Sunday, January 4, 2009

Wheeler & Woolsey - A great comedy team


Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey was the first comedy team more or less made for the talkies. They met on Broadway, in the 1927 Ziegfeld production of Rio Rita. After 494 performances the successful stage show was to be filmed by Radio Pictures (RKO), a studio formed in 1929, the same year as the movie was released.
Rio Rita was RKO’s third picture but their first major production, a production so grandiose their whole existence was at stake. Rio Rita consisted of fifteen massive reels of talkie extravaganza, the last five reels in glorious Technicolor. Luckily the film version became an even bigger hit than the Broadway show. Had Rio Rita been a flop there simply wouldn’t have been any RKO in the thirties, it was that important. Wheeler and Woolsey were the only players from the Broadway show that made it to the screen. One could say that the movie version of Rio Rita was conceived around their characters since quite a lot had been changed and adapted for the screen, their part was more or less left intact.

The Swedish poster to Rio Rita

Wheeler and Woolsey had somewhat similar upbringings. Both came out of profound poverty, were technically orphaned and forced to work very early. Both had also a history in vaudeville dating back to around 1915. Bert Wheeler was born in New Jersey 1895 and had done Chaplinesque numbers together with his wife in the eastern parts of the US. Robert Woolsey was born in California in 1889, started out as a promising jockey but this career ended when a horse fell and young Woolsey broke his leg. Eventually both Wheeler and Woolsey ended up on Broadway, Ziegfeld and Rio Rita.
Rio Rita was a huge success and Wheeler and Woolsey became big stars almost instantly. If the stage version made them famous, it was the movie version that made them real stars. They came to do 21 films for RKO between 1929 and 1937. In most of them they were supported by their perennial leading lady and co-star, the beautiful, petite and ever perky Dorothy Lee, who appeared in 13 of their features, almost making her a part of the team. The athletic Dorothy Lee was born in California in 1911 as Marjorie Millsap and started out as a successful LaCrosse player before singing with Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians. Dorothy Lee was one of the first actresses contracted by RKO and starred together with Morton Downey in the first RKO movie Syncopation (1929).

Dorothy Lee and Robert Woolsey in Half Shot At Sunrise (1930)

Wheeler and Woolsey were among the few comedy teams that did not combine the straight man with a funny man. Like Laurel and Hardy, Wheeler and Woolsey developed individual comic characters that provided an excellent contrast and were likable as well as amusing.  Wheeler played the traditional romantic lover, a sweet, naïve, almost childlike character, constantly eating either bananas, oranges, apples or other edibles dreaming of his Dolly. Woolsey on the other hand, the mastermind of the team, always with a cigar, horn-rimmed glasses and a penchant for loud clothes. Wheeler's feminine counterpart, often and best played by Dorothy Lee, combines the innocence of the ingenue with the roguishness of the flapper, creating a perfect match for Bert's personality.  Woolsey's feminine partners are often worldly-wise and boldly flirtatious, complementing his characterization. Today Robert Woolsey is often mistaken for George Burns who later used some of Woolsey’s trademarks including the cigar and glasses, and even some of the loud vests.

Here's a risqué little clip from Hips Hips Hooray (1934) where Wheeler and Woolsey tries out a new kind of lipstick, one with a flavor.



Wheeler and Woolsey are often compared to other comedy teams of the thirties, particularly Laurel and Hardy and The Marx Brothers, comparisons that are easy to make but essentially the three teams are very different. The general idea of The Marx Brothers is anarchy and their assaults upon a completely and hopelessly sane and rational society. The comedy of Laurel and Hardy is based on their failure, due to their incompetence, to adjust to a regulated world which they aspire to join.
But with Wheeler and Woolsey, the basis of their world of comedy lays in the belief that the whole world is a crazy place where anything can happen and where every institution is essentially insane. The result is that the comic view of their films emphasizes the absurdities of the institutions with which we live and take for granted as normal. Lawyers, divorce suits, the prison system, the military, big business, all are targets for satire in the Wheeler and Woolsey comedies. The music, song and dance always play a greater part in the Wheeler and Woolsey movies as well.

The team dissolved in 1938 with the premature death of Robert Woolsey. Neither Bert Wheeler nor Dorothy Lee had much success after Woolsey's passing. Bert Wheeler did appear on television now and then throughout the 50's and finally left us in 1968. Dorothy Lee retired from show business in the early 40's but stayed with us until 1999.

Let's enjoy some selected clips.

