Thursday, April 27, 2017

Ed Watz on Wheeler and Woolsey

Interview by Doug Gibson

Ed Watz is the author of the above book, "Wheeler and Woolsey: The Vaudeville Comic Duo and Their Films, 1927-1937," (McFarland). It's a successful genre book logging more than 3,000 sales. Another book of Ed's I enjoy is "The Columbia Comedy Shorts," (McFarland) that he co-authored with Ted Okuda.

Ed's written a lot on vintage comedy the past several decades, and later this year his newest book, "Buster Keaton in the Talkies: Laughter Louder Than Words," is being published by BearManor Media. It will deal with Keaton's films from 1929 to 1941.

I owe my enjoyment of Wheeler and Woolsey to Ed's book, and I asked him recently to talk about the famous comedy duo, which made a lot of films, and money, for RKO. He agreed and here's our chat.

Plan9Crunch: Tell us a little about Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey's success in vaudeville in the 1920s and how they came to RKO's eye.

Watz: Bert Wheeler was a major star of vaudeville for about a decade, from the mid-teens until 1926. In 1923 Bert and his first wife and stage partner, Betty, were chosen by the legendary showman Florenz Ziegfeld to appear in that year's Ziegfeld Follies revue. Robert Woolsey only briefly worked in vaudeville; he appeared in numerous touring companies of famous plays, eventually landing on Broadway and appearing in a major show almost every season. In 1926 Ziegfeld hired Wheeler and Woolsey as the comedy relief in his latest extravaganza, RIO RITA. Their parts were loosely sketched but both comedians were expected to furnish their own material. By the time the show opened in New York the following February, they perfected a series of routines together that practically stole the show. When Ziegfeld sold the movie rights of RIO RITA to RKO, Wheeler and Woolsey were the show's only stage players who were hired to repeat their performances on film.

The subtitle of my W and W book, "The Vaudeville Comedy Team and Their Films," is actually somewhat of a misnomer as they were never a team in vaudeville. My original title for the book was "Forgotten Laughter," but my publisher decided to change it.

Plan9Crunch: Some call W and W small-town knock offs of the Marx Brothers but their films sometimes were more successful than the Marx Brothers.Whom played off whom, or did both teams have their own unique styles?

Watz: Actually I doubt that any of the W&W starring films outgrossed any of the Marx Brothers films, but because the W&Ws were usually modestly budgeted -- what you might call a "lazy 'A'" picture -- costing on average of $250,000 to $300,000. their films usually returned a decent profit of around $100,000 to $150,000. Whereas the Marx Brothers at Paramount and later MGM had budgets ranging first from around $600,000 and later over $1 million, their films tended to return a much smaller profit, or in the cast of three of their MGM films, no profit at all.

The Marx Brothers' films grossed more money, but their higher budgets meant that the profits -- if there were any to be had -- were lower than Wheeler & Woolsey's. The films of Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello likewise had lower budgets and their films, like W&W's, usually returned a solid profit.

Wheeler & Woolsey, like Laurel & Hardy, were both star comedians in their own right; while they played off each other, neither was the straight man. If there is any team similar to them it certainly isn't Stan and Ollie, or Abbott &Costello; but the repartee and rivalry over a girl in the W&W films anticipates the Hope & Crosby pairings in the "Road" pictures.

Plan9Crunch: How important was Dorothy Lee (seen above with the pair} to the team's success? Is she comparable to a Margaret Dumont or Christine McIntyre as a valued cast player with a great comedy team?

Watz: Dorothy Lee is a charming asset to the W&W films, especially in those moments when she gets to sing and dance a duet with Bert Wheeler. She's not really a comedy character, and she rarely acts as a straight woman for the team. Dorothy herself usually dismissed her performances but she remains a fan favorite. Wheeler & Woolsey films are often populated by terrific supporting casts who do indulge in comic banter. The Marx Brothers' Margaret Dumont appeared with the team in two of their films. Others who contributed great support include Betty Grable, Lupe Velez, Edgar Kennedy, Marjorie White, Warren Hymer, Louis Calhern, Billy Gilbert and Noah Beery Sr., among others.

