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 #11: THE MALTESE FALCON (Warner Brothers 1931)

Everybody knows the 1941 Humphrey Bogart/John Huston classic THE MALTESE FALCON, but only true film fanatics watch the original 1931 version. Since I fall squarely into that category, I recently viewed the first adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s seminal private eye yarn. The film, like it’s more famous remake, follows the novel’s plot closely, with the added spice that Pre-Code movies bring to the table.

Cortez is no Bogie, but he’ll do

The odds are six-two-and-even if you’re reading this post, you don’t need a plot recap. What I intend to do is go over some of the differences between the two versions. Let’s start with Sam Spade himself, the prototype hard-boiled detective. Suave, slick-haired Ricardo Cortez  interprets the role as a grinning horndog who’s never met a skirt he didn’t like. We meet Spade in the opening shot, clinching a dame in silhouette at the door to his office. Then the door opens and the camera pans down to the girl’s gorgeous gam, hitching up her stocking, so there’s no doubt that more than just business was being conducted behind that closed door. This sets the tone for Cortez’s character, an amoral man completely out for himself. We later discover he’s been banging his partner Miles Archer’s wife Iva (and as she’s played by the lovely Thelma Todd  , who could blame him?!?). He’s also got a thing going on with secretary Effie ( Una Merkel , another Pre-Code cutie). Cortez made a career playing shady types, and though his Spade differs from the more cynical Bogart , he does well in the role of less than honorable gumshoe.

Bebe in the bathtub/la-dee-da-dee-dah!

Bebe Daniels plays opposite Cortez as the lying, duplicitous Ruth Wanderly, enacted in the Huston film by Mary Astor. Miss Daniels, a star in the silent era, was more closely associated with early musicals (DIXIANA, 42ND STREET), and is no match for Astor in the dramatic department. However, she does get to strut her Pre-Code stuff more freely than Astor did ten years later. There’s a scene where Ruth and Sam are passionately kissing while a record comes to an end; the scene changes to Daniels asleep in his bed the next morning. Sam answers the door to find Iva, who spies Ruth peeking through the bedroom door… in her kimono! Later, when a thousand dollar bill goes missing from an envelope, Sam orders Ruth to “take off your clothes” so he can search her… and she does! Though she’s no Mary Astor (let’s face it, few actresses were), Bebe Daniels does fine in the pivotal role of Ruth Wanderly.

Diggs & Frye… more than just friends?

The villainous trio of Casper Gutman, “Dr.” Joel Cairo, and the gunsel Wilmer Cook are portrayed with no ambiguity about their homosexuality. Right off the bat, Effie tells Sam a “gorgeous new customer” has arrived, and in walks the effeminate Dr. Cairo (Danish actor Otto Matieson). Gutman (Irishman Dudley Diggs) sports feminine curls and is more than fond of his hired goon Wilmer, played by none other than Dwight Frye. It was a very good year for Frye, as he appeared in both FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA for Universal in 1931. There’s also some homophobic slurs tossed by Spade at the homicide dicks Dundy and Polhaus (Robert Elliott, J. Farrell McDonald), as he teases Dundy with the sobriquets “sweetheart” and “darling”, much to their chagrin.

When Warner Brothers wanted to re-release the ’31 version in 1936, the then-in-place Hayes Production Code had a fit, claiming it was too “lewd” and unacceptable to be put on the Silver Screen again. Warners then commissioned a remake, retitled SATAN MET A LADY, changing some things around and starring Warren William and Bette Davis in the Cortez and Daniels roles. The new film was a bomb (Davis hated it), and Hammett’s story sat untouched until John Huston got ahold of it in 1941, and the rest is film history. The Huston/Bogart MALTESE FALCON remains the definitive version, and is still my favorite, but this  Roy Del Ruth  1931 Pre-Code take has a lot to offer. While not nearly as atmospheric or influential as the later film, this MALTESE FALCON is at least the stuff that Pre-Code dreams are made of!

The “Pre Code Confidential” Files:

  1. LADY KILLER
  2. KONGO
  3. MAKE ME A STAR
  4. THE MASK OF FU MANCHU
  5. HOLLYWOOD PARTY
  6. THE SECRET SIX
  7. PLAY-GIRL
  8. BABY FACE
  9. BLONDE CRAZY
  10. CLEOPATRA

Straight No Chaser: The Marx Brothers in MONKEY BUSINESS (Paramount, 1931)

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After filming their stage successes THE COCONUTS (1929) and ANIMAL CRACKERS (1930), The Four Marx Brothers made their first movie written directly for the screen. MONKEY BUSINESS showcases the anarchic comedy style the brothers were famous for in a very loosely plotted script by humorist S.J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone (with “additional dialogue” by Arthur Sheekman) full of crazy comic moments.

The brothers play stowaways on an ocean liner bound for America who get mixed up with a pair of rival gangsters. Groucho, of course, gets mixed up with gangster Briggs’s wife, the wonderful Thelma Todd. She takes the role usually reserved for Margaret Dumont, but her youth and beauty give it a different spin. Groucho and Thelma are perfect foils, whether it’s their comic banter (Thelma: “My husband will wallop me” – Groucho: “Always thinking of your husband. Couldn’t I wallop you just as well?”) or their zany dance routines. Thelma would make one more with the Marxes (HORSE FEATHERS, 1932) before her tragic death at age 29 in 1935.

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The jokes come fast and furious. Groucho’s timing, freed from the conventions of the stage,is better then ever, his rhythmic one-liners roll off his tongue (‘Is it true you wash your hair in clam broth?”) The eye-rolling, eyebrow raising, and rat-a-tat delivery are far superior here than in the first two films. Harpo’s sight gags (the frog in the hat, the Punch and Judy scene) are great, and he’s still chasing every girl in sight. Chico mangles the English language like no one else can, and his trick piano playing’s always a treat. Even Zeppo does well in a larger than usual role as the love interest for rival gangster Helton’s daughter.

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The most famous scene is when the four brothers try to get off the ship by impersonating Maurice Chevalier singing “You Brought A New Kind of Love to Me”. When the other three fail, Harpo almost gets away with it until it’s discovered he has a phonograph strapped to his back! There’s plenty of slapstick to go along with the non-stop puns and back-and-forth verbal gymnastics. Director Norman Z. McLeod (who also did the follow-up HORSE FEATHERS) was a gifted comedy director who guided pros like W.C. Fields (IT’S A GIFT, 1934) and Red Skelton (PANAMA HATTIE, 1942), as well as several Bob Hope vehicles (ROAD TO RIO, 1947, THE PALEFACE, 1948). McLeod was also responsible for the classic ghost comedy TOPPER (1937) and the all-star IF I HAD A MILLION (1932).

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MONKEY BUSINESS is right up there with DUCK SOUP as one of the Marx Brothers best. I’m a huge fan of their early Paramount movies. That let-it-all-hang-out spirit just really wasn’t there at MGM. Most critics think different, that the brothers needed to be reigned in. I disagree. I like the undiluted, anything goes style found in MONKEY BUSINESS and their four others at Paramount. If you like your Marx Brother straight with no romantic subplot chaser, MONKEY BUSINESS will not disappoint!