You’re Killing Me, Smalls!: Let’s Play in THE SANDLOT (20th Century-Fox 1993)


Baseball movies are as American as apple pie, and everyone has their favorites, from classic era films like THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES and TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME to latter-day fare like THE NATURAL and FIELD OF DREAMS. There’s so much to choose from, comedies, dramas, and everything in-between. One of my all-time favorites is 1993’s coming of age classic, THE SANDLOT.

Like most baseball movies, THE SANDLOT is about more than just The Great American Pastime. Director David Mickey Evans’ script (co-written with Robert Gunter) takes us back to 1962, as young Scotty Smalls has moved to a brand new neighborhood in a brand new city. His dad died, and his mom (Karen Allen of NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE fame) has remarried preoccupied Bill (young comedian Denis Leary…. hmmm, I wonder what ever happened to him??), who tries to teach the nerdy kid how to play catch. “Keep your eye on the ball”, Bill tells Scotty, and he does – resulting in a shiner!

The kids on the block take an immediate dislike to goofus Smalls (“The kid’s an L-7… a weenie!”). Why, he doesn’t even know who The Great Bambino was!! Benny, the best ballplayer in the neighborhood, feels sorry for Smalls and takes him under his wing. They all warn him of The Legend of The Beast, a ferocious Great Mastiff junkyard dog who resides on the other side of the sandlot’s fence and eats any baseballs that come his way… and kids, too! One fine day, Benny literally “tears the cover off the ball”, so Smalls runs home to fetch a replacement – an autographed Babe Ruth ball from Bill’s trophy room! Needless to say, Smalls’ first home run winds up in The Beast’s possession, and a mad scramble is on to retrieve it before Bill comes home…

THE SANDLOT is an exercise in nostalgia, all about friendship and childhood dreams, and also happens to be uproariously funny! There’s so much to love about this film, and I especially love the scene at the community pool when ‘Squints’ has his big moment in the sun with neighborhood hottie Wendy Peffercorn, played by Marley Shelton, later of PLEASANTVILLE, SIN CITY, GRINDHOUSE (the Robert Rodriguez half PLANET TERROR) and GRAND THEFT PARSONS. Then there’s the kids learning a valuable lesson: carnival rides like the Tilt-A-Whirl and chewing tobacco don’t mix! The boys trading insults with a rival, well-heeled team about eating toejam and bobbing for apples in toilets ends with ‘Ham’ hurling the biggest insult of all: “You play like a girl!!” (Gasp!!!).

There’s a neat cameo at the end by James Earl Jones (who knew a thing or two about baseball flicks!) as junkyard owner Mr. Mertle, and like it’s spiritual predecessor AMERICAN GRAFFITI , the soundtrack’s loaded with classic rock tunes of the era by Booker T & The MG’s (“Green Onions”), Hank Ballard & The Midnighters (“Finger Poppin’ Time”), The Champs (“Tequila”), The Drifters (“There Goes My Baby”, “This Magic Moment”), The Surfaris (“Wipeout”) , and The Tokens (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”). THE SANDLOT is a true summertime classic, one I could watch over and over again… in fact, I think I’ll go watch it now! As for the rest of you, since I’m still reelin’ and rockin’ from the John Fogerty concert I attended a few days ago, I’ll leave you with John’s classic ode to baseball from 1985, “Centerfield”:

  “Let’s play two!” – Ernie Banks

“You’re killing me, Smalls!” – Ham Porter

Double Your Fun With Wheeler & Woolsey: HALF SHOT AT SUNRISE (RKO 1930) & COCKEYED CAVALIERS (RKO 1934)

Welcome back to the wacky world of Wheeler & Woosley! Bert and Bob’s quick quips and silly sight gags kept filmgoers laughing through the pain of the Depression Era, and continue to delight audiences who discover their peculiar type of zaniness. So tonight, let’s take a trip back in time with a double shot of W&W comedies guaranteed to keep you in stitches!

