sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2017-01-27 06:30 am
Entry tags:

He's half Scotch and half ginger ale, but I wouldn't have it any other way

So the first weekend of this month I was in New York City and the second weekend of this month I was at Arisia and the third weekend of this month I was protesting on Boston Common and in between I have been working overtime and the news has been a non-stop horror show, so I am not really surprised that I am exhausted and my attention span is shot. Nonetheless, it is time to talk about movies. Specifically, about the pre-Code comedies of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. I've seen three and a half and I love them.

The half-movie is the Ziegfeld musical Rio Rita (1929), adapted from the stage hit of the same name. The A-plot is some bunk about a dashing Texas Ranger and a south-of-the-border bandit named the Kinkajou and the beautiful Mexican-Irish woman whose brother is the most likely suspect and the Russian general who's blackmailing her into marriage because of it; it is remarkable mostly because the title role marked Bebe Daniels' successful transition from silent stardom to sound and because the finale in two-strip Technicolor is our best record of a Ziegfeld stage show in the wild. The B-plot is just as much of a farrago of bootleg liquor and phony divorces and sketchy legal advice and last-minute partner-swapping to make it all come out right, but crucially it retained for the screen the actors who had originated onstage the roles of baby-faced bootlegger Chick Bean and his cigar-chewing shyster Ed Lovett: Wheeler and Woolsey. They had never met before starting rehearsals for the stage show in 1926, but [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel and I thought they must have been a long-time vaudeville team we had unaccountably never heard of. They have the timing down, the interlocking rhythms of Wheeler's plaintive innocence and Woolsey's assured nonsense. They are funny even when the jokes are old enough to have voted for Garfield. Wheeler has great playful chemistry with Dorothy Lee, who would become a staple of their RKO comedies and even come out of retirement in the '40's to tour with Wheeler after Woolsey's (I'm sorry, it depressed me to find this out, too) untimely death; I don't think Helen Kaiser ever worked with the pair again, but her sniffy ex-wife waltzes off cheerfully with Woolsey in the last reel, the first in a long line of non-ingenues to capture his heart. Basically, I can't remember a thing about the resolution of the A-plot except that it involves a lot of singing, but I am unlikely to forget the scene where Chick and Lovett get bladdered on a mezcal so potent it dissolves the shot glass and hallucinate a striptease with disastrous results. If you ever get a chance to see this thing, the comedy is worth checking your watch through the melodrama for.

Their starring features are harder to describe, or at least harder to describe in a way that you won't have to take my word for. So far I have seen Hold 'Em Jail (1932), Hips, Hips, Hooray! (1934), and most recently Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934) because that's what's turned up on TCM; the first of these sends up two popular film genres simultaneously and at the same time by starring the duo as joke-shop drummers decoyed onto a prison football team, in the second they're hard-luck lipstick salesmen who find romance while helping out a struggling cosmetics company, and the third finds them going all points, ruffs, and anachronism as a couple of early modern hobos ("Egad and gadzooks—to say nothing of a couple of odds bodkins—this Pullman service is awful") who wind up impersonating the King's physicians while Dorothy Lee impersonates Mary Martin in Peter Pan a boy. You must understand that I have no idea if any of these movies are what you would call conventionally good. Despite three different sets of writers, the prevailing tone in all cases is an absurdist ricochet through riffs and skits and non sequiturs, structure optional, pacing optional, double entendres a must. Plot is relevant only so far as the writers can hang jokes on it. Continuity is negotiable, especially if it would be funnier to ignore. Get the songs in there with soap and a shoehorn if you have to, but they'll be catchy. As with the Marx Brothers, Wheeler and Woolsey are essentially themselves from picture to picture, whether they go by the monikers of Curly and Spider, Andy and Dr. Dudley, or—as far as we could tell, neither of them ever got a proper name in Cockeyed Cavaliers—"the doctors," and the same kinds of stock characters orbit them at all times, daffy young girls, shrewd older women, an endless array of men in authority set up like tenpins and ideally played by Edgar Kennedy. No matter how far afield the storyline has caromed, the last act comes back to extended exercise in slapstick: the big game complete with chloroformed handkerchiefs and a high casualty rate of referees, a cross-country auto race with tadpoles in the radiator and helium in the tires, a boar hunt where the boar is doing the hunting. Oh, and romance, adorable and goofy as you can get it.

