Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Rise and Fall of Wheeler and Woolsey

You can actually chart the rise and fall of Wheeler and Woolsey, RKO's one-time golden boys, by looking at the evolution of their posters and newspaper ads. If RKO's publicity materials are any indication, even if Bob Woolsey not died in 1937, the team would have likely found themselves on the way out anyway. The RKO art department's lack of enthusiasm for the team post-1936 is palpable. Click on the thumbnails for the full-sized images.

Rio Rita (1929): Instead of Wheeler and Woolsey, we get Wheeler and 500 Others, a daring if rather unwieldy size for a comedy team. Bob Woolsey, however, stood out from the crowd and comedy history was made. Contrary to the poster, there is neither a "Mammoth Girl" nor mammoths in general in Rio Rita.. not even in Glorious Technicolor. Mammoth fans were sorely disappointed. The attractive deco poster lets you know that this is Ziegfeld, Daniels, and Boles' show all the way. Audiences felt differently. RKO listened and, aside from Dixiana (1930), W&W would forever more be headliners.

Cracked Nuts (1931): Wheeler and Woolsey having just established themselves as Radio Pictures' hottest properties, the studio decided to split them apart in order to get more bang for their buck. Cracked Nuts was an experiment in that direction by keeping the team apart until the movie was halfway over (blah). The Cuckoos (1930), based on Clark and McCullough's Broadway smash The Ramblers, was W&W's first solo hit and they were referred to as "the cuckoos" in Radio's press materials for years afterwards. A standard newspaper ad from the days when audiences would sit still for shorts about golfing.

Too Many Cooks (1931): Bert Wheeler's first solo feature. This unimaginative poster uses garish color to cover for the fact that nothing actually happens in the movie. NOTHING! For over an hour, Wheeler and Lee wander around a building site. No songs. No dancing. A comedy so dull and unfunny that ROSCOE ATES is brought in as comic relief. Woolsey's solo feature, Everything's Rosie (1931), is a comic masterpiece by comparison and the art for the herald (which I can't find at the moment) is very imaginative, with the double Os in Woolsey's name doubling as his glasses. Ironically, despite the mind-numbing lameness of Too Many Cooks, Radio Pictures was all set to feature Wheeler on his own again while poor Woolsey was apparently going to be dumped. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and W&W were reunited.

Caught Plastered (1931): Wheeler and Woolsey back together again. One of the two W&W pictures I haven't seen, but what a poster!! Beautiful layout, and even a little creepy.. in a good way, I mean.

Hold 'Em Jail (1932): The other W&W picture I haven't seen. Another beautiful poster, painted in that 30s pulp magazine style I love so much.

So This Is Africa! (1933): W&W were lured away from RKO to Columbia by studio president Harry Cohn who offered the team a percentage of profits rather than an up-front salary. Their only feature away from Radio was remarkably ribald (for the time) and loaded with sexual innuendoes. The Hays Office cut it to ribbons, but it's still extremely funny. The scene in which Woolsey attempts to call the Otis Elevator Company to lodge a complaint from inside a plummeting elevator is one of their best. This newspaper ad has been very clumsily trimmed, but the extremely nice halftone art indicates that Columbia was willing to give the team the best possible treatment, short of actually paying them. W&W never saw a penny for their work at Columbia.

Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934): It's a toss-up as to whether Hips Hips Hooray! (1934) or Cockeyed Cavaliers is Wheeler and Woolsey's best film. My vote goes to the former, but both are excellent. I haven't yet seen a poster for Cockeyed Cavaliers, but I assume it uses a variation on the art used on the film's sheet music and in the lower right-hand corner of this two-color movie herald. Very creative use of the dual Ws

Kentucky Kernels (1934): At the mercy of their writers, W&W start to lose their edge in this film. A full 180 from their adult fare, Kentucky Kernels is mushy kid stuff and even co-stars Spanky McFarland, on loan from Hal Roach. The whole boring mess is saved by some excellent Kalmar and Ruby songs. Audiences in 1934 made it the highest grossing W&W feature ever and the studio certainly didn't skimp on the poster art. Of what I've seen, this is my favorite W&W poster.. Vibrant and well-chosen colors, a touch of caricature to the portraits of Bert and Bob, excellent layout and typography, and that oh-so cool red outline.