1930’s HALF SHOT AT SUNRISE was their 4th film together, and the first exclusively tailored for their comic talents. In this WWI service comedy, Bert and Bob are a pair of AWOL soldiers on the loose in Paris, chasing girls while in turn being chased by a couple of mean-mugged MP’s (Eddie DeLange, John Rutherford). Bert winds up falling for Dorothy Lee (who appeared in most of their films, almost as a third member of the team), the youngest daughter of cranky Col. Marshall (cranky George MacFarlane), who’s having troubles of his own with frisky Frenchwoman Olga (Leni Stengel), to the consternation of wife Edna May Oliver (a frequent film nemesis of the boys).

This all sets the stage for W&W’s patented brand of lunacy, with snappy patter galore, and since it was made in the Pre-Code Era, some of it is pretty racy :

Girl: “Monsieur, you are making a bad mistake”

Bob: “You may be bad, but you’re no mistake!”

Each gets their own song, as Bert teams with Dorothy for a cute little number called “Whistling Away the Blues”, while Bob and Leni warble “Nothing But Love”, a tune that ends with Woolsey in a fountain dressed in nothing but his skivvies! The comedy comes fast and furious, as do the quips, and a standout scene finds W&W disguised as waiters in a fancy French restaurant serving the Colonel and his family. After a truly bizarre musical number featuring an all-female-soldier chorus line, Bert and Bob wreak their usual havoc, and Bob gets off some funny one-liners at the Colonel’s expense:

Colonel: “How’s your turtle soup?”

Bob: “Very snappy, very snappy”

Colonel: “Have you a wild duck?”

Bob: “No, but we can take a tame one out and aggravate it for you”

(Corny, I know, but I still laughed!!)

Eventually, Dorothy and Leni persuade the boys to deliver some secret plans to the front so they’ll be heroes (and her Dad won’t throw them in the brig), and things take a brief dramatic turn – but just briefly, as everything’s wrapped up in a neat comic bow and Bert and Bob get the girls, while the Colonel gets a reprieve from his sourpuss wife! HALF SHOT AT SUNRISE would make a good introduction to those who haven’t yet experienced Wheeler & Woolsey (and as a side note for film buffs, disgraced former silent star Fatty Arbuckle had an uncredited hand in the screenplay).

Most fans of the duo cite 1934’s COCKEYED CAVALIERS as their best picture, but while I would opt for the delirious political satire DIPLOMANIACS , this outrageously funny costumed musical comedy set in Medieval Olde England found me laughing out loud from start to finish! Bert and Bob are a pair of vagabonds who hitch a ride underneath the carriage of the portly Duke of Weskit (Robert Greig) and his niece Lady Genevieve (the delightful Thelma Todd ). The Duke has come to this small village to marry pretty young commoner Dorothy Lee (who else?), who wants nothing to do with the lecherous old toad, and disguises herself as a boy!

Bert suffers from kleptomania (Bob tells him, “Yeah, well why don’t you take something for it?), going into a comical convulsion every time he gets an urge to steal. He gets caught taking the Duke’s horses (and then the carriage!), and the two are put in stocks and pelted with rotten vegetables until Dorothy helps them escape. They waylay the King’s physician and his aide and ride off to the Duke’s estate. Lady Genevieve, believing they’re the real deal, flirts shamelessly with Bob, who flirts right back (Her: “Oh dear, I think you’re making a mistake” Him: “Not with you, baby, not with you!”), not knowing her husband is the rough, gruff Baron (Noah Beery Sr) they met at the local Inn.

Genevieve has called in the King’s physician to cure the Duke’s ills, and the boys proceed to “operate” on him, using a horse training manual! While the Baron goes out hunting the killer wild black boar that’s been terrorizing the countryside, Bob and Genevieve continue their *ahem* flirtation. Bert discovers Dorothy’s not a boy after all, and the quartet all do a comic song and dance number called “Dilly Dally”. The Baron returns and catches Bob messing with his Lady (thanks to his trained Great Dane!), Dorothy consents to marry the Duke to save her father from being beheaded, and everything winds up in a chaotic finale where Bert and Bob capture that devilish wild boar to save Dorothy and her Dad.