All of this stuff is fun for its own sake—even when a scene drags, the sheer silliness of the gags usually saves it, and so far no one has plunged off any racial cliffs—but there are a specific couple of reasons I am evangelizing. One is the fluidity of their double act. Broadly speaking, they divide along classic vaudeville lines. Moony Wheeler with his schoolboyish face and his plangently earnest tenor is the eternal naïf, always falling in love or taking metaphors at face value or otherwise ganging aft agley the best-laid schemes of wiry, world-weary Woolsey, the four-eyed, fast-talking know-it-all who got his diploma from the same school as the commedia's Dottore and thinks he's got all the angles figured until it turns out he was doing his calculations in a curved mirror. The former can be counted on to meet cute with the only eligible girl in the plot, the latter to sidle up to the nearest dowager in sight; the one flirts by shyness and the other by cracking wise; it is terrifyingly possible to describe Wheeler's screen persona as a cross between Naunton Wayne's Caldicott and Zeppo Marx, but Woolsey in the right light can be mistaken for late-period George Burns. He wears plaid vests and sport jackets that can be heard from space. And their chemistry works so well in part because they don't observe a strict straight man vs. zany divide. For all his assumed professional expertise, Woolsey is just as likely to don a tutu or leap into a nonplussed bystander's arms as Wheeler is to produce an inexhaustible supply of bananas out of thin air or steal a coach and four in a kleptomaniacal trance; either one of them can flummox an opponent with anti-logic and both of them can dive like Olympic champions for the door when a big lug escalates from slow burn to HULK SMASH. Wheeler is capable of maintaining a look of cherubic bemusement in the most life-threatening of circumstances, annoyedly waving off a prison break on one side and the armed guards' artillery on the other so that he can meet the warden's daughter at nine o'clock with a bunch of flowers just like he promised, making shadow rabbits with the searchlights while he waits. Woolsey meets all obstacles, threats, and reversals of fortune with a characteristic cry of "Whoa-oh!"—eyes round as his horn-rims, not infrequently clearing the room ahead of his compatriot. They are not unstoppable forces of anarchy like some of their contemporaries, but time and again they skip out on the rules through wits, persistence, and damn-fool luck.

And the women are in on the fun. So far I have found no Margaret Dumont in a Wheeler and Woolsey movie. The ingenues—here represented by Dorothy Lee and Betty Grable, whom I am not sure I had ever before seen outside of a pin-up—are spunky and loopy, disobedient daughters and go-getting working girls, with senses of humor that snap right into place with Wheeler's faint air of picking up Radio Mars on his bridgework. In a modern setting, Lee necks so enthusiastically on a park bench with Wheeler that he fails to distinguish between her caresses and the squirrel scampering up his pant leg; in seventeenth-century drag, she gets to climb out a window, start a brawl, charm a barmaid, and not get clocked until she impulsively kisses Wheeler, who is delighted to discover her deception until he remembers telling her "the story of the itinerant merchant and the peasant's daughter" and has to take a moment to die of embarrassment. Grable smooches her jailbird beau over the cake she's supposed to be frosting and chirpily refers to her authoritarian father as "Popsicle" until you can see the steam coming out of his ears. Edna May Oliver and Thelma Todd take the older women's parts1 and steal scenes like they're going out of style. As the warden's spinster sister in Hold 'Em Jail, Oliver bamboozles her brother with more straight-faced finesse than either of the two misfit inmates whom she gets made trusties for her own benefit and her niece's. Her inimitable tartness appears to act on Woolsey like a curl of perfume in a Pepé le Pew cartoon; they waltz one another into walls, share a romantic duet of "Chopsticks," and he chloroforms himself into her arms at the finale, declaring, "I'm just a prisoner of love. Take me!" Resplendent in theoretically Restoration fashions, Todd flirts outrageously with Woolsey in Cockeyed Cavaliers (she promises to meet him on her balcony "with bells on" and they both break up laughing when he rejoins, "Never mind the bells, honey!") and is even called out by the dialogue as a co-conspirator in their masquerade, but her finest moment almost certainly belongs to Hips, Hips, Hooray! The internet tells me that Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby's "Keep On Doin' What You're Doin'" was originally written for and then cut from the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup (1933), but even in that anarchic company I can't imagine it could have been more fun than Woolsey performing a mating dance for Todd with a lampshade around his waist in response to which Todd gracefully extends one high heel and kicks a vase off its pedestal. (Previous courtship behaviors involved her twisting all the buttons off his waistcoat and pulling a tablecloth out of his pants.) He leaps around the office scattering memoranda like rice at a wedding; she trails yards of ticker tape like bunting. When the young lovers get in on the action, Lee ends up hanging from the very Deco light fixture and waving to the office's actual occupant when he enters and stares. Woolsey dances him off into a closet and everyone slams the door and runs like hell. I love this sort of thing for much the same reason that I love the secondary romance in Gilbert and Sullivan's Utopia, Limited: women who are weird and funny and cherished for it. More, please.