One of the most moving scenes in Rio Rita (1929) is this little number written for the movie version. Sweetheart We Need Each Other, written by Harry Tierney and Joseph McCarthy, performed by Bert Wheeler and Dorothy Lee.



Weeler and Woolsey figthing over Dorothy Lee in Dixiana (1930). We also get a wonderful romantic duet, My One Ambition Is You written by Harry Tierney and Anne Caldwell.



Also from Dixiana (1930), Here's Robert Woolsey on his own trying to impress the ladies, eventually ending up in song and dance, but also a glimpse of Bert Wheeler in drag. A Lady Loved A Soldier written by Harry Tierney and Anne Caldwell.



This totally insane number is taken from Hips Hips Hooray (1934). Keep On Doing What You're Doing, written by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar performed by Bert Wheeler, Dorothy Lee, Robert Woolsey and Thelma Todd. This song was actually intended for inclusion in the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup (1933) but ended up here instead. Swell!



2009 marks the 80th anniversary of the screen debut of Wheeler and Woolsey. Let's hope this means we will get loads of their movies on DVD this year.

Robert Woolsey's great grandson Robert Woolsey is continuing the family tradition and has a comedy site: Bob And Andrew.com

9 comments:

C.K. Dexter Haven said...

Excellent piece, Jonas! Nice rundown of W&W's career. I was watching 1933's "Morning Glory" and one of the characters pejoratively referred to the Adolphe Menjou and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. characters as "Wheeler & Wolsey."


"...the basis of their world of comedy lays in the belief that the whole world is a crazy place where anything can happen and where every institution is essentially insane. The result is that the comic view of their films emphasizes the absurdities of the institutions with which we live and take for granted as normal..."

This is my favorite kind of humor! There's nothing with any kind of commentary in today's "comedies." Stand-up comedy, yes, but in movies? Forget it. It needs to make a comeback, but won't.

KING OF JAZZ said...

Whoah-oh!!!!

Well, okay, this is definitely the place. I'd add the clip of Wheeler and wonderful Marjorie White performing "Sing to Me" from DIPLOMANIACS. It was this film that introduced me to W&W in the mid-'80s. Thanks to cable, laser discs and some collectors, I caught up with practically all their movies. I'm so glad W&W are regarded highly here, since they still haven't gotten enough recognition and credit (I can also say the same as Marjorie White!).

Isn't the internet wonderful? :D

Raquelle said...

Hey Jonas,

Just keep on doing what you're doing, because I love your posts!!

What you say about the Marx Bros. and Laurel & Hardy's comedy styles are so true. I'm interested in watching some Wheeler & Woolsey. Hips Hips Hooray sounds interesting. If anything for that great title.

Do you think that Wheeler & Woolsey aren't that well known these days because their looks weren't as distinctive as Marx Bros. or L&H?

hej hej!

KING OF JAZZ said...

I'm wondering too, except that W& W's films were apparently tougher to find for many years--I never saw any of 'em until I was in my 30s, long after the other comedy teams were shown endlessly on TV. Yet among true believers I've witnessed audiences at special screenings get quite a kick out of them, such as in RIO RITA. There's an excellent book on them published around ten years ago by Edward Watz.

Jonas Nordin said...

Dex and King,
Whoah-oh!!!! Yes! Isn't it time for a revival of W&W?

Raquelle,
Thank you! I think the main reason W&W are half forgotten today is that their movies weren't packaged and sold to TV in the 50's. And why was that? They were naturally considered far too risqué for the 50's TV audience. Sad but I think that explains it.

KING OF JAZZ said...

I wish I had in my possession the uncut version of SO THIS IS AFRICA, but I'm still looking. ;D

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great article! I love their movies. Anyone who also likes Wheeler & Woolsey should check out this site: http://www.wideopenwest.com/~stoogeman/default.htm

Ginger Ingenue said...

"The general idea of The Marx Brothers is anarchy and their assaults upon a completely and hopelessly sane and rational society. The comedy of Laurel and Hardy is based on their failure, due to their incompetence, to adjust to a regulated world which they aspire to join.
But with Wheeler and Woolsey, the basis of their world of comedy lays in the belief that the whole world is a crazy place where anything can happen and where every institution is essentially insane."

Ha. From this definition, I think Laurel and Hardy would probably be my best bet, but I'm really looking forward to trying out this Wheeler and Woolsey of yours! :)

Just as soon as I watch DUCK SOUP... ;)

cowboy boot said...

even though its look old I enjoy watching it,and make me some big smile :)

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