COCKEYED CAVALIERS is loaded with outrageous puns, sly double entedres (Thelma: “Don’t you just love wild game?” Bob: “The wildest game I ever played was post office”), plenty of slapstick humor (and you know how much I love slapstick humor!), and silly songs like “Dilly Dally” and the tongue-twisting “And The Big Bad Wolf Was Dead”, sung in the tavern by Bert, Bob, a bevy of extras, and the bass-voiced Beery.

It also features their best supporting cast, including everyone’s favorite comic “Ice Cream Blonde”, Thelma Todd, who also made HIPS HIPS HOORAY with W&W, and costarred with virtually every classic comedian of the era until her untimely death in 1935. Robert Greig (The Duke) was featured in the Marx Brothers’ ANIMAL CRACKERS and HORSE FEATHERS (also with Thelma), and later became a member of Preston Sturges’ movie stock company. Noah Beery Sr (The Baron) played the villain in both comedies and dramas, and was the older brother of Wallace Beery. Other Funny Familiar Faces in COCKEYED CAVALIERS include Billy Gilbert (The Innkeeper), Charlie Hall (the coach driver), Esther Howard (sitting on Bob’s lap at the Inn!), Hollywood’s favorite souse Jack Norton (The King’s physician), prissy Franklin Pangborn (The Town Crier), and former silent star Snub Pollard (the physician’s aide).

Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey’s comedy is timeless, and the team is ripe for rediscovery. In this mad, mad, mad world we live in today, with everyone at each other’s throats on social media over stupidity (read: politics), we all need a good laugh, and the team certainly delivers the goods. The world needs to find it’s sense of humor again, and watching either of these classic comedies may not end the divisiveness, but they’ll sure make you laugh! All Hail Wheeler & Woolsey!!

A (Not-So) Brief Note On WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT (20th Century Fox 2004)

Sometimes while scrolling through the channels one come across a pleasant surprise. So it’s Saturday afternoon,a thundershower has cancelled my plan to hit the beach, the Red Sox don’t start for awhile, and I’m clicking the old clicker when I land on WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT. I wasn’t expecting much, just a way to kill time; instead, I found an underrated little gem of a comedy that kept me watching until the very end.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT is an undiscovered classic or anything like that. It’s just a solidly made piece of entertainment about small-town life starring Ray Romano (riding high at the time thanks to his successful sitcom EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND) and Oscar winning Gene Hackman. Romano uses his nebbishy TV persona to portray Mooseport, Maine’s local hardware store owner “Handy” Harrison, who gets involved in a mayoral campaign against Hackman’s Monroe “Eagle” Cole, ex-president of the good ol’ USA, who’s running so his grasping ex-wife will keep her paws off his vacation house. The race to the corner office takes a U-turn when Handy’s girlfriend Sally, tired of his inability to make a commitment, dates the former leader of the free world to make Handy jealous!

OK, it’s not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but the movie has more than it’s share of chuckles and some out-and-out guffaws. It kind of reminded me of something that Don Knotts would’ve starred in 30 or 40 years earlier, with Romano taking the small-town Everyman role in his stead. Ray’s funny here, and so is Hackman, who could play just about anything. This was Hackman’s final film before retiring and he nails it as usual. The supporting cast is top-notch as well, including the delightful Maura Tierney (ER, INSOMNIA) as tough State-of-Mainer Sally, Marcia Gay Harden (Oscar winner for POLLOCK) as Hackman’s trusted assistant (who of course carries a secret torch for him, just to even things out in the end), Fred Savage (THE WONDER YEARS) as a nerdy political operative, and the great Rip Torn as a sleazy consultant brought in to crank up the political heat. Christine Baranski pops up as the president’s vindictive ex-spouse, adding her own comic touch to the silliness, and that’s an uncredited Edward Herrmann as the debate moderator. And let’s have a shout-out please for the delectable Canadian actress Reagan Pasternak (BEING ERICA) in the small part of Mandy, who’s got a crush on her boss Handy!

