Review by Doug Gibson
As the '30s approached, and the "talkies" gained momentum and the Great Depression became the norm for a while, a shift occurred in screen comedy. The subtle, pathos-driven comedy of the silent era faded, and more broad comedy, with an emphasis on witty dialogue and even musical numbers, gained in popularity. One example of this shift was The Marx Brothers. Another lesser-known example is a distressingly forgotten pair -- except to genre buffs and film historians, of course -- named (Bert) Wheeler and (Robert) Woolsey. The duo, long vets of the stagecraft of vaudeville, had been together several years when RKO Radio Pictures, a studio that cranked out B features, signed the duo. It turned out to be a profitable venture for the comics and the studio. Over the course of nearly a decade, until the older Woolsey died, more than a score of films were produced. They were funny, fast-paced romps, with lots of laughs, pretty women and pleasant music for Depression-era audiences. The pair were mismatched well; Wheeler with the softer edges, a more pathos comedian who caught most of the girls' eyes, and Woolsey, the angular, homely but wisecracking schemer who had his share of the girls too.
There isn't much out there on Bert and Robert, so we can be grateful that film historian Ed Watz wrote a while back the book "Wheeler & Woolsey: The Vaudeville Comic Duo and Their Films, 1929 to 1937," McFarland Press. The RKO films are analyzed in detail, all of them, including my personal favorites "The Cuckoos," "Peach O Reno," "Hold 'Em Jail," "The Nitwits" and even the much-lamented "Mummy's Boys," which I kind of liked, darn it! As it is with genre books that are written for extreme fans and historians, much of the action behind the scenes is detailed, including the duo's dealings with a very boorish studio exec David O. Selznick, as well as RKO's shabby treatment of Woolsey at the genesis of his tenure. The studio planned to dump him relatively early but the duo's success prevented that, and Woolsey was able to get his "revenge" in the form of a fat paycheck later.
Ed Watz, when he wrote the book, was able to include the reminisces of frequent co-star Dorothy Lee, and recollections from her and others on the scene add to the value of the screen biographies. Another co-star to the duo included Betty Grable, as well "the Mexican Spitfire" Lupe Velez. Directors of the comedies included future great George Stevens. In "The Nitwits," directed by Stevens, there is a wonderful song and dance number, up and down a staircase, with Wheeler and the gorgeous Grable, who play young lovers in the film.
Peach O Reno is an interesting film, as it presents the comedy team as successful at the outset. The pair are the top divorce team in Reno by day, and successful casino operators by night. Nevertheless, the duo soon get into trouble. More typical scenarios have the boys as foils who outsmart the heavies. Examples include Hold 'Em Jail, where they are patsies put in jail and Mummy's Boys, where they are low-wage workers signed for a dig. As Watz notes, the latter film was similar to an Abbott & Costello feature 20 years later.
Prior to the story of their film career together, Watz offers concise updates on their earlier lives. Wheeler enjoyed fame on vaudeville with his wife Betty, until she dumped him -- both in love and art -- for a competitor. After a short period of doldrums, Wheeler hooked up with Woolsey, a veteran of vaudeville, and the pair were a big success in the mid to late 1920s. (Betty's career faded, by the way, and she ended up divorced.) Woolsey, not uncommon for future vaudeville stars, grew up in extreme poverty with most of his siblings dying as a children. Later, it was affectionately noted, writes Watz, that his wife Minnie was both perfect for him, and as homely.
The pair had a long movies run. As Watz recounts, the frailer Woolsey's body just gave out. In his final film, long shots of him are another actor. He died, in 1938 of, as Watz notes, of either kidney or liver problems, or perhaps both. With death at the cusp of his success, his funeral was a big deal in Hollywood.
As Watz recalls, Wheeler outlived his partner by three decades, but his death received far less fanfare. In fact, he was buried in "an area for impoverished actors," writes Watz. Wheeler's first film sans Woolsey, in which he played a Midwestern quarterback in a Warner's film, was a flop. I have seen the film, "Cowboy Quarterback," and it isn't much. Watz is correct to note it was a poor rip off of Joe E. Brown material.Wheeler's film career continued downward. He had small parts in TV and even a short stint doing comedy shorts at Columbia's factory. It wasn't all bad, though. The actor, although grown more cynical over the years, maintained success on the stage, and that kept the bills paid for the rest of his life. He died in 1968. In an event that shows Wheeler's humanity, Watz relates a one-day reunion Bert had with his long wife/partner Betty. Because she was down on her luck, it's likely Bert gave his New York stage salary to her.
I have compared Wheeler and Woolsey to the Marx Brothers, albeit a more meat and potatoes version. There's music and wisecracks from Woolsey and a more subdued but still very funny Wheeler. There's also love, although it's tongue is often in its cheek. However, it's worth noting the pair often outgrossed Groucho, Harpo and Chico. Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey saved RKO Studios from probable ruin. They used their vaudeville experience and comic timing to create original characters who made audiences laugh, enjoy music, and feel good in tough times. It's been sheer bad luck -- too many comedy brews out there -- that the pair have faded from most memories.
Watz' book is a treasure, and his detailed research, done for love and not money, is appreciated. The book is well worth the $35 asking price from McFarland (here). Thanks to DVD and stations such as Turner Classic Movies, the comedy pair can be watched. As soon as I finish this review, I'm sitting down to enjoy "The Nitwits,' DVD-rd just a few days ago via TCM.