads itself to experimentation and spontaneity. It’s a film where anything can and usually does happen, where there are no sacred cows and where the sense of fun and comic invention is palpable. And most wonderfully of all, not all of it hits the target but it doesn’t stop them trying one bit. Here, Joseph Manciewicz’s script works in perfect unison with the boys’ frenetic performances and cocksure delivery. Whereas his script for Million Dollar Legs has political and satirical points to make, here there is none of that subtlety. Everyone is well aware that what they are doing is not high art, and that no one will be writing books about their ‘method’, it’s just silly, low brow humour with its finger on the pulse of Mr and Mrs Average movie goer of 1933.

Of course, the plot of Diplomanaics is utter nonsense and serves merely as an excuse to link all manner of skits, songs and routines together under a loose story about Wheeler and Woolsey going to an international peace conference. The picture starts with the boys working as barbers on an Indian reservation (with the gag being, in the first of many racial stereotypes, that Native Americans don’t grow beards). Despite this there is some very silly humour involved including a bearded man with a bird’s nest and a golf ball in his facial growth, and a scalp that tries to run away rather than being checked for dandruff. The dialogue flies think and fast with such gems as “Are Indians foreigners?”, “No, they’re only on our nickels. If they were foreigners they’d be on our dollars” and the rather risqué exchange of ”Willie here has scruples” “ No I haven’t, not since I used witch-hazel”. The Indians here are in full racial stereotype mode, dancing and whooping and seemingly only able to communicate with the word “Oompa!”. Luckily their chief turns out to have been educated at Oxford and though his ear is “not yet attuned to your American-isms”, he knows enough to offer Wheeler and Woolsey $2 million to represent his tribe at the Geneva peace conference. What could possibly go wrong?

Before they go, there is a song and dance number which ends with Wheeler and Woolsey being bounced on a carpet so high that they fly off into space. The boys are also shown a large gorilla in a cage that used to be “the most beautiful woman in Paris”. The gorilla has a dresser and a chaise longue in its cage. Why does all of this happen? I have no idea; it’s just another day at the office.

Before long everyone is aboard a liner heading to the conference where we meet the villain of the piece Winkelreid, played with delicious gusto by Louis Calhern (basically playing the insane brother of the character he plays in Duck Soup). He hams up the role of diabolical villain in a way that wouldn’t be out of place in the Batman TV show, complete with a gang of inept henchmen. First among them is Hugh Herbert as a Chinaman (obviously), with a distinctly Yiddish twang and Fifi (played by a smouldering Phyllis Barry), a femme fatal who arrives as requested on a conveyor belt wrapped in cellophane, ready for action and “untouched by human hands” (though not for long).

The ocean liner gets lost at sea and (obviously) ends up in Switzerland where the villainous gang retreat into ‘The Dead Rat’, the World’s Toughest Dive where they sit at a table marked ‘Reserved for Conspiracies’ ("Gentlemen, let’s have a nice secret conference”). Later, our heroes arrive in Geneva (in full alpine hiker outfits no less, saying "I wonder if we're in the right city?") and discuss their plan, with the help of a passing dog that delivers a message from the reservation. In a great parody of the snooping villain, its revealed that the whole gang of spies are all sitting in a tree directly above them in full view listening in. Once the counter plan is hatched, Fifi suggests, “Let’s all neck”.

It’s about this time that Hugh Herbert’s Chinaman decides to leave, telling Winkelreid, “You are the ugliest villain I’ve ever worked for”, surely one of the great put downs in film history. He rows back to China to find that is dinner is cold because he’s five years late, and in his absence he has gained a small army of children. Eventually we get to the conference, and as expected we are treated to more national stereotypes and the whole thing quickly descends into chaos. The chairman of the conference, played by a perfectly cast Edgar Kennedy listens to the insanity then does his trademark slow burn until he snaps and opens fire on the delegates with a machine gun. Everything explodes and the finale number “No More War” is sung in blackface, because if you are going to offend people, why not just go the whole way?

The above is just a brief description of the madness contained within Diplomaniacs short running time. Between the silly one liners, stupid sight gags, song and dance numbers and visual and verbal surrealism it never outstays its welcome and manages to elicit laughs and astonishment in equal measures.

A great example of the humour that defines the movie happens before the conference when the boys have a conversation with the femme fatale Fifi. Woolsey asks her, “And who might you be my little cauliflower?” She tells him “I am the most beautiful woman in Paris” to which his reply is “Well make the most of it my broccoli, you may soon be a gorilla”. (So that’s why there was a gorilla in a cage!). I also should mention that this scene is played as all three run laps round some furniture (“Get in there, you’re eight laps behind”, Fifi is told before joining in). They finish the conversation and run out the room, and we cut to them running in formation straight into ‘The Dead Rat’. I know the scene doesn’t sound like much as described but it’s difficult to convey she sheer lunacy of the approach taken to incidental dialogue and action in the film.

In one sense the absurdity of every situation delivers a disjointed narrative that constantly reminds you that you are watching a movie, and indeed one that no one is taking particularly seriously. This in itself often takes the viewer out of the spell of the film, yet by doing this Wheeler and Woolsey are attempting to tap into a level spontaneity that can only rival the electric frisson of a live vaudeville show. There is a certain tension in watching their performances, which must have been palpable to contemporary audiences, in that one does not know what to expect them to do or say next. Compared to the style of film comedy that was to follow, the freedom that Wheeler and Woolsey manage to convey is something rarely seen in movie comedy, certainly after the early 30s. Many try to give that improvised, shambolic look but very few do it as well as Wheeler and Woolsey. And I mean that as the very highest of compliments!

All in all, Diplomaniacs showcases a team on top of the comedy mountain and brimming with confidence. Sadly, it wouldn’t last too much longer before the censors and audience tastes spoiled the party. However, Wheeler and Woolsey’s work of this period deserves to be remembered and celebrated far more than it has been up to now. They are a comedy team that consistently present a sense of fun and enthusiasm whilst pushing boundaries of comedy and indeed taste. Most importantly, their humour is honest, often baffling yet always surprising and no one else exemplifies pre code humour in all its unvarnished glory better. The critical world will always love talking about the complexities of the Marx Brothers and Duck Soup, or indeed W. C. Fields in Million Dollar Legs, and that’s fine by me. Whilst the Marx Brothers and Fields are timeless, Wheeler and Woolsey are freed from such concerns, living only in the moment. With Diplomaniacs they produced an outrageous and funny movie that perfectly captures an era and yet creates a surprisingly modern comic style decades ahead of the curve.