I found out there was just as much talent behind the cameras as in front. Director Donald Petrie was responsible for a couple of old favorites of mine (MYSTIC PIZZA, GRUMPY OLD MEN); his father Daniel did both features (A RAISIN IN THE SUN, BUSTER AND BILLIE, FT. APACHE THE BRONX) and TV Movies (A HOWLING IN THE WOODS, MOON OF THE WOLF, the excellent MY NAME IS BILL W) of note. Screenwriter Tom Schulman was also an Oscar winner (DEAD POETS SOCIETY), penned the Disney comedy HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS and the insanely hilarious WHAT ABOUT BOB?, and served as writer/director of the cult classic 8 HEADS IN A DUFFEL BAG.

So yeah, WELCOME TO MOOSEHEAD was a pleasant diversion, a well made comedy with an impressive cast giving their all. Sure, it can be a little corny in places, but there’s nothing wrong with a little corn now and then – just ask Frank Capra. The movie seems to have been made in that Capra spirit, and I’m pretty sure Frank would’ve enjoyed it. I know I did!

Riot On Ice: Paul Newman in SLAP SHOT (Universal 1977)

Hockey fans are excited about this year’s Stanley Cup Finals between the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues, so I figured now’s the time to take a look at the quintessential hockey movie, George Roy Hill’s SLAP SHOT. Hill and star Paul Newman, who’d previously collaborated on BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID and THE STING, reunited for this raucous, raunchy sports comedy about a failing minor league hockey team who reinvent themselves as a hard-hitting goon squad.

Newman plays Reg Dunlap, an aging rink rat now the player-coach for the Chiefs, a dying franchise in a dying mill town. The team is on a massive losing streak, and attendance is at an all-time low. Two-bit GM Joe McGrath (Newman’s COOL HAND LUKE antagonist Strother Martin) is trying to sell the Chiefs, and things look bleak until Dunlap begins taunting his opponents and the rink violence escalates. Enter a trio of new players named the Hanson Brothers (David Hanson, Jeff and Steve Carlson), who take the art of hockey goons to a whole new level, and the fans return in droves, eating up the carny-like atmosphere like cherry flavored sno-cones.

Young hockey purist Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean, THE ROOKIES, TWIN PEAKS) objects to the pro wrestling inspired mayhem and refuses to take part, but the Chiefs become the hottest attraction in the league, and make their way to the championship game. Meanwhile, Reg tries to discover the true  identity of the Chiefs’ mysterious owner while dealing with marital disharmony (Jennifer Warren, later a director in her own right) as he continues to promote the hell out of his beloved Chiefs in order to save the franchise…

The movie is DEFINITELY non-PC and probably will offend the more sensitive types, but those of you who still have your sense of humor intact will guffaw wildly at the crude jokes and shenanigans taking place on and off the ice. In between the sexist humor and bloody violence you’ll find a serious character study as Newman’s Reg Dunlap goes through a mid-life crisis, including the loss of both his wife and his career. Paul was still in great shape at age 50 and looked like he belonged on a hockey team. Ontkean’s Ned Braden has marriage troubles of his own with wife Lindsay Crouse; both turn in good performances and Ontkean’s wicked funny striptease on ice toward the conclusion is a comedy highlight!

Those wild’n’crazy Hanson Brothers were based on real-life minor league hockey goons the Carlson Brothers, two of whom (Steve and Jeff) play their fictitious selves (third brother Jack was called up to Edmonton, replaced by another hockey goon, Dave “Killer” Hanson). Their cinematic hockey havoc made them minor celebrities, doing personal appearance tours and even making the cover of Sports Illustrated (albeit thirty years later). Besides the always-reliable Strother Martin, others of interest include 70’s favorite Jerry Houser as a Dunlap loyalist, M. Emmett Walsh as a gullible reporter, Brad Sullivan as the obnoxious perv Morris, and the hit song “Right Back Where We Started From” by Maxine Nightingale, which keeps popping up throughout the film:

SLAP SHOT’s screenplay by Nancy Dowd was based on the experiences of her brother Ned’s time in the minor leagues (Ned plays the part of feared opponent Oglethorpe in the film). The movie wasn’t a hit at first, but has since become one of the ultimate “guy flicks” thanks to it’s sheer outrageousness. After all, it’s got sex, violence, beer, and sports – what’s not to love, eh? Meanwhile, here in the real world, Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals is about to start, soooo…

LET’S GO BRUINS!!