Plan9Crunch: What's your favorite Wheeler and Woolsey film and why?

Watz: I have two favorites: PEACH-O-RENO, in which Bert contributes a brilliant comedy performance in drag that matches for perfection Jack Lemmon's work in SOME LIKE IT HOT; and COCKEYED CAVALIERS, a period picture set in Restoration England where Bob Woolsey romances beautiful Thelma Todd and the team becomes involved in court intrigue when a jealous Baron (Noah Beery) mistakes the pair of the King's royal physicians. CAVALIERS is very much a blueprint for the "Road" comedies of the next decade. It has a solid plot with their best individual comedy scenes, plus it never meanders, moving swiftly and logically to a hilarious chase climax.

Plan9Crunch: They had a breakneck pace of making films in the 1930s. Was that a reflection of their popularity, and did it have an impact of wearing Robert down to an early death?

Watz: Wheeler & Woolsey were among RKO's biggest box office attractions from 1930 through 1935. Once the studio realized that big profits were to be made on their inexpensively produced films, they wasted no time in churning them out. Five W&W films were produced in 1930 alone. Ten years later, Universal put its new comedy team Abbott & Costello through a similar assembly-line production schedule. Bert and Bob, like Bud and Lou later on, finally rebelled and within a few years would restrict their output to two films a year.

Bob Woolsey was never a healthy person, and the tough filmmaking schedules (and later, personal appearance tours) doubtless wore him out. On top of that, he was an insomniac, and drank to put himself to sleep. Although Bob's death at age 50 was announced as due to kidney failure, Bert Wheeler attested that Woolsey died from cirrhosis of the liver.

Plan9Crunch: The pair seem mismatched but they click very well. Bert's lovesick charm with Robert's wisecracks and schemes. Why does it work and does it compare with other comedy teams? What can we learn about comedy from watching them today? They play often on Turner Classic Movies.

Watz: I think the takeaway one can get from watching Wheeler & Woolsey in their best films is that the world of 1930s comedy was much more diverse than just Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, and The Marx Brothers. Besides W&W, there are many great comedians like Harry Langdon, Charley Chase, Joe E. Brown, Edgar Kennedy, and Leon Errol, to name a few, waiting to be rediscovered. Harry Langdon's work in talkies is a revelation; I know of some people who prefer his sound films to his more celebrated silents. In Wheeler & Woolsey's case, they provide us with a time capsule representing some of the best (and most delightful) of 1930s Musical Comedy. I'm pleased that Turner Classic Movies continues to show their films, and the success of my W&W book (over 3,000 copies sold) tells me that people do want to know and see more of Wheeler and Woolsey.

Plan9Crunch: Bert had a rough career after Woolsey's death and the end of the films. He did stay active, including in summer stock. Was he typecast from the earlier films, or was he a comedian who needed a partner?

Watz: There's one thing I'd like to address now. To be honest, Bert was disenchanted with film work towards the end of the Wheeler & Woolsey cycle. He preferred the live stage and returned to it as often as he could, the late films he did appear in where basically done when it was convenient and/or for quick cash. Like Abbott & Costello, Keaton, Langdon, John Barrymore, Chico Marx and other performers of that time, he had little regard for money and enjoyed spending it as quickly as it came in. What Wheeler did not take into account was that his absence from a mass media outlet like film, radio and later television basically ensured that he was overlooked by the public at large. When the film careers of other popular 1930s comedians stalled (Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Burns & Allen), they had already made inroads into radio and easily adapted to television, ensuring their popularity into the 1950s and beyond.

That said, it doesn't seem to have fazed Bert when in the latter half of the 1950s the major stage opportunities were few and the television work became an ever-rarer opportunity. "I make as much as I need," he replied when Jack O'Brian inquired about his well-being in the 1960s. I truly believe that he looked back on his career content and with great satisfaction, not bitterness.


We really appreciate Ed sharing his insights on Wheeler and Woolsey with Plan9Crunch and its readers and we look forward to his new book on Buster Keaton.

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