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!

Pre-Code Confidential #21: Wheeler & Woosley in DIPLOMANIACS (RKO 1933)

Political satire in film ran rampant during the Pre-Code Era. Somewhere between W.C. Fields’s MILLION DOLLAR LEGS and the Marx Brothers’ DUCK SOUP  sits DIPLOMANIACS, Wheeler & Woolsey’s madcap take on war and peace, 1930’s style. It’s purely preposterous, unadulterated farce, and is guaranteed to offend someone, if not everyone.

Let’s get it out of the way right now: DIPLOMANIACS is not politically correct in any way, shape, or form. It’s loaded with racist stereotypes, casting Hugh Herbert as a not-so-wise Chinaman (“It is written that it is written that it is written that it is written”), lambastes Jews, Native Americans, and homosexuals, and portrays women as sex objects (spy Marjorie White is delivered in plastic wrap). A bomb tossed into the peace talks causes everyone to turn blackface, leading to a prolonged minstrel number! If you’re already offended, stop reading… but if you can take the heat, by all means let’s continue!

W&W play barbers on an Indian reservation (!) offered a million dollars each from the Native chief (who’s Oxford educated and speaks perfect English) to represent the tribe at the Geneva Peace Conference. Winklereid, General Manager of the High Explosive Bullet Company, is charged with stopping them by his four co-conspirators (Schmerzenpuppen, Puppenschmerzen, Schmerzenschmerzen, and Puppenpuppen). With his Oriental sidekick Chow Chow, Winklereid enlists the aid of vamp Dolores to seduce Bert and steal their dough and peace documents (“I’ve got what it takes to take what they’ve got!”). When she fails, the bad guys turn to Paris underworld boss Fifi, with her kiss of death and gang of cutthroats (and don’t ask how they got to Paris instead of Geneva!). Finally making their way to Switzerland, W&W land in the middle of a violent peace conference chaired by the ill-tempered Edgar Kennedy , until that bomb hits and plunges the world into war!

Interspersed in all this nonsense are musical numbers (including some Busby Berkeley-style choreography and the aforementioned blackface number), zany sight gags and one-liners, and Bert Wheeler’s classic vaudeville “crying” skit. The script by Joseph L. Mankiewicz  (yes, that Joe Mankiewicz) and Henry Myers gets away with all sorts of innuendoes (Winklereid: “This is no time for sex” Fifi: “That’s what you say”), and skewers just about everything in sight – no one is safe in this film! Louis Calhern, Ambassador Trentino in DUCK SOUP, plays Winklereid, cute little Marjorie White (who starred in The Three Stooges first solo short WOMAN HATERS) is Dolores, and Phyllis Barry, who also played with the Stooges in THREE LITTLE SEW AND SEWS (as well as Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante in WHAT! NO BEER?) is Fifi.

Director William A. Seiter was no stranger to comedy, having got his start with Mack Sennett. Seiter then moved to Universal for a series of silent comedies starring Reginald Denny. If he’d only directed the Laurel & Hardy classic SONS OF THE DESERT , Seiter’s name would be immortalized, but his career encompassed much more than that gem. He guided W&W through three other films (CAUGHT PLASTERED, PEACH O’RENO, GIRL CRAZY), Wheeler’s solo outing TOO MANY COOKS, a pair of Shirley Temple films (DIMPLES, STOWAWAY), PROFESSIONAL SWEETHEART, THE RICHEST GIRL IN THE WORLD, ROBERTA, ROOM SERVICE (with the Marx Bros). NICE GIRL?,  LITTLE GIANT (starring Abbott & Costello), ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, and DEAR BRAT, ending his career with television’s THE GALE STORM SHOW.

Like I said earlier, if you’re easily offended, you can skip DIPLOMANIACS. But if, like me, you view older films in the context of their times, you’ll discover an outrageously funny movie that’s about as wild as Pre-Code movies get. Plus, you get a chance to see two funny men, Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, at the top of their game. Any takers?

 

Turning Back the Cuckoo Clock with Wheeler & Woosley in THE CUCKOOS (RKO 1930)

We last left the wacky world of Wheeler & Woolsey with a look at the looney HOLD ‘EM JAIL . Today we delve deeper into comedy’s film vault with their 1930 effort THE CUCKOOS, based on the hit Broadway musical by Guy Bolton, Bert Kalmar, and Harry Ruby. The play featured the team of Clark & McCullough, who are even more obscure than W&W to most film fans (they appeared in a series of shorts from 1928-35), but RKO (after the success of 1929’s RIO RITA) put W&W into the film version, hoping the team’s antics would click with Depression Era audiences.

And click they did, leading to an RKO contract and nineteen more features! THE CUCKOOS’ plot concerns romantic entaglements at a plush hotel, with  heiress Ruth (June Clyde) in love with pilot Billy (Hugh Trevor), but pushed toward the oily Baron de Camp (Ivan Lebedeff ) by her rich Aunt Fannie (Jobyna Howland). The boys get in the thick of things as a couple of fraudulent “American fortune tellers”, with Sparrow (Bert) in love with gypsy Anita (W&W’s frequent costar Dorothy Lee). The gypsies, led by burly Julius (Mitchell Lewis), scheme with the Baron to kidnap Ruth, while out to get Sparrow and his pal Professor Cunningham (Bob) because Julius wants the lovely Anita for himself.

The plot takes a backseat to Wheeler & Woolsey’s silly shenanigans, and they dominate the picture with their buffoonery and double entendre laced puns (it is the Pre-Code era, after all!). Some highlights include the nonsense song “Oh, How We Love Our Alma Mater” (complete with silly dance), Woolsey putting Wheeler in a trance (he gets on all fours and barks like a dog), the boys asked to keep their eyes on a forbidden keg of beer at the border (Prohibition, doncha know?) with hilarious results (and the punchline later lifted in a Three Stooges short), being constantly interrupted in their hotel room by a succession of crazies (reminiscent of the old burlesque skit ‘Crazy House’), and Bert in drag enticing the gypsies to his boudoir, only to receive a conk on the noggin from a hidden Bob!

Woolsey gets off some funny one-liners with Jobyna Howland, the team’s version of Margaret Dumont (she appeared in two other W&W films), like this one: Fannie: “Do you think you’ll love me until I die?” Professor: “Well, that depends  on how long you live”. She’s big and bawdy, and makes a perfect match for sarcastic Bob.  Miss Lee, just 19 at the time, was cast a Bert’s love interest in a dozen of their films. She’s cute as a button but no great thespian, though she brings a Ruby Keeler-ish enthusiasm to her roles (personally, I think she’s much prettier than Ruby!). Dorothy and Bert have a charming duet together, “I Love You So Much”, which is reprised by the cast at film’s finale.

THE CUCKOOS is far less static than The Marx Brothers’ early effort THE COCONUTS, although it can be stagey in spots. One thing different from that film is the abrupt switch to two-strip Technicolor for some of the musical numbers, which took me by surprise! W&W’s song “Goodbye” is in this early color process, as is “Dance the Devil Away”, a bizarre little segment with Dorothy and a bevy of beauties gyrating with wild abandon on a Hades-inspired set! The finale gets the Technicolor treatment, as well. Wheeler & Woolsey were on the right track here, and continued to make kooky comedies until Robert Woolsey’s untimely death in 1938. If you haven’t rediscovered them yet, you’re as crazy as they are!