Robert Woolsey is a stringy, deep-voiced, round-eyed character with glasses and a cigar. His demeanor resembles a cross between George Burns and Groucho Marx. Bert Wheeler is a more cherubic, high-voiced, baby-faced fellow. This vaudevillean team rivaled the Marx Brothers in the ‘30s, and several fresh releases on Warner Archive’s made-on-demand service give us a chance to see how they measure up.
In the pre-Code Diplomaniacs (great title), our boys are going bankrupt because they opened a barbershop on an Indian reservation, and the movie tells us that Indians don’t shave. However, after singing with lots of pretty maidens about how they were cheated by the White Man, the Indians pay them a million dollars to be ambassadors of the Indian Nation at a conference in Geneva where, as a title informs us, the nations of the world fight about peace. The Indians insist that the world sign a peace treaty (because they’ve had so much luck with that?), while a cabal of munitions manufacturers are determined to stop our heroes. This plot crosses from mere anarchy into actual satire, and then finishes with anarchy again in a punchline that would be horrendous if anyone took it seriously.
The humor is amazingly free, surprising and surreal. It must be what they meant by “madcap”. Leonard Maltin points out that certain sequences are reminiscent of Million Dollar Legs and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. The greatest joke involves a cigar, but I won’t repeat it. It’s also pretty much constantly a musical. The nonstop barrage of wild sight gags and wisecracks is co-written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 15 years away from writing and directing All About Eve.
The only thing that would make modern viewers uncomfortable is the equally nonstop jokes about all possible ethnicities and accents, culminating inevitably in a blackface number. Mind you, I haven’t noticed any great outbreak of political correctness or taste in today’s comedies, but our conventions have evolved in ways that will make viewers blush in 50 years, which seems always the pattern. And today’s movies often have a hostile tone, while this movie is relentlessly good-natured, presenting all characters as equally silly and unreal.
However, my most pertinent apologia here is that this movie’s tone recognizes the absurdity of all stereotypes and conventions and takes delight in lampooning and puncturing them, so that what we’re actually seeing is the parody of stereotypes themselves. It’s all a winkingly self-conscious parade, the kind of performance where people burst into random punctuations like “Hot cha cha!” Truly, it feels postmodern, as though saying “Isn’t it dumb that people are supposed to laugh at this?”
Thus we get the old joke (at least I assume it was already old at the time) of the Indians who go from saying “How” and “Ugh” to speaking Oxfordian English and riding in limosines paid for by the reservation’s oilwells, and the Chinaman (Hugh Herbert, thankfully not speaking pidgin) who rattles off remarks in any number of dialects as the movie calls attention to his obvious non-Chinese-ness.
When our main villain requests a vamp, the Chinaman asks “What color?” and the villain smirks lasciviously and says “What colors have you?” He answers, “Red, yellow, black,” and when the baddie asks if he’s got white, he says “How about a nice striped one? The whites get dirty much quicker.” When the villain is later annoyed that their vamp has fallen in love with Wheeler, the Chinaman says, “Well, you would have a white woman.”
Kentucky Kernels is so radically different in approach, you could think it wasn’t even the same comedy team. It’s one of several items the boys made with meticulous craftsman George Stevens early in his feature career after graduating from comedy shorts. This time the boys function in a straightforward, even sensible plot that moves along steadily, combining character with romance and bits of slapstick action. It’s well-constructed and professional. This is what they’ve gained, and what they’ve lost is the crazy vitality that would make the picture especially worth watching 75 years later.
There are lots of close-ups of Spanky McFarland (of the Our Gang shorts) as a mischievous tyke who’s supposed to be adorable. He’s inherited a Southern estate, so his guardians travel thither and land in the middle of a Hatfield/McCoy-type family feud that must of course be patched up so that true love can run smooth between Wheeler and a daughter of the rival family. This is a clichéd plot that should have been retired after Buster Keaton made Our Hospitality, because nobody was going to do it better.
Kentucky Kernels (1934)
There’s one song that’s run into the ground. There’s a long slapstick finale where the mansion is under siege. There are the comic stylings of Willie Best (under the demeaning screen name Sleep ‘n’ Eat—no kidding) as the quavering Negro servant, and which demonstrate how emphatically this film’s attitude toward stereotype differs from Diplomaniacs. There’s not a trace of lampoonery behind it, just standard use of conventions.
One thing the two films have in common is gender confusion. Despite his romantic entanglements with various females, Wheeler is the feminized half of the duo. In both films, they sleep in the same bed and Wheeler dresses in various stages of drag. We’re not supposed to get the wrong idea, though. While Wheeler wears a frilly nightgown in bed next to Woolsey in Diplomaniacs, they still react with woo-woo alarm at the swishy valet who discovers them. In Kernels, an apron-ed Wheeler opens the film nagging at Woolsey in marital parody over always having to do the dishes, and later he’s the natural candidate to masquerade in a dress, but he’s also the one who gets the girl. Or maybe it’s more transgressive than we think.
Wheeler remains the romancer of the pretty heroine in The Rainmakers, the most plotted picture of the three. Much time is spent on the story of a California farm community suffering from drought, and how the richest landowner plans some shady deal to overprice a projected irrigation project and get a lien on everyone’s land. I don’t quite follow how all this makes sense, since no one would default on the loan if the project is successful, and the man really does plan to build it, and then when he tries to get his funds from the bank, he advertises the true cost of the project rather than the inflated cost.
Maybe I’m overthinking it, and maybe the writers underthought it. Anyway, our heroes arrive in town with a machine that creates rain by harnessing the electricity of crowds, a scheme that might or might not be more hare-brained than the loan scam. Wheeler woos the banker’s daughter, who’s also the object of unwanted attention by the rich guy’s son, so the romantic and economic rivalries are conflated.
The Diplomaniacs (1933)
None of this is terribly interesting or funny, although it has whimsical touches like a tree that drops oranges when anyone tells a lie. Then comes the incredible climax, which is surely as random and irrelevant as any comedy ever had. For bizarre reasons, the boys end up on two different runaway locomotives, and the plot goes from hare-brained to hair-raising. For those 15 minutes, a lackluster comedy becomes a minor masterpiece of exciting comic stunts, especially when the boys try to cross from one train to another. Although seemingly disconnected from the main story, this is the only part viewers are likely to remember.
The bottom line from these three RKO productions is that for the most part, Wheeler and Woolsey are justifiably forgotten in comparison with the Marxes. However, the right material could work wonders. Most of the time, they didn’t have great material and couldn’t transcend it. With great material, they could achieve a lunatic high point like Diplomaniacs, which deserves to be compared with Duck Soup or Olsen & Johnson’s hard-to-see Hellzapoppin in the comic anarchy sweepstakes.