Bobby Orr’s immortal Stanley Cup winning goal against the St. Louis Blues in 1970!

Make ‘Em Laugh: RIP Tim Conway

If comedy is a gift, then Tim Conway was America’s Santa Claus, delivering bags full of laughter directly into our homes for over fifty years. The cherubic Conway, who died May 14 at age 85, was mainly known for his television work, but also starred in films, on stage, and in the home video field, making him a true Renaissance Man of Comedy.

Tim and Ernie “Ghoulardi” Anderson

Young Tim got his start in his hometown of Cleveland, not exactly a hotbed of humor (with apologies to Jim Backus, Kaye Ballard, and British transplant Bob Hope ), writing and appearing in skits with local TV personality Ernie Anderson during breaks in a morning movie show. Anderson himself would later gain fame as a horror host (Cleveland’s Ghoulardi) and  a network announcer, ‘The Voice of ABC’ (“Tonight on The Loooo-ve Boat….”).

Comic actress Rose Marie, on a cross-country tour promoting THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, saw some clips of Tim and Ernie’s skits and helped him land a spot on Steve Allen’s national program. This led to Conway being cast as the bumbling, naive Ensign Charles Parker on a new sitcom titled MCHALE’S NAVY,  set during WWII and starring Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine as the conniving Lt. Cmdr. Quenton McHale. Parker’s inept ensign was a constant thorn in the side of stuffy Capt. Binghamton (‘Old Leadbottom’), played to perfection by the nasal-voiced Joe Flynn, who was always trying to find a way to rid himself of McHale and his crew of reprobates. But it was Conway who was the comic glue holding things together during the series four-year run, and his slapstick antics delighted both kids and adults out there in TV land.

The series proved popular enough to inspire two feature films, the first (1964’s MCHALE’S NAVY) featuring the entire cast. 1965’s MCHALE’S NAVY JOINS THE AIR FORCE was made without Borgnine (who was busy filming FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX), giving Conway the chance to showcase his comedy talents. This one finds Ensign Parker embroiled in a case of mistaken identity with an Air Force lieutenant (Ted Bessel), and bumbling his way into becoming a war hero! Conway and Flynn made a great comic duo, but no more MCHALE’S films were made.

“Rango” (1967) with Norman Alden & Guy Marks

Tim tried and failed several times at starring in his own sitcom (RANGO, THE TIM CONWAY SHOW, ACE CRAWFORD PRIVATE EYE), but was in demand as a guest star on other programs. Most notoriously, he hosted the first (and as it turned out, only) episode of TURN-ON , a sketch show ripped off from the then-popular ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN that was so offensive, it was immediately cancelled after the first airing. Tim’s hometown of Cleveland didn’t even wait that long – station WEWS pulled the plug before the show was halfway through! Conway took his sitcom failures with good humor, though; his license plate read “13 WKS” (which was how long most of them lasted!).

“The Apple Dumpling Gang” (1975)

It didn’t look like Tim would ever be more than a second banana, until Disney came a-calling. His first for the studio was 1973’s THE WORLD’S GREATEST ATHLETE, with the late Jan-Michael Vincent as a jungle boy who brings sports success to a failing college program. Tim’s next Disney movie was fortuitous indeed; 1975’s THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG paired him with another sitcom refugee, Don Knotts , as a pair of inept Wild West outlaws mixed up with a gold heist and a trio of cute kids. Critics trashed it, but families turned out in droves, and THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG was the tenth-highest grossing film released that year, spawning a sequel, 1979’s THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG RIDES AGAIN.

