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?

 

Goats and Nuts and MILLION DOLLAR LEGS (Paramount 1932)

Hail, hail Klopstokia! MILLION DOLLAR LEGS is  total  movie anarchy, a throwback to the halcyon days of Mack Sennett. It’s a comedy cornucopia filled with sight gags and verbal nonsense, led by legendary W.C. Fields as president of the mythical country of Klopstokia, about to default on its loans until itinerant brush salesman Jack Oakie comes up with a plan to enter the hale and hearty Klopstokians in the 1932 Olympics and win the huge cash prize being put up by his employer!

Klopstokia is noted for “Goats & Nuts”, their chief exports, imports, and inhabitants! All political disputes are settled by arm wrestling, and President Fields is the strongest of all, though he’s constantly being challenged by his Secretary of the Treasury Hugh Herbert. Presidential daughter Angela (Susan Fleming, future wife of Harpo Marx) and brush salesman Migg Tweeny (Oakie) “meet cute” and immediately fall in love. When asking for her hand, Angela tells her dad she calls Migg “Sweetheart”, which the Prez mistakes for Migg’s real moniker! (Migg: “Listen, my name’s Tweeny” Prez: “You’ll always be ‘Sweetheart’ to me” Migg: “I know, I know, but there’s talk already…)

Secretary Herbert and his traitorous cabinet (including Keystone veterans Irving Bacon, Vernon Dent, and Billy Gilbert , who performs his comical sneeze routine) plot to put Klopstokia’s athletic team out of commission by hiring super-spy Mata Machree, “A Woman No Man Can Resist”! She’s played by luscious Lyda Roberti, parodying Garbo (who starred in 1931’s MATA HARI) and sings the risqué “When I Get Hot in Klopstokia”. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen lithe Lyda slink and wiggle her way to a man’s… err, heart.

You all know what a sucker I am for punny wordplay, and MILLION DOLLAR LEGS is loaded with it, thanks to screenwriters Henry Myers and future Oscar winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz . Here’s a couple of examples:

Migg: “You know what? I love you!”

Angela: “In Klopstokia, we have another way of saying that”

Migg: “In public??”

Then there’s this: Angela: “All the girls in this country are named Angela, and all the men are named George”

Migg: “Why?”

Angela: “Why not!”

Fields is a riot, as always, whether having troubles with his top hat, juggling clubs to stay in shape, or performing as a one-man band. Cross-eyed silent comedian Ben Turpin keeps popping up (for no reason!) as a cloak-and-dagger spy, Andy Clyde as Fields’ Major-Domo could give The Flash a run for his money, and little Dickie Moore steals whatever scenes he’s in as Angela’s brother Willie – apparently the only male in Klopstokia not named George!! All this absurdity is expertly handled by director Edward F. “Eddie” Cline, who went back to Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops, and worked with nearly every great comic in history, from Chaplin and Keaton, to Wheeler & Woolsey and Olsen & Johnson, to the Ritz Brothers and the Andrews Sisters!

MILLION DOLLAR LEGS is sheer nonsense, and I mean that in the best way possible. Predating the Marx Brothers’ DUCK SOUP by a year, the film shares its anarchic spirit, and the two together would make a great double feature when you need to just cut loose and laugh. And we all need that in this day and age!!

%d bloggers like this: