Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are proud to present this article FORGOTTEN FUNNYMEN: WHEELER AND WOOLSEY by Geno R. Cuddy
Forgotten Funnymen: Wheeler and Woolsey
by Geno R. Cuddy
When people think of the top comedy teams of the 1930s, they tend to think of the usual suspects like Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers; however, one of the most popular teams of that era gets little in the way of recognition from fans today.
Bert Wheeler (1895-1968) and Robert Woolsey (1888-1938) were the most recognized comedy team in the pre-code era, spawning myriad films and countless imitators.
Before I discuss the immense careers of Wheeler & Woolsey, I must give a personal history. Back in my childhood days, I used to frequent a local library’s book sale. I would go, primarily looking for a Disney movie on VHS or a cheap DVD of a Hollywood classic; I had discovered the Marx Brothers about four years earlier and already had taken a liking to classic films. While browsing the shelves, I found a very nice coffee table book titled The RKO Story. I squealed with delight and could not wait to rush home and read it. While flipping through the pages, I discovered a comedy team of whom I was unfamiliar: Wheeler & Woolsey. They’d caught my eye, but sadly, at that time, their films were not widely available on DVD…yet.
When I got to high school, I figured that it would be a great time to finally see a Wheeler & Woolsey film. I was on a rewards system, and if I did very well, I would be able to purchase a DVD of my choosing. I still remember the DVDs that I ordered: they were Hook, Line and Sinker from Digiview (horrible print), Half Shot at Sunrise on a very good Alpha DVD, and Caught Plastered which came from the now-defunct Nostalgia Family Video. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed all three films immensely. Now on to the history of these boys.
In 1927, prolific Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld produced Rio Rita, one of the most lavish and expensive Broadway productions of its time. In the cast of this epic were Bebe Daniels, a popular silent film actress, John Boles, a well-known stage actor, and Wheeler & Woolsey; Wheeler as the curly-haired baby face and Woolsey, the cigar-chomping idea man.
The musical was such a smash hit that, the newly-formed RKO Radio Pictures produced a film version. The movie adaptation was just as lavish as the stage version and all of the main players returned to their original stage roles. Outshining the leads were the antics of Wheeler & Woolsey and many critics thought they were the highlight of the film. As an interesting side note, Rio Rita was one of the earliest sound films to have a sequence shot in Technicolor.
Wheeler & Woolsey were such a success, that RKO offered them a contract. Their first outing was The Cuckoos, an adaptation of the Broadway show The Ramblers which starred another forgotten comedy team, Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough (more on them in another article). The film was a smash and solidified Wheeler & Woolsey as screen favorites.
Over the course of the next three years, Wheeler & Woolsey made an astounding ten pictures for RKO, including Hook, Line and Sinker, Cracked Nuts (which features an early performance by Boris Karloff), an adaptation of the George and Ira Gershwin musical Girl Crazy, and two solo features, Too Many Cooks with Wheeler and Everything’s Rosie with Woolsey. Interestingly, Rosie is an adaptation of the W.C. Fields vehicle Poppy, of which Woolsey had a supporting role in the stage version.
In 1933, due to disputes in contract and with production head, David O. Selznik, the boys went over to Columbia to shoot So This is Africa, a parody of 1930s jungle pictures. This was to be the only film the boys produced for Columbia, and the only film they made outside of RKO.
Wheeler & Woolsey soon returned to RKO where they starred in two fantastic comedies: one of them, among the best political satires of all time, and the other, one of the sexiest comedies ever made. The first, Diplomaniacs concerns two barbers on an Indian reservation who are called upon to go to the Geneva Peace Conference and stop an impending war. Today the film is regarded as a classic and deserves to be on the same shelf as other satirical films like Duck Soup and Million Dollar Legs. In the second, Hips, Hips, Hooray!, the boys are flavored-lipstick salesmen who are down on their luck. Good fortune soon beckons in the form of Dorothy “Dottie” Lee, one of Wheeler & Woolsey’s most frequent co-stars, and Thelma Todd, a ravishing beauty who also had a great sense of humor and whose life ended tragically due to carbon monoxide poisoning, a mystery that still plagues Hollywood today. One of the most inventive comedy sequences ever filmed was the taste-testing scene where Wheeler & Woolsey try to guess the flavor of lipstick by kissing a scantily-clad store model.
While the boys were a hit with audiences, their raunchy humor and their risqué antics spelled trouble for the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, who felt pressure from several religious organizations to put a stop to what they saw as scandalous imagery projected on movie screens. The Motion Picture Production Code put an end to films featuring risqué content, including but not limited to, sexual acts or talk insinuating sex, scantily clad persons (especially women), and extreme displays of violence.
Many fans considered the code to have been a death knell for the team. After 1934, Wheeler & Woolsey’s films continued to get worse and worse, and they started to lose money for RKO. The one highlight of this era was 1934’s Kentucky Kernels, which featured such stars as Margaret Dumont, a Marx Brothers favorite, and little “Spanky” McFarland, from Hal Roach’s famous Our Gang shorts.
In 1936, Woolsey, a longtime cigar smoker, developed a kidney ailment which ultimately contributed to the downfall of the team. Bob struggled to finish 1937’s On Again-Off Again and High Flyers. After production wrapped on Flyers, Woolsey was confined to bed for a year, and went on to develop a bad drinking habit. Robert Woolsey died on October 31, 1938 at just 49 years of age.
After the death of Woolsey, Wheeler struggled to make a name for himself as a solo performer, regularly teaming up with friend and co-star Dottie Lee. He continued to make minor film and television appearances, but never again achieved the level of success of his earlier screen career. His last major role was as “Smokey Joe” on the popular western television series Brave Eagle. Bert Wheeler died penniless on January 18, 1968 of emphysema.
Since Wheeler & Woolsey’s popular films were deemed tasteless in the 1950s and likely also because they rarely made any two-reel shorts, their pictures were forgotten and remained so for nearly four decades. With the rise of home video in the 1980s, Wheeler & Woolsey’s films again were made available to enjoy on VHS, Betamax, and LaserDisc formats. Then in 2013, Warner Archive, the made-on-demand DVD arm of Warner Bros., released 15 of the team’s features so now future generations can enjoy the antics of one of the greatest comedy teams of all time!
Geno R. Cuddy is an authority on all things relating to Murnau’sNosferatu, a silent film buff, a graphic designer, and writer. He also is an authority on many eclectic aspects of the entertainment industry including comedians. He is the host of the cable show “Geno in the Evening.” Geno has collaborated on many projects with notables in the film and entertainment industry.