I’ve written before about my unhealthy predilection for comedy teams of the 30s and 40s, and not just good comedy teams. I revel in the weird and woefully misguided teams that were just plain bad. For every great Abbott & Costello, there’s a Brown & Carney, for every Laurel & Hardy there’s a Clark & McCullough, and for every Marx Brothers, there’s a Ritz Brothers. Wheeler & Woolsey however, are an enigma to me. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes hilariously awful, and even sometimes, rage inducingly offensive, they were for a short time the most successful comedy team of the early 1930s, wrought almost unwatchable today for their sometime racist, sexist, and misogynist humor.
The Marx Brothers, Wheeler & Woolsey and even The Three Stooges did their best work in the Pre-Code period, (roughly 1929 – 1934; though some argue that time extends into 1935) when the Hays Office did little to enforce their strict code for motion picture ethics. This all changed as pressure from the Catholic Church forced Hollywood to take the bite out of even the most inoffensive material from 1935 until, some would argue, the 1960s. Every scripted innuendo was strictly monitored, and every reference to crime, sex, free-thinking, race and gender equality was painstakingly modulated. After 1935, you couldn’t show a couple sharing a cigarette, let alone a bed.
So for the wild and woolly period during sound’s infancy, no holds were barred. And, as mentioned, comedy could push the boundaries of what was acceptable, with some jokes and images challenging even today’s political correctness. Groucho Marx could freely point to Margaret Dumont’s ample breasts and comment, “Now this chest…,” then correct himself, instead pointing to a wooden crate, “I mean this chest,” or make the joke, “We took some photographs of a couple 13 year old native girls but they haven’t developed yet. We’re going back in a couple weeks, though…” The country, and the world was a different place then.
With the advent of sound, Hollywood was starved for actors and comedians with a gift for gab. Casting agents scoured the Vaudeville circuit, looking for musical and novelty acts that had a talent that lent itself to sound. Sliding comfortably into this mandate were Wheeler & Woolsey. The team had actually not performed together before, but had worked the circuit on separate bills. Through happenstance they were cast in the lavish Ziegfield Broadway show, Rio Rita. In fact, the play was such a hit, it was produced part and parcel as one of the first color talkies for RKO in 1929.
The runaway success of the filmed version of Rio Rita meant that Wheeler & Woolsey would commit to a teaming for the duration of Robert Woolsey’s life. (He died in 1938, while partner Wheeler continued as a solo act until 1968.)
Just to give you an idea how big a deal Wheeler & Woolsey were – the success of Rio Rita helped build RKO, as the fledgling studio had only come into being the year before. There could not have been a grander introduction into Hollywood for the nascent team than this Ziegfield original. In fact, Wheeler & Woolsey helped keep RKO “in the black” for most of the 1930s.
The recipe for these two comics, by definition, was unlikely. At first glance, Bert Wheeler looks like a Zeppo Marx; clean-cut, normal if not attractive, and always playing a variation of the male ingenue. Bob Woolsey, by comparison, is the George Burns avatar – round spectacles and always, ALWAYS, smoking a cigar. You would therefore assume that Wheeler would be the straight man, and the gabby, machine gun fire delivery of Woolsey would cast him as the jokester. And while Woolsey is imbued with those talents, it’s the spontaneous, unpredictable and downright “loopy” nature of innocent Wheeler that creates the greatest humor and purest joy.
But the most fascinating aspect of Wheeler & Woolsey, was their propensity for pre-code, politically incorrect humor. Between 1929 and 1935 they pumped out 18 features as a team (virtually unheard of for even the most diligent work-horses of the period). These 18 are an encyclopedia of forbidden subject matter and taboo joke telling. An example from The Cuckoos (1930): A woman says she’s won so much money at a casino, she can’t stuff it all into her stockings and lifts her skirt (very high) to show off her legs. Woolsey’s response: “Keep that up and you’ll make even more.”
Wheeler & Woolsey grabbed the censors with both hands and laid a king-sized Bug Bunny style kiss on their pusses like no other comedy team of the period. Bert Wheeler, more often than not, could be found in drag, challenging gender norms with off-color jokes and sometimes, pitch perfect gags. His trans act was more than just an opportunity to display (what was then called) “Panze” humor, but a way to illustrate the fluidity of sexuality and the belief that in the right moment, anyone could be coaxed into “making hay.”
