Monday, November 20, 2017

Bert Wheeler in the short Innocently Guilty

It's time for another installment in our occasional series of those old-time Columbia comedy shorts that are not well known (think all of them save the Three Stooges.) Today we recall "Innocently Guilty," a 1951 two-reeler that starred Bert Wheeler. Above is a still from the climax of the short. Yes, Bert was hiding in a baby carriage.

Some information about Bert Wheeler. He was a big name in the 1920s on the vaudeville stage and achieved even more fame on the big screen as the boyish half of Wheeler and Woolsey. They made a slew of wonderful comedy films for several years that made a lot of money. After Robert Woolsey died Wheeler's screen career faded and although a working actor, he was struggling to earn a living by 1950, working in summer stock, etc.

As Ed Watz and Ted Okuda note in their book, "The Columbia Comedy Shorts," the head man at Columbia's comedy shorts, Jules White liked to sign former comedy names to two-picture deals, with an option for more if the shorts caught the public's fancy. White, who directed "Innocently Guilty," is quoted in the book as saying, "I gave him (Wheeler) a job at a time nobody else wanted him." Wheeler only made two shorts for Columbia. The second, in 1951, is called "The Awful Sleuth." (I have not seen that one.) "Innocently Guilty" is mediocre, although Wheeler acts well in it. The fault lies in a mediocre script and director White, who often equated humiliation and violence with humor. Only the Three Stooges were consistently able to take such direction and turn it into quality humor.

The short, which Okuda and Watz note had already been filmed twice with Andy Clyde as "It Always Happens" (1935) and "His Tale is Told," (1944) is remade with Wheeler as Hodkinson G. Pogglebrewer, tractor salesman, leaving his happy home to pitch tractors in the big city to Mr. Bass (the perennial Vernon Dent). Old Hodkinson has an appealing wife, Helen, played by another Columbia perennial supporting player, Christine McIntyre. Unfortunately, the script calls for Hodkinson to have a pathologically suspicious sister-in-law, Marge (Margie Listz), used by White for slapstick physical humor.

Once in the big city Hodkinson helps a sexy woman, Fifi (Nanette Bordeaux)  in the hotel, in her room, with an innocent task. Unfortunately, his crazy sister in law has dragged his wife to spy on him. Catching hubby looking compromised with another woman, she plans to divorce him but quickly changes her mind. All seems OK except that the next day, Hodkinson, to get a sale, pretends to be a ladies man to Bass. He even lies about what happened with Fifi. Bass admits to Hodkinson that he's so jealous of perceived male attention to his wife he'd commit violence if confronted with it.

You guessed it folks, Fifi is Mr.  Bass' wife. And with the imagination of Jules White, Fifi, sans outer clothing, Mr. Bass, and Hodkinson all end up in a car together. Fifi gets back to her room undetected, followed for some reason by Hodkinson, and then followed by pathological Margie and Helen, and finally by Bass, now prepared to kill Hodkinson.

None of this is terribly funny. The short ends inconclusively, with Bass shooting at the fleeing, dressed-as-a-baby Hodkinson. White was known for ending shorts with the stars running away, the conflict unresolved.

So why did I still enjoy the short? It's a part of history, a starring big-screen role for Wheeler late in his career. And Bert Wheeler is indeed good in the short. Even a decade-plus after the glory days, he retains the boyish, aw-shucks, optimistic charm that he had with RKO in the 1930s. He's likable. He's just shoved into an awful script and a poor choice for a director.

It's' also fun to see veterans McIntrye and Dent in any Columbia short, although this is far from their best work. Dent, in particular, is far too passive in his opening scene to be accepted later as a husband jealous enough to kill. Both Dent and Liszt take their knocks more than once as foils for physical humor. Early in the film water from a store awning knocks Liszt for a loop, and of course actors take tumbles in the bathroom scene. It's also nice to see silent star Heinie Conklin in a small supporting role as the janitor.

I was able to see this film thanks to Greg Hilbrich, who runs The Columbia Shorts Department website, which is just full of information all things Columbia comedy shorts. The short is posted on Hilbrich's Facebook wall. It's come to my attention he soon plans to post it on The Shorts Department YouTube page and once that occurs, I will embed the short here.

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