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?

 

Pre Code Confidential #9: James Cagney in BLONDE CRAZY (Warner Brothers 1931)

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When James Cagney burst onto the screen like a machine gun barrage in 1931’s THE PUBLIC ENEMY, a star was immediately born. His rough-and-tumble personality was perfectly suited to films of the era, and he’s given a good showcase in BLONDE CRAZY, along with Pre-Code cutie Joan Blondell , who could dish it out with the best of them. Though it’s a little creaky in spots, BLONDE CRAZY is tons of fun, and Cagney gives everybody a lesson in what being a movie star is all about.

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Cagney plays Bert Harris, a bantamweight bellboy looking to make a fast buck during the Depression running crap games and selling bootleg hootch. When he first meets blonde Anne Roberts (our girl Joan) he ogles her body lecherously, and we know right from the get-go what his intentions are! But Anne’s no sucker, she a been-around-the-block kinda gal, and soon this dynamic duo are running the old “gotcha” game on square Mr. Johnson, setting him up for blackmail like a rat in a trap, with Anne as the cheese.

The pair take their ill-gotten gains and high-tail it to the big city, hooking up with slick con man Dapper Dan (Louis Calhern ) . Dan and his squeeze Helen end up conning Bert out of his loot, and Bert has to pull a jewelry store swindle to get his and Anne’s money back. Meanwhile, Anne meets up with a swell guy, earnest stockbroker Joe Reynolds, played by a VERY young (24 at the time) Ray Milland.

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Bert heads to the Big Apple to get even with Dan, and he and Anne stage an elaborate horse racing con to bilk the bilker. Bert finally pops the question, but Anne confesses she’s in love with Joe, and after she gets hitched, Bert takes a year off to live the high life in Europe. Upon his return, Anne asks for his help, as Joe’s done a little swindling of his own at the firm. Bert’s plan goes awry as Joe sets him up, winding up in a car chase with the law, getting tommy-gunned, and sent to stir for his troubles. Anne realizes Bert’s the guy for her after all and visits him in the prison infirmary,  promising to wait.

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Cagney’s magnetic personality carries the film, with his roguish charm and optimistic outlook. The way he calls Joan (and every skirt he lays an eye on) “huuuuuney” show his devil-may-care attitude toward life, and is reflected in his dialog, ripping off statements like “The world owes me a living” and “Not tough, just mercenary” with that trademark staccato Cagney delivery. The Depression’s robbed him of a shot for a decent life, so he makes his own the only way he knows how, by conning the suckers of the world. The film also gives us Jimmy’s famous line “That dirt, double-crossing rat!”, bastardized by scores of impressionists as “You dirty rat!”.

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Let’s not forget Joan Blondell, one of Pre-Code’s Queens, who’s on equal footing with Cagney here. Her hard-broad persona always comes with a soft heart, and her longevity in films is testament to her acting talents. I lost count of how many times she slaps Cagney’s face in this film, but it must’ve been pretty raw by the time filming ended! It wouldn’t be a Pre-Code without a little raciness, and Joan’s bathtub scene with Jimmy certainly fills the bill!

There’s a plethora of Familiar Faces in smaller roles, including Guy Kibbee , Noel Francis, Nat Pendleton , Maude Eburne, Ward Bond , a pre-Western ‘Wild’ Bill Elliott, Russell Hayden, and Charles Lane . An actress I’d never noticed before named Polly Waters turns up as Jimmy’s first girlfriend, and she’s a bundle of sexual joy to behold! Miss Waters was featured in a handful of Pre-Code films, mostly in smaller roles, and I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes peeled for her.

BLONDE CRAZY, Polly Walters, Joan Blondell, 1931
Battling Blondes: Polly vs Joan!

Director Roy Del Ruth guides the players through their paces with his usual deft hand, keeping things moving at a brisk speed. BLONDE CRAZY shows Cagney at his  Pre-Code best, and he and Joan take the movie and run away with it. A pair of aces for sure, huuuuuney!

 

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