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?

 

A Pair of Aces: Laurel & Hardy in SONS OF THE DESERT (MGM 1933)

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Laurel and Hardy are still beloved by film fans today for their marvelous contributions to movie comedy. Rooted firmly in the knockabout visual style of the silent screen, the team adapted to talking pictures with ease, and won the Best Short Subject Oscar for 1932’s THE MUSIC BOX. The next year the duo made what’s undoubtably their best feature film SONS OF THE DESERT, a perfect blend of slapstick, verbal humor, and situation comedy benefitting from a fine supporting cast and the undeniable chemistry between Stan and Ollie .

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The boys are at a meeting of their lodge The Sons of the Desert when it’s announced all members must swear a sacred oath to attend the annual convention in Chicago. Timid Stanley is afraid his wife won’t let him go, but blustery Ollie insists, boasting about who wears the pants in his family. Of course, Ollie’s just as henpecked as Stan, and his wife laughs in his face, not to mention crowning him with a vase! Ollie concocts a scheme to trick the wives by feigning a “nervous breakdown”, and gets Stan to have a lodge brother pose as a doctor (Stan gets a veterinarian!). The bogus doc claims the only cure for Ollie is a cruise to Honolulu (!), and Stan is designated to accompany his friend.

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The ‘subterfuge’ (a word that baffles Stan) works, and soon the boys are living it up in Chicago, with lots of drinking, dancing-girls, and tomfoolery going on. They meet up with an obnoxious practical joker from Texas who calls his sister in Los Angeles as a gag. Ollie begins to flirt with her over the phone, that is until he realizes he’s talking to his own wife! Looks like the joke’s on him!

Headlines in the newspaper back home state the Honolulu ocean liner the boys are allegedly on is sinking in a typhoon, and the panic-stricken wives, thinking their husbands are heading for Davy Jones’s Locker, hightail it to the docks. The boys return home after the girls leave for the docks, and are even more panic-stricken when they read the news of their imminent demise! They hide out in the attic, while the wives go to a picture show to calm their nerves. You know it, they see a newsreel featuring their spouses prominently cavorting in Chicago. Stan and Ollie end up on the roof in a rainstorm (after being struck by lightning!!), and a cop, catching them shimmying down the drainpipe (where Ollie gets stuck in the rainbarrel), marches them to their wives. Ollie comes up with a wild tale about being shipwrecked and having to “ship-hike” home. Stan breaks down and confesses (even after Ollie threatens to tell his wife he smoked a cigarette in Chi-town!), and is rewarded for his honesty with chocolates and TLC. As for Ollie… well, after his wife pummels him with every dish and piece of crockery in the house, Stan comes over and tells him, “Honesty is the best politics”. Ollie beans him with a remaining pot for his ill-timed advice!

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All this allows Stan and Ollie to indulge in some of their wackiest bits; I especially love the slapstick silliness involving Stan, Ollie. Mae Busch, and a tub of hot water when Ollie’s playing sick. Then there’s Stan innocently munching on wax fruit in the Hardy’s living room. Laurel’s malaprops (calling their lodge leader “the exhausted ruler” for example) are always welcome, but it’s his big-worded soliloquy in the attic (and Ollie’s reaction) that got me laughing. Hardy’s bullying of his little pal is offset by his cowering before his wife, and it wouldn’t be a Laurel & Hardy film without Ollie getting the chance to tell Stanley, “Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!”.

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“The ever-popular Mae Busch” (to quote Jackie Gleason) is Ollie’s wife, and she’s at her shrewish best here. In fact, you can see a lot of Ralph and Alice Kramden in the relationship between Mae and Ollie. Dorothy Christy plays Stan’s gun-toting, duck hunting wife, and she holds her own in her only film with the boys. Comedian Charley Chase is the raucous conventioneer from Texas, and he’s a hoot. Chase starred in his own two-reelers and features for Hal Roach , and after moving to Columbia, he directed some of the Three Stooges best 30’s efforts. If you’ve never seen any of Chase’s solo work, do so immediately; you’re in for a treat!

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Familiar Faces in the cast include Lucien Littlefield as the ersatz doctor, and if you look close you’ll find Stanley Blystone, Ellen Corby, young Robert Cummings , Charlie Hall, and producer Hal Roach himself. Actor Frank Craven wrote the story, embellished by Laurel and Hardy and five others, including director William A. Seiter, a Mack Sennett vet who also worked with comedy teams Wheeler & Woolsey, Abbott & Costello, and the Marx Brothers. SONS OF THE DESERT is by far my favorite Laurel & Hardy feature, a timeless classic that gets better every time I view it. There’s an international Laurel & Hardy fan club called “Sons of the Desert” that’s still active,  with thousands of members in the U.S. and abroad. I wish there was a chapter near me, I’d sign up today!

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