The Nitwits (1935): One of my favorite Wheeler and Woolsey pictures, despite the absence of Dorothy Lee, the half-assed mystery plot and the lame climax with Willie Best. Bert and Bob turn in some of their best ever performances in some inspired gag sequences. Again, the songs are very good. This lobby card likely reproduces some of the poster art. The portrayal of Bert, Bob, and Betty Grable is a touch too dramatic for this extremely undramatic mystery-comedy. In fact, the only thing that would really tip you off to the fact that The Nitwits is a comedy is the (inappropriate) title. Nice use of a star as a graphic divider between W&W's names, though.

Mummy's Boys (1936): Everyone but Nick and myself seems to hate Mummy's Boys. It's far from their best, but it's not the team's worst. That honor, IMO, must go to Silly Billies (1935) or High Flyers (1937), with The Rainmakers (1936) coming in a close third. The story sucks and so do a lot of the gags, but, in regards to cinematography and sets, it's easily one of the best looking W&W movies. Mummy's Boys' title card, picturing Bert and Bob as mummies flanking the title, is the probably the best for any W&W picture. The poster is nice but more than a little perfunctory and, as such, is an indication that someone is losing interest in the team.

On Again-Off Again (1937): The second to last Wheeler and Woolsey picture and the poster art is now completely perfunctory (and so is the film itself, despite a few nice moments). The poster gives absolutely no real indication as to what the film is about and the layout is just plain sloppy. A cheap no-brainer on the part of the RKO's art department.

High Flyers (1937): Wheeler and Woolsey are in it. What the hell else do you need to know? I haven't seen a poster for High Flyers, W&W's last, and most depressing, movie. The caricatures in this tiny newspaper ad are rather good, but look like stock graphics. Given the downward trend in the poster art for W&W films, I'm banking on High Flyer's poster resembling the one for On Again-Off Again.

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Blogger East Side said...

Great piece, and a fascinating way to chart their rise & fall. I love Wheeler & Woolsey. "Diplomaniacs" really gives "Duck Soup" a run for its money, and is my favorite of their movies. It oughta be considered a classic by now. No justice.

I found "Hold 'em Jail" to be a disappointment, especially being written by SJ Pereleman the same year he scripted "Horse Feathers." Woolsey and Edna Mae Oliver are identical to Groucho and Margaret Dumont. Both movies climax with a football game, too.

"Caught Plastered" was the first time I saw them; hilarious movie, great music. Those guys are just nuts. Love 'em.

By the way, that carictature of Wheeler in the "Mummy's Boys" poster doesn't even look like him.

Your blog is one the best around, without doubt.

7:56 AM  
Anonymous Greg Glienna said...

Woolsey was quite sick during the shooting of High Flyers and they all knew it was his last film. Maybe RKO didn't think it was worth putting too much into promotion as there would be no more W&W films.

7:21 PM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

>Woolsey and Edna Mae Oliver are >identical to Groucho and Margaret >Dumont.

Of course, the same is even more true for Woolsey and Jobyna Howland. And then there's Thelma Todd. Woolsey was certainly being handled as a cut-rate Groucho, and, further, I think it likely that W&W were being used as a clearinghouse for unused/rejected Marx gags by those writers doing double duty for both teams. We know it happened in the case of "Just Keep On Doin' What You're Doin'" which Kalmar and Ruby had written for Zeppo in Duck Soup.

>Your blog is one the best around, >without doubt.

Thank you very much. Would you be willing to sign an affidavit to that effect?

6:38 PM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

>Maybe RKO didn't think it was worth >putting too much into promotion as there >would be no more W&W films.

Maybe, but I think the downward trend was well underway by the time Woolsey fell ill. Last film or no, W&W had already found themselves in the same position as the Ritz Bros. at Fox; one-time superstars knocked down to sub-B pictures. RKO had much hotter properties than W&W by 1937.

6:47 PM  
Anonymous Craig Gustafson said...


I contributed a couple of things to your Clark & McCullough site and hope it's not out of line to plug this to Chicago area readers.

I'm directing a production of "Waiting for Godot" that is HEAVILY Laurel and Hardy influenced. We're supposed to run through April 23, but we're discussing extending the run.

Info here: www.bozolisand.com/godotquotes.html


11:33 AM  

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