I can't speak for the duo's entire oeuvre. I have seen three and a half films out of something like twenty-one and I have read more than one warning that the quality declines after the enforcement of the Production Code. Frankly, I can't imagine what a Code-compliant Wheeler and Woolsey movie would look like. Any time the scene returns to Maiden America Beauty Products, Hips, Hips, Hooray! is wall-to-wall with girls who are wearing clothing in the sense that there is material between them and the camera, although sometimes it is transparent and most times it wouldn't count if they turned around. A deep-bosomed gown in Cockeyed Cavaliers is described as "the coming thing," with which Wheeler concurs "because there's a lot of it that hasn't arrived yet." Side by side at the piano in Hold 'Em Jail, Oliver and Woolsey share the following Hays-defying exchange:

"I spent four years in Paris. Of course, I'm not a virtuoso."
"Not after four years in Paris, no."
". . . I trust we're both talking about the same thing."


No wonder these movies disappeared for years. In Hips, Hips, Hooray! alone, Wheeler and Woolsey wake up kissing, Wheeler and Woolsey lean in to kiss the same girl and lock lips with each other instead, Woolsey kisses a line of girls to quality-check the flavor of their lipstick (it's a plot point) and the last one throws him back in a clinch and sucks face until he's levitating: "Public enemy number one!" he gasps as she puts him back on his feet. There is a pansy joke, which is inseparable from an actually funny Busby Berkeley parody. Plus Thelma Todd runs her own cosmetics company which is in trouble only because her smarmy—male—sales manager is selling her secrets to her competitors. In short, it does not feel possible to list the pre-Code content without simply summarizing the plot, and for no other reason the films of Wheeler and Woolsey may be of interest to pre-Code aficionados. Also I am enjoying the dickens out of them so far. This silliness brought to you by my snappy backers at Patreon.

1. I know Thelma Todd was younger than me when she died in 1935, but in both of her appearances with Wheeler and Woolsey she is playing the role of a glamorous matron or businesswoman rather than a girl. Wheeler (1895–1968) looked younger than he was, Woolsey (1888–1938) looked older. Their leading ladies were cast to match.
movingfinger: (Default)

[personal profile] movingfinger 2017-01-27 06:07 pm (UTC)(link)
What the hell kind of bandit takes "Kinkajou" as a work name?

movingfinger: (Default)

[personal profile] movingfinger 2017-01-27 08:10 pm (UTC)(link)
Reading about kinkajous... it'd be a great moniker for an orchid thief?

(pic from National Geographic. "Steal from the best"---The Kinkajou)
moon_custafer: (Default)

[personal profile] moon_custafer 2017-01-28 12:51 am (UTC)(link)
Someday I hope I'll get to see Million Dollar Legs. From the clips I've seen, Susan Fleming has at the very least a wonderful deadpan:

Hero (watching the Klopstockians do yet another improbable stunt): Why, I'll bet if you were to line up all the great thletes in this country--
Heroine: Three hundred and forty-two miles and seven feet.
Hero: ......
Heroine: We tried it once.

Supposedly Fleming quit film out of boredom with the hurry-up-and-wait nature of shooting (she missed the energy of a live audience) but she married Harpo Marx, so she must have liked zany comedy.

[identity profile] heliopausa.livejournal.com 2017-01-27 01:27 pm (UTC)(link)
Thanks! This sounded just right for how I'm feeling this evening. :)

Wheeler and Woolsey lean in to kiss the same girl and lock lips with each other instead.
I have a faint idea that something like this happened in a Bob Hope/Somebody Road to Somewhere movie. Hallucinations in a desert? Which might make it Road to Morocco, I suppose.
Edited 2017-01-27 13:27 (UTC)

[identity profile] poliphilo.livejournal.com 2017-01-27 04:55 pm (UTC)(link)
I was thinking they sounded- and looked- a lot like British TV duo Morecambe and Wise and then I learn from Wikipedia that they were the act on which M & W modelled themselves.

[identity profile] nineweaving.livejournal.com 2017-01-27 06:38 pm (UTC)(link)
Quel hoot!

Nine
ext_104661: (Default)

[identity profile] alexx-kay.livejournal.com 2017-01-27 10:08 pm (UTC)(link)
As I have a longtime crush om Thelma Todd from her Marx Brothers appearances, this interests me greatly. Thanks!

[identity profile] ladymondegreen.livejournal.com 2017-01-28 12:00 am (UTC)(link)
These sound like loads of fun. Women being funny on camera? Sign me up.