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!!

Pre Code Confidential #27: Mae West in SHE DONE HIM WRONG (Paramount 1933)

Bawdy Mae West had scandalized Broadway with her risque humor, and struggling Paramount Pictures snapped her to a movie deal. Her first was a supporting part in 1932’s NIGHT AFTER NIGHT, where she was allowed to rewrite her own dialog, and stole the show by purring sexually charged lines like “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie”. Mae’s presence helped refill Paramount’s coffers, and raised the hackles of censorship boards across America. It wasn’t long until the Production Code became strictly enforced, thanks in large part to Mae, but before then, she was given the spotlight in 1933’s SHE DONE HIM WRONG, based somewhat on her stage success DIAMOND LIL.

Like the play, SHE DONE HIM WRONG is set in The Bowery during the 1890’s, but here Diamond Lil is called Lady Lou, because the censors wanted to whitewash all vestiges of the ribald play. Diamond Lil or Lady Lou, Mae is still Mae, and no one could deliver sexual innuendo like her! Lou is, according to her, “One of the finest women ever walked the streets”, a saloon singer who attracts men like a magnet. Owner Gus Jordan keeps her adorned in diamonds, Russian gigolo Serge Stanieff is infatuated, even prim Salvation Army reformer Captain Cummings has a crush on her. When Lou visits her ex-lover Chick Clark in stir, he’s driven so mad with jealousy he escapes to make sure Lou’s being true (fat chance!).

The plot revolves around some shady white slavery business involving Gus, Serge, and Russian Rita, but that takes a backseat to Mae and her ribald double entendres. This is the film where she coos to a young Cary Grant (playing the reformer!), “Why’ncha come up sometime and see me”. Cary asks if she’s ever met a man that could make her happy, to which Mae replies, “Sure, lots of times”. Or this little gem: “When women go wrong, men go right after them”. She also gets to sing three hot numbers, “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone”, “A Guy What Takes His Time”, and “Frankie & Johnny”.

Mae always claimed to have ‘discovered’ Cary Grant, but he’d already made seven films by this point, including the Pre-Code classic BLONDE VENUS with Marlene Dietrich. Grant was 29 at the time, while Mae was approaching 40, but a little thing like age never stopped Mae West, and the sexual heat between them is believable. Gruff Noah Beery Sr. plays saloon owner Gus, oily Gilbert Roland is the oily Serge, and Owen Moore the jealousy-driven Chick. Other cast members include Rafaela Ottiano as Russian Rita (reprising her stage role), Dewey Robinson as Lou’s loyal bodyguard Spider, and the delightful Louise Beavers as Lou’s maid Pearl. Familiar Faces abound in lesser parts: Arthur Housman , Rochelle Hudson , Tom Kennedy , Fuzzy Knight , David Landau, among others.

Though the prudes were outraged at Mae’s onscreen behavior, SHE DONE HIM WRONG  packed ’em in around the country, and was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar that year (the shortest movie ever nominated, clocking in at 66 minutes). The Production Code clampdown a year later watered Mae’s earthy persona down considerably, but even watered down Mae West was better than none at all. She still found ways to sneak some in (as in this from MY LITTLE CHICKADEE: “I was in a tight spot, but I managed to wiggle out of it”), but Mae’s shocking one-liners mostly found themselves on the cutting room floor. Mae West never gave in or gave up though, and continued to be her raunchy self for years to come. She was Hollywood’s first Liberated Woman, and SHE DONE HIM WRONG represents the immortal Mae West at her lustful best!

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