Tuesday, July 5, 2016


When people think of the top comedy teams of the 1930's, they tend to think of the usual suspects like, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges and The Marx Brothers, however the most popular team of that era gets little in the way of recognition from fans today.

   Bert Wheeler (1895-1968) and Robert Woolsey (1888-1938) were the most recognized comedy team in the pre-code era, spawning several films and countless imitators.

Bert and Bob
Before I go in to the careers of Bert and Bob, I must give a personal history. Back in my childhood days, I used to frequent a local library's book sale. I would go, primarily looking for a Disney movie on VHS and a cheap DVD of a Hollywood classic, I had discovered the Marx Brothers about four years earlier and took a liking to classic films. While browsing the shelves, I found a very nice coffee table book entitled, "The RKO Story". I squealed with delight and could not wait to rush home and read it. While flipping through the pages, I discovered a comedy team that I had never heard of: Wheeler and Woolsey. They caught my eye, but sadly, at that time, their films were not widely available on DVD...yet.

   When I got to high school, I figured that it would be a great time to finally see a Wheeler and Woolsey film. I was on a rewards system, and if I did very well, I would purchase a DVD of my choosing. I still remember the DVDs that I ordered, they were "Hook, Line and Sinker" from Digiview (Horrible Print), "Half Shot at Sunrise" on a very good Alpha DVD and "Caught Plastered" which came from the now-defunct Nostalgia Family Video. Suffice to say, I enjoyed all three films immensely. Now on to the history of our boys.
   In 1927, prolific Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfield produced "Rio Rita", one of the most lavish and expensive Broadway productions of its time. In the cast of this epic were Bebe Daniels, a popular silent film actress, John Boles, a well known stage actor and Wheeler and Woolsey, Wheeler being the curly-haired babyface and Woolsey being the cigar chomping idea-man.

Dorothy Lee
The play was such a smash hit that, the newly-formed RKO Radio Pictures produced a film version. The film adaptation was just as lavish as the stage version, and all of the main players returned to their original stage roles. Outshining the leads were the antics of Wheeler and Woolsey, also returning from the stage version, and many critics thought they were the highlight of the evening. On an interesting side note, "Rio Rita" was one of the earliest sound films to have a sequence shot in Technicolor.
    Bert and Bob were such a success, that RKO landed them a contract. Their first outing was "The Cuckoos", an adaptation of "The Ramblers" which starred another forgotten comedy team, Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough (More on them in another article). The film was a smash and solidified Wheeler and Woolsey as screen favorites.
   Over the course of the next three years, Wheeler and Woolsey made an astounding ten pictures for RKO, including "Hook, Line and Sinker", "Cracked Nuts" (Which features an early performance by Boris Karloff), an adaptation of the George and Ira Gershwin play "Girl Crazy" and two solo features, "Too Many Cooks" with Bert and "Everything's Rosie" with Bob. Interestingly, "Rosie" is an adaptation of the W.C. Fields vehicle "Poppy", of which Robert Woolsey had a supporting role in the stage version.

Hips, Hips, Hooray! (1934)
In 1933, due to dispute in contract and with production head David O. Selznick, the boys went over to Columbia to shoot "So This is Africa", a parody of thirties jungle pictures. This was to be the only film the boys produced for Columbia, and the only film they made outside of RKO.
     When Wheeler and Woolsey returned to RKO, they starred in two fantastic comedies, one of them, one of the best political satires of all time and the other, one of the sexiest comedies ever made."Diplomaniacs" concerns two barbers on an Indian reservation who are called upon to go to the Geneva Peace Conference and stop an impending war. The film is regarded as a classic today, and deserves to be on the same shelf as other satirical films like "Duck Soup" and "Million Dollar Legs". In "Hips, Hips, Hooray", the boys are flavored lipstick salesmen who have no luck. Luck beckons in the form of Dorothy Lee, one of Bert and Bob's most frequent co-stars, and Thelma Todd, a ravishing beauty who also had a great sense of humor and whose life ended tragically due to poisoning by Carbon Monoxide, a mystery that still plagues Hollywood today. One of the most inventive comedy sequences ever filmed, was the taste testing scene where Wheeler and Woolsey try to guess the flavor of lipstick by kissing a scantily clad store model.
Thelma Todd
While the boys were a hit with audiences, their raunchy humor and their risque antics spelt trouble for the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America,who felt pressure from several religious organizations to put a stop to scandalous imagery from being projected on movie screens. The Motion Picture Production Code put an end to films featuring risque content,including but not limited to, sexual acts or talk insinuating sex, scantily clad persons (especially women) and extreme displays of violence.
   Many fans consider the code to be the death knell for the team. After 1934, Bert and Bob's films continued to get worse and worse, and started to losemoney for the studio. The one highlight of this era was 1934's "Kentucky Kernels", which featured such stars as Margaret Dumont, a Marx Brothers favorite, and little "Spanky" McFarland, from Hal Roach's famous "Our Gang" shorts.

In 1936, Robert Woolsey, a longtime cigar smoker, developed a kidney ailment, this illness contributed to the downfall of the team. Bob struggled to finish 1937's "On Again-Off Again" and "High Flyers". After production wrapped on "Flyers", Woolsey was confined to a bed for one year, and at this time developed a bad drinking habit. Robert Woolsey died on October 31, 1938. He was only 49 years old.
  After the death of Woolsey, Bert struggled to make a name for himself as a solo performer, teaming up regularly with friend and co-star Dottie Lee. Bert continued to make minor film and television appearences, but never again achieved the level of success of his earlier screen career. His last
major role was as Smokey Joe on the popular western television program "Brave Eagle". Bert Wheeler died penniless of emphysema on January 18, 1968.
  Since Wheeler and Woolsey's popular films were deemed tasteless by the 1950's and due to the fact that they rarely made any two-reel shorts, their pictures were forgotten and remained so for nearly four decades. In the 1980's with the rise of home video, Wheeler and Woolsey's films were made available again to enjoy in VHS, Betamax and Laserdisc formats, and in 2013 Warner Archive, the made-on-demand DVD arm of Warner Bros. released 15 of the team's features and now future generations can enjoy the antics of one of the greatest comedy teams of all time.

No comments:

Post a Comment