In fact, while we’re used to seeing Laurel & Hardy and The Three Stooges sharing a bunk (it was more about economics than sex), Wheeler & Woolsey could sometimes go from paupers to princes in the course of a film and still wake up in bed together, donned in the most luxurious lingerie, obviously enjoying each others’ company.
Part and parcel with the team’s boundary-pushing, however, was their whole hearted and ill-informed embrace of racist humor. From dancing around in cliched wild west “Indian” garb, whooping and hollering like children in Girl Crazy (1931) to an all-out assault on every culture imaginable (Native Americans, Asians and African-Americans) including black-face in Diplomaniacs, their material ranges from cringe-inducing to pure racism. What to do?
It’s easy to write off mediocre performers and material, and chalk it all up to just a footnote in our complicated yet embarrassing history of cultural evolution. But there are merits to be found within the many W&W outings. Peach O’reno offers a still relevant and astute commentary on marriage during a time when quickie divorces in Reno, Nevada were an actual “thing.” And as previously discussed, Wheeler’s cross-dressing pendulums between artful skewering of gender norms to pure homophobia.
Two of their best, Hips, Hips Hooray and Cockeyed Cavaliers, both from 1934, are probably the best bang for your buck if you’re looking for entry into their comedy styling as well as the curious world of their short-lived pre-code shockers. One of the real treasures though, is W &W’s teaming with comedienne Thelma Todd, a favorite foil of Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers and Laurel & Hardy, not to mention her pairing with Zasu Pitts and later, Patsy Kelly, for the noble attempt at creating a female comedy team. While never officially stated, Todd’s inclusion in the cast of these comic giants almost always insured a successful film. And she was as adept at sexual innuendo and playing the team’s equal as any actress.
As the 30s wore on and censorship took firm hold, Wheeler & Woolsey’s humor lost its bite. More importantly, Robert Woolsey’s health began to deteriorate. A back injury from their first film had left Woolsey in chronic pain, and eventually contributed to kidney failure, so that he couldn’t finish their final film in 1937, and finally succumbed the following year.
So what’s to be done with Wheeler & Woolsey? If you’re a casual classic film fan, a salient argument could be made that they’re just not worth your time. In actuality, it’s the greater film buff, who celebrates in the obscure, the irreverent and historical footnotes that would gain the most insight for dabbling into the duo’s mercurial output. And here lies the greater quandary: how do we curate their material, with warnings and caveats, like “proceed at your own risk?” Or do we white-wash film history, especially when it perpetuates the very worst in our past and cultivates jokes at the expense of the minority; cultural and sexual?
Luckily, TCM doesn’t shy away from the duo’s filmography, and sometimes spends the entire overnight shift running mini W & W marathons. And perhaps that’s the best approach – allowing insomniacs to discover them only by the light of the moon, or for the curious, to DVR and enjoy – or suffer – at their convenience.
Where do we draw the line? Do we need to draw the line? Is this even an argument on the same level as Birth of a Nation – a relic that in my youth, was on the syllabus of every film history class, but in the last ten years has largely disappeared? The case for “Birth,” – that Griffith revolutionized storytelling, cross-cutting and framing, allowed it to constantly cycle through the repertory and revival house circuit until curators just couldn’t make the case stick anymore, especially with public outcry reaching a deafening roar of dissatisfaction.
I don’t have an answer. I do know if I was ever fortunate enough to have my own revival movie house, I would not show them. I believe they’re too polarizing in our current climate to experience in a theater setting. I might share them with a small group of friends, ones who I know have the patience of Job and the curiosity of an archaeologist.
But that’s an easy debate for me to win, since I can’t argue that Wheeler & Woolsey even hold up. I will fight tooth and nail today for the Marx Brothers or even the best Three Stooges offerings be made available for new film lovers to explore and enjoy, even though there are moments of pure tone deaf “ickiness”. There are too many treasures to glean from these important comedy teams, but I fear the creaky antique artistry of Wheeler & Woolsey may no longer be worth the fight.
Perhaps Wheeler & Woolsey are like transfats. They’re delicious, but ultimately bad for you. Or like plastic straws, they had their time, but like landfills that are overflowing with poisons – our planet, and our culture, has reached critical toxic mass.