Ziegfeld Boys

caught plastered edited

It’s hard to believe that a comedy team with 21 features to their credit could be so completely forgotten, but such is the cast with Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. In the early 30s, they were probably RKO’s biggest stars after King Kong — a couple of song and dance men whose partnership was formed, not through years on the vaudeville circuit as one might assume, but when Florenz Ziegfeld cast them together in the hit Broadway musical “Rio Rita.”

At first, they appeared in nonsense comedies in the Marx Brothers/Smith and Dale tradition, a couple of which — “Half Shot at Sunrise” and “Hook Line and Sinker” (both 1930) have been rescued from public domain hell and made available for the first time in watchable copies in a new box set, pithily titled “Wheeler & Woolsey: RKO Comedy Classics Collecton,” from Warner Archive.

The great comedy director William A. Seiter found a naturalistic context for their characters with the 1931 “Caught Plastered,” which is part of this set and its undoubted highlight; he continued with the team through two equally entertaining films, “Peach-O-Reno” (1931) and “Diplomaniacs” (1933), which Warners has already released in stand-alone editions.

The six other films in the new collection are “Cracked Nuts” (Edward F. Cline, 1931), “Hold ‘Em Jail” (Norman Taurog, 1932), “Hips, Hips, Hooray!” (Mark Sandrich, 1934), “The Nitwits” (George Stevens, 1935), “Mummy’s Boys” (Fred Guiol, 1936) and “High Flyers” (Cline, 1937). The quality of the work falls off toward the end, a consequence of dwindling budgets and Woolsey’s poor health (he died of kidney failure in 1938), but the good stuff is good indeed. A review here, in the New York Times.

70 comments to Ziegfeld Boys

  • Gregg Rickman

    According to the Ed Watz bio (from which all of my W&W bio dish devolves), in LAS VEGAS NIGHTS Bert Wheeler sings “Dolores” with the Dorsey Orchestra while “band vocalist Frank Sinatra sat on the sidelines.” (292) I don’t know if Frankie actually gets to croon in the pic, but a rivalry between the upstart and the falling star is classic inside showbiz saga material, and your wife is welcome to it, David.

    Here’s an idea. “In 1954 Bert was hired to play the Indian sidekick Smokey Joe on the television series BRAVE EAGLE.” (293) Now, picture this. Instead of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, Frankie and Bert competed to play Smokey Joe! Sinatra got the Zinnemann picture as compensation. Well, a good novelist can use anything.

  • David Cohen

    It’s not quite that kind of story, but the book does involve a small scene at a movie theater in Hoboken.

  • Barry Putterman

    David, it has been a LONG time since I saw the film. It isn’t very good and Sinatra does not do very much in it. He’s the band singer and that’s what he does in the film. But as a massive Dorsey fan and with a healthy interest in Wheeler, I had to see it.

    But look, if seeing this film is important for your wife’s project, I would suggest that you go on to ioffer.com and search the title. I’m almost certain that you can find a reasonably priced copy of it. Ordinarily I wouldn’t endorse such a marginally disreputable endeavor (publicly), but in the cause of art….

  • Alex Hicks

    Who needs Wheeler when you have Chaplin?

    And who needs HOLD ‘EM JAIL when you have A MAN ESCAPED ?

  • Gregg Rickman

    To most tastes, of course, including mine, Chaplin > Wheeler and A MAN ESCAPED > HOLD ‘EM JAIL. Nonetheless all cinema can and should be discussed in this spot, and there was no need to hurry on to another topic. (I’m sure by now however there is a lot of pent-up demand to comment on Dave’s fine column on late Bunuel!) This is a site as much for Lew Landers and George Sherman as it is for Howard Hawks and John Ford, for popular French comedies of the 1960 as much as for Bresson, and of course for W&W as much as Chaplin.

    Had an interesting email conversation last weekend over the merits of the team. I told my friend that W&W fall midway in talent and accomplishment between the Marx Brothers, who I rever, and Abbot & Costello, who have always left me cold. