Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Team, as in horses

Like most film buffs, I get asked about my favorite film, but that's an embarrassing question, because many of my really and truly favorite films are not really good films at all, but comprise those occasions when somebody pointed a camera at a great comedian. Or even two or three great comedians.

I love film comedy teams, and I worship Laurel & Hardy, the greatest of them all. But I am also rather indiscriminate when it comes to comedy. Laughter can neither be counterfeited (well) nor (truly) suppressed. It is a natural act that reveals the true mind of the actor, and therefore out of the control of either snobbery or good taste and I can savor Oscar Wilde and Benny Hill with equal gusto.

Accordingly, thanks to the ministrations of Turner Classic Movies and Warner Archives, I am able to enjoy the antics of the antique comedy of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, who pranced madly for RKO from 1929 to 1938, when Woolsey died. And they are a proper subject for discussion in film, because they were, Laurel and Hardy, almost entirely a film-only team.

Teamwork is not easy and takes years to develop. Most film comedy teams have live performance origins, in vaudeville, burlesque or legitimate. The Marx Brothers, Three Stooges and the Ritz Brothers were family-based acts and the Marxes began together in childhood. Clark & McCullough ran away to the circus together as boys and Abbott & Costello put in a decade in burlesque breaking out on radio, while Martin & Lewis and Rowan & Martin were the product of nightclubs.

The teams that reach us deeply do so not because of jokes, but, I believe, from the way they reflect or ridicule important relationships. Laurel and Hardy were brothers united against the world, Abbott and Costello were brothers who are rivals, with the older brother (Bud) taking advantage of the younger; Martin and Lewis were similar, but Dean did not exploit Jerry and even tried to help him. The Stooges are a dysfunctional family, with Moe the impossible-to-please father. Burns and Allen were an actual married couple. This may sound odd, but Paul McCullough seems like a doting and enabling mother to the obnoxious Bobby Clark, and the Ritz Brothers are those three loud boys who live next door and break up the party.

Two exceptions remain. The Marx Brothers, who were actual brothers, function as three parallel comedy acts with only the flimsiest relationship, which is what makes it so endearing when Groucho decides to chuck being a respectable physician, college president or even president of a country in order to hang out with two insane hobos, Chico and Harpo. Groucho, when appearing with his brothers, represents a deep wish fulfillment for all us decent middle-class people--the wish to tell all the people in charge to go to hell and hang out with the friends our parents told us to stay away from.

Wheeler & Woolsey are the only major film comedy team to follow in the Marx mode and operate as parallel comics, although W&W do have more verbal byplay together, especially in the last third of their films. It makes sense, because W&W might be described as an artificial team. They were two journeyman comics who had been paired up by no less than Florenz Ziegfeld for a big musical called Rio Rita. When Joseph Kennedy and David Sarnoff of RCA had engineered the complex series of acquisitions and mergers that resulted in RKO Radio Pictures in 1928, a company dedicated to making only synch sound films, they wanted the first production to be big and hard to miss. They decided on Ziegfeld's show, and Rio Rita (1929) was a big picture the year of its release, starring longtime silent star Bebe Daniels (she had been Harold Lloyd's leading lady a decade earlier). While RKO jettisoned much of the plot, songs and cast, they did bring Wheeler & Woolsey out to repeat their roles, especially the celebrated slapping routine, seen at the end of this two-color clip:

Most people are a little startled at the final kiss. Wheeler & Woolsey's reputation has improved in recent years because of their bawdy streak, which was still on display until 1934, when the Production Code began to be enforced. Before then the double entendres and innuendos were on full display and that incorporated a lot of drag and sissy humor. I wouldn't go as far as some commentators have, to claim for them a gay sensibility, but there is an uninhibited attitude toward sex that makes them, for all their corny puns and stale wordplay, just a bit contemporary.

The racy humor also contrives to give them a team identity, since they didn't develop as performers together and don't have the close simpatico exhibited by other teams. Instead, after the success of the film version of Rio Rita, they were, somewhat to their surprise, cast together in another comedy and then another. Only after a few films do they formalize their status as a comedy and form a legal partnership. No endless years on the road together for them, our routines reaching back into their distant past together. Instead, Bob and Bert relate to each other with the camaraderie of fellow professionals, who appreciate and enjoy each others' skills and the traditions they come from. Woolsey is a road-company Groucho, leering and puffing on his cigar and delivering straight-up jokes with set-ups and punchlines. Wheeler is a caricature of a Broadway juvenile, with a high piping-voice and an air of mock innocence. Wheeler also boasts a good singing voice and first rate skills as a hoofer, so part of the W&W tradition would be Wheeler's flirtation with a sweet young thing, played more often than not by a girl named Dorothy Lee (who appeared in almost no other films), which led into a song and dance routine.

Here's a more-or-less typical Bert-and-Dorothy routine from Peach O Reno (1931) a very saucy comedy in which W&W run a divorce-mill law firm which becomes a casino every night.

Wheeler & Woolsey were so important to RKO in those early years, keeping them afloat financially, that they four films in 1930 and four in 1931. RKO even tried splitting the golden goose, giving each of them a solo film in 1931, but they made no impact, and the team was reunited. So perhaps, to the public, they were appreciated as a team. Like the Marx Brothers, the existence of the team relieves monotony, as each comic could engender his own mayhem. And this sort of alternation made a "straight plot" with young lovers who need to be reunited or otherwise overcome some sort of obstacle was completely unnecessary and eschewed, another factor which makes the W&W films feel less dated than they might have been.

RKO looked back at the blockbusting success of Rio Rita and attempted to lure lightning again with an adaptation of the Gershwin show Girl Crazy (1932). Again most of the plot, characters and score were tossed aside, with only "Biding My Time", "I Got Rhythm" and "But Not For Me" surviving the transition, and only the middle tune given its full weight. ("But Not For Me" is bizarrely staged as a lover's quarrel, although the lyrics are that of a torch song.) To the credit of the new songwriters, the new song for Bert and Dorothy, "You've Got What Gets Me" is a catchy little ditty that holds its own in this fast company.

This composite clip (which unavoidably begins with a commercial -- sorry) includes a bit of the opening credits, Bob & Bert's meeting scene, the strange staging of "I Got Rhythm," the aforementioned "But Not For Me" and the appalling impressions of long-forgotten celebrities by a strange child named Mitzi Green, later famous in theater history for playing a former child performer in the musical Babes In Arms.

The end of Ms. Green's career as an impressionist was not hard to predict. (Incidentally, she turned up in 1952 in an Abbott & Costello film called Lost In Alaska, in which she is a rather snappy chantoozie, and almost the only entertaining thing in the film. So even child performers can change.) As this clip reflects, W&W almost became guest stars in the seven-layer cake that comprised the 75 minutes of Girl Crazy.

These are the only three of their 18 films which are officially released. Dixiana, another super-production follow-up to Rio Rita, Half Shot at Sunrise and Hook, Line & Sinker have gone into the public domain and are widely available. In fact, you can watch them now in their entirety by clicking on the links in the previous sentence. None of these six films are considered their peak works, which include So This Is Africa, Cockeyed Cavaliers, Hips Hips Hooray and Kentucky Kernels (co-starring Spanky MacFarland). I hope to have the opportunity to write about those when they receive legitimate releases.

Until then, let's leave them gamboling about the green, which is what Wheeler & Woolsey do best, in this somewhat lunatic musical number from Half Shot at Sunrise, with the ever-game, ever-plucky Dorothy Lee:

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful piece on a team deserving of a much wider audience. Even after code restrictions took away much of their bite they were capable of delivering the goods with the right material and director behind them (from the post-Code era I favor "The Nitwits" directed by George Stevens - unfortunately it was followed by a slew of Fred Guiol-directed misfires). Pre-code there is just so much to recommend - "Diplomaniacs," "Hips Hips Hooray," "Cockeyed Cavaliers," "Hold 'em Jail" and several others wonferfully entertaining. Thank you again for shining a light on this team - I'd be curious to hear what your students think of Bert and Bob, should you ever have the occasion to share them with your class.