Tim & Don in “The Private Eyes” (1980)

Tim and Don teamed in a pair of comedies that Conway co-wrote: THE PRIZE FIGHTER (1979) and THE PRIVATE EYES (1980). The former has Tim as a broken down boxer and Don his manager, the latter finds the duo as slapstick sleuths on the loose in London. Both give Tim and Don plenty of opportunities to strut their silly schtick, and were box office hits for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. They would team one more time in a cameo as goofy Highway Patrolmen in CANNONBALL RUN II, and we fans wish they would’ve made more movie madness together!

Mrs. Wiggins & Mr. Tudball

Tim had been making guest appearances on Carol Burnett’s weekly variety show since it began in 1967, and became part of the regular ensemble in 1975. He was given free reign to create crazy characters and out-there comic skits, and really began to shine. His pairings on the show with fellow funnyman Harvey Korman  are TV classics,  as Tim never failed to break Harvey up with his insane antics and ad-libs. A case in point is the classic skit “The Dentist”, which you can find here . His shuffling, stumbling World’s Oldest Man was another comedic highlight, as was his Swedish boss Mr. Tudball, constantly frustrated with blonde bimbo secretary Mrs. Wiggins (Carol in a blonde wig and tight dress). He also joined in on ‘The Family’ sketches (which later morphed into the sitcom MAMA’S FAMILY) as Korman’s bungling employee Mickey, and this outtake shows why Tim was the Comic’s Comic:

Life after Carol found Tim hitting the lucrative home video market with DORF ON GOLF (1987) as a so-called sports expert. Dorf talked in the same accent as Mr. Tudball, but was only about four feet tall (Tim achieved this by effect by sticking his knees in a pair of shoes). More Dorf videos ensued, each as popular with home audiences as the next.

Tim made new fans later in his career as the voice of Barnacle Boy, sidekick to superhero Mermaid Man (voiced by Tim’s old buddy Ernest Borgnine) on the Nickelodeon cartoon show SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS. Tim Conway delighted TV and movie lovers for generations, and he was rewarded for his efforts with six Emmys. Inventive, fertile comedy minds like his don’t come around too often, but fortunately for us, we can still enjoy his peculiar brand of silliness for generations to come. Thanks for all the laughter, Tim, and rest in peace.

The Dork Knight: Steve Martin in DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID (Universal 1982)

Quick, name a film noir that stars Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, Vincent Price, and… Steve Martin? There’s only one: 1982’s DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, the second collaboration between that “wild and crazy guy” Martin and comedy legend Carl Reiner. I remember, back in 1982, being dazzled by editor Bud Molin’s seamless job of incorporating classic film footage into the new narrative while simultaneously laughing my ass off. Things haven’t changed – the editing still dazzles, and I’m still laughing!

Martin and Reiner’s first comedy, 1979’s THE JERK, was an absurdist lover’s delight, and this time around the two, along with cowriter George Gipe, concocted this cockeyed detective saga after combing through old black and white crime dramas (we didn’t call ’em film noir back then) and cherry picking scenes to build their screenplay around. Martin plays PI Rigby Reardon, a hard-boiled knucklehead who takes on the case of Juliet Foster’s missing father, a famous scientist and cheesemaker. Rigby instantly falls for the femme fatale (“I hadn’t seen a body like that since I solved the Case of the Murdered Girl With the Big Tits”), and who can blame him, since she’s played by the delicious Rachel Ward, who shot to fame in SHARKY’S MACHINE and the TV miniseries THE THORN BIRDS!

“For God’s sake, Marlowe, put on a tie!”

The case leads him to discovering a conspiracy involving “The Friends and Enemies of Carlotta”, but the plot is strictly secondary to Martin’s interacting with movie stars of the past. Rigby’s got a partner named Marlowe, none other than Bogie himself, using footage from THE BIG SLEEP , DARK PASSAGE , and IN A LONELY PLACE . His interaction with Fred MacMurray in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, dolled up in a blonde wig and tight sweater to resemble Barbara Stanwyck, is a scream. Martin dons drag again as James Cagney’s mother in a funny riff on WHITE HEAT .

Besides those previously mentioned, other classic stars appearing include Edward Arnold, Ingrid Bergman, William Conrad, Jeff Corey, Brian Donlevy, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Charles Laughton, Charles McGraw, Ray Milland, Edmond O’Brien, Barbara Stanwyck, and Lana Turner, from films like THE BRIBE , DECEPTION, THE GLASS KEY , HUMORESQUE, I WALK ALONE, JOHNNY EAGER, THE KILLERS , KEEPER OF THE FLAME, THE LOST WEEKEND, NOTORIOUS , THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, SORRY WRONG NUMBER, SUSPICION, and THIS GUN FOR HIRE (and by the way, that’s 70’s Exploitation queen Rainbeaux Smith doubling for Veronica Lake in her scene opposite Martin).

There are some great running gags throughout the film, like Juliet’s unique way of extracting bullets (“It’s really for snakebite, but I find it works for everything”), Martin going berserk every time he hears the phrase “cleaning woman”, and his constant chiding of ‘Marlowe’ for not wearing a tie. DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID was the last film for a pair of Hollywood greats: composer Miklos Rozsa and costume designer Edith Head. Both went out on a high note, a loving homage to films noir past, and a brilliant piece of work that itself stands the test of time.

De-Coded: Wheeler & Woosley in KENTUCKY KERNALS (RKO 1934)


The comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woosley  join forces with Our Gang’s Spanky McFarland in KENTUCKY KERNALS, directed by Hal Roach vet George Stevens. Sounds like the perfect recipe for a barrel of laughs, right? Well, while there are some laughs to be had, the (then) recent enforcement of the Production Code finds W&W much more subdued than in their earlier zany efforts, and playing second fiddle to both Spanky’s admittedly funny antics and the plot at hand, a takeoff on the famed Hatfield-McCoy feud.

Weirdly enough, the film starts off with a lovelorn man attempting suicide by jumping off a bridge. Fortunately for him, he lands in a fishing net owned by down-on-their luck vaudevillians Elmer (Woolsey) and Willie (Wheeler), living in a waterfront shack. The two convince him to adopt a child, and go to the orphanage, where they find cute little Spanky, who has a thing about breaking glass! The man winds up eloping with his true love, and the boys wind up in charge of the glass-smashing Spanky!

Informed Spanky is sole heir to “a large Kentucky estate”, the trio head south, with Willie falling for pretty Gloria Wakefield aboard the train. When they arrive in the Bluegrass State, they get embroiled in a bitter feud between the Wakefields and Spanky’s clan, the Milfords. W&W manage to mend fences between the two warring factions, until Spanky pops a bottle of champagne. The Wakefields think it’s a gunshot, and the feud is back on in full force…

There are plenty of quick quips and good sight gags here, but that anarchic spirit Wheeler & Woolsey brought to  their Pre-Code comedies is sadly lacking. There are missed opportunities as well; Marx Brothers nemesis Margaret Dumont is utterly wasted as the orphanage headmistress. Just imagine the fun Woolsey could have had jousting verbally with Miss Dumont a few short years earlier! Ingenue Mary Carlisle (who died this past August at age 104!) is appealing as Gloria, but not given very much to do except look pretty. Willie Best is unfortunately stereotyped as the Milford handyman Buckshot, although he does play off Spanky well. Even the main song “One Little Kiss” isn’t up to the usual standards of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby (“I Wanna Be Loved By You”, “Three Little Words”, “A Kiss To Build  A Dream On”).


Spanky of course steals every scene he’s in with his antics and facial expressions. The six-year-old tyke was already a show biz veteran, having debuted with Our Gang two years earlier and quickly becoming the group’s most popular member. In fact, the film itself feels more like a Hal Roach comedy than a Wheeler & Woolsey outing, with Dorothy Granger and Charlie Hall appearing in small roles. Noah Beery Sr. (whose son later worked for Roach) plays the meanie Col. Wakefield, while Lucille LaVerne is Milford matriarch Aunt Hannah.

KENTCUCKY KERNALS is a pleasant enough if minor comedy, but a disappointment for Wheeler & Woolsey fans thanks to the Code restrictions. It takes away the sense of chaos they brought to the screen and turns them into just another pair of comics. Damn you, Joseph Breen!