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Craig's Movie Club
Entertainer Profile and Movie Recommendation

Spotlight on: Wheeler and Woolsey: A Profile
Movie Recommendation: Frailty

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Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey
Photo courtesy of the Wheeler & Woolsey Photo Album
Career Profile: Wheeler and Woolsey

This month Craig's Movie Club spotlights not one film but a legendary comedy team: Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. Great stars in the 1930's, they are all but forgotten now, except for the lucky people who have been introduced to their films through American Movie Classics (where I discovered them) and Turner Classic Movies.

Wheeler and Woolsey were first teamed up for a Ziegfeld Follies production of Rio Rita on Broadway. They repeated their roles for the film adaptation, which in turn led to their being featured in 1930's Dixiana. This began a partnership that would last until Woolsey's death on Halloween, 1938.

Wheeler is the one on the left, the cherubic-faced innocent who was always the romantic lead (usually with the equally angelic Dorothy Lee). Woolsey is the one on the right, the wiseacre with an answer for everything. Based on his look (the glasses and cigar), one may be led to believe that he was stealing George Burns' act. but actually, according to most sources, Woolsey's appearances bears a deliberate resemblance to character actor Walter Catlett, with whom Woolsey held a lifelong friendship.

Wheeler and Woolsey's films were huge moneymakers for RKO Pictures. Their type of vaudeville humor was just the thing audiences were looking for and they kept RKO afloat during the Great Depression, making more money than their contemporaries, the Marx Brothers. The only comedy team that outearned them was Laurel and Hardy.

In making over 20 films together, they worked with many soon-to-be famous writers and directors. Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) co-wrote Diplomaniacs. Mark Sandrich graduated to the Astaire/Rogers vehicles The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, and Shall We Dance after directing Hips, Hips Hooray and Cockeyed Cavaliers. And George Stevens (also an Astaire/Rogers helmer for Swing Time) gained the valuable experience he would later use on such classics as Gunga Din, Shane, and Giant through working with Wheeler and Woolsey on Kentucky Kernels and The Nitwits.

Unfortunately, only a few of Wheeler and Woolsey's films are available on video. I have chosen a several of those to spotlight. The links go to Movies Unlimited, the best place for rare videos like this. (Featured links on the edges go to Amazon, however.)

Cracked Nuts Video Cover Cracked Nuts(1931) is my personal favorite, directed by Edward F. "Eddie" Cline (who would helm the boys for five films). All the ingredients of a Wheeler/Woolsey funfest are included here. Wendell (Wheeler) is in love with (Lee), but Aunt Minnie (Edna May Oliver) will have none of it as he is useless. An opportunity arises for Wendell to buy the upcoming revolution of El Dorania, thus making him king. He takes the opportunity and sails over. Unfortunately, Zup (Woolsey) has just won the crown from King Oscar at a craps game, making him king. General Bogardus (one of Wendell's advisors) proclaims that in order to protect Wendell's investment that Wendell must kill Zup. But it turns out they're old friends... Also featured in the cast are a young Boris Karloff as another of Wendell's advisors, and cross-eyed comic Ben Turpin as a bombardier.

Hook, Line And Sinker(1930) is another solid offering directed by Edward F. Cline. In it, Wheeler and Woolsey, working as fake insurance men ("Do you know there are people dying this year that have never died before?"), learn that the lovely Dorothy Lee owns a run-down hotel and offer to "help" her turn it into a goldmine. This is more literal than it first appears, as opposing crooks use the hotel to conduct their nefarious (Bert has to look it up, among others) deeds. Meanwhile, Woolsey starts a romance with her mother, and the whole thing ends in a hail of gunfire and wisecracks.

Half Shot At Sunrise(1930) The boys go AWOL in Paris in 1918. Plots were never terribly important as this simply gives the team chance to riff on war and the French. Woolsey dances in his underwear!

Diplomaniacs(1933) Indian reservation barbers Wheeler and Woolsey are sent to the Geneva Peace Conference, where they establish friendly relations with government blondes and solve world problems with laughing gas.

Kentucky Kernels(1934) Wheeler and Woolsey adopt Spanky McFarland (yes, the Our Gang / Little Rascals one) and head south to collect his supposed inheritance. Unfortunately, their search drops them smack-dab into the middle of a family feud. But Wheeler and Woolsey always know how to look on the bright side (i.e., the funny side) of even the worst of situations.

Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934) and Hips, Hips Hooray (1934), sadly, I could not find anywhere on video, and they are my next two favorites. In Hips, Hips Hooray (left), Wheeler and Woolsey, become involved with a cosmetics company, and in Cockeyed Cavaliers they get in costume for a period piece.

I happened to catch High Flyers (1937) early one morning on Turner Classic Movies (usually the best time of day and the channel to come across their movies). The pair (again under the direction of Edward F. Cline) star as a couple of carnival barkers who get mixed up with a scheme involving stolen jewels. Costarring with Wheeler and Woolsey are such luminaries as Lupe Velez (who would later become famous for the Mexican Spitfire series of films), Margaret Dumont (favorite foil of the Marx Brothers), and Jack Carson (long-time character actor best known for Mildred Pierce), but they add little spice to what is essentially a standard farce plot that ranks nowhere near the duo's best work. Velez's solo rendition of "I Always Get My Man" (including impressions of Dolores del Rio, Simone Simone, and Shirley Temple) is a highlight, as is Bert's impression of a tap-dancing Charlie Chaplin, but even at 75 minutes, High Flyers feels too long. A sad statement to make, given that it was their final film together.

Their previous work, Silly Billies (1936), is similarly disappointing. This Fred Guiol film features Woolsey as a dentist starting up in a Western town in the middle of the gold rush. He and Wheeler end up the only men in town after everyone leaves, and have to be the ones to stop an Indian attack (!) on its way to the travelers. Pretty stereotypical in its treatment of "savages" but a few clever moments in this otherwise weak entry in their career.

But the plots were always insignificant and were simply the foundation on which to build verbal and sight-gag humor. One can usually expect the best of both from the legendary team of Wheeler and Woolsey. Due to the expense of acquiring copies of their films on the collector's market, however, I recommend passing on their later work in favor of their peak period in the early '30s. A team like Wheeler and Woolsey deserve to be seen at their best.

Frailty DVD Cover Alternate Recommendation: Bill Paxton's Frailty

Bill Paxton stars in Frailty as a father visited by an angel who compells him to "destroy demons" (i.e., kill people the angel tells him to). He enlists his two sons to help him, Fenton and Adam, but Fenton doesn't like the idea.

First-time director Bill Paxton has chosen a perfect vehicle for his dual talents. It is a straightforward Southern gothic tale that does not require any special camera trickery. But what really makes this film work is the career-making performance by Matt O'Leary as young Fenton. The film depends on a believable outing in this pivotal role and he makes the best of it. I couldn't take my eyes off him.

Frailty is a solid thriller that allows him to stretch as an actor while exploring his not inconsiderable new-found talents as a director. It also stars Matthew McConaughey and Powers Boothe, Paxton's fellow Texans. He thought they would work well together because of their shared heritage, and I guess he was right. This is a fine thriller that plays off fears of the unknown. Is Dad crazy or is he really a messenger from God?

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