The comedy team of Wheeler & Woolsey is pretty esoteric to all but the most hardcore classic film fans. Baby-faced innocent Bert Wheeler and cigar-chomping wisecracker Robert Woolsey made 21 films together beginning with 1929’s RIO RITA (in which they’d starred on Broadway), up until Woolsey’s untimely death in 1937. I had heard about them, read about them, but never had the chance to catch one of their films until recently. HOLD ‘EM JAIL makes for a good introduction to W&W’s particular brand of lunacy, as the boys skewer both the prison and college football genres, aided by a top-notch comic supporting cast that includes a 16-year-old Betty Grable.
Football crazy Warden Elmer Jones (slow-burn master Edgar Kennedy ) is the laughing-stock of the Prison Football League. His team hasn’t had a winning season in years, and he sends a message to the president of “the alumni association” to send some new recruits “for the old alma mater”. He goes to the president’s office, and enter Wheeler and Woolsey, two novelty salesmen who proceed to drive him crazy. When he leaves, the real “alumni” show up, and after the boys brag about their gridiron prowess, they’re set up to stick up the joint with real guns instead of their water pistols.
Of course, the framed fools are sent to Bidemore, where Spider trades barbs with the warden’s spinster sister Violet (the marvelous Edna May Oliver ) and Curley tries to romance daughter Barbara (Miss Grable). They continue to infuriate the poor warden with their antics, especially when Violet has them made trustees. When Bidemore’s star quarterback gets paroled, Woolsey touts Wheeler as a superstar. Let’s just say Tom Brady, he ain’t!! This all culminates in the most improbable victory since Super Bowl LI , with Bidemore winning the game and getting cleared of the frame-up to boot.
The deliriously funny script is by S.J. Perelman, Walter Deleon, and Eddie Welch. Perelman was a writer for The New Yorker magazine, and one of the early 20th century’s best known humorists. He wrote two of the Marx Brothers movies (MONKEY BUSINESS and HORSE FEATHERS), the stage and screen versions of ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, and won an Oscar for his screenplay AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS. His fingerprints are all over the film’s dialog, as in this exchange between Woolsey and Oliver- Edna: “I spent four years in Paris. Of course, I’m not a virtuoso”. Woolsey: “Not after four years in Paris”. Edna (pausing a beat): “I trust we’re talking about the same thing!”. Earlier in the film, W&W get booted out of a swanky nightclub on their keisters, followed by this- Wheeler: “You know, I met that bouncer’s foot before”. Woolsey: “Yeah, I met it behind”.
Deleon was no slouch when it came to comedy either, having written films for W.C. Fields , Bob Hope, Jack Benny , Abbott & Costello , and Martin & Lewis. Welch seems to be a kind of “comedy doctor”, with three other W&W films to his credit, and an uncredited contribution to Laurel & Hardy’s SONS OF THE DESERT . All this madness was directed under the deft hand of Norman Taurog, who began in films in 1912, won an Oscar for 1931’s SKIPPY, and directed all the great comics of the classic era. Wheeler & Woolsey’s slapstick sight gags and pun-tastic wordplay are on a par with other teams of the time, and are worth rediscovering. Start right here with HOLD ‘EM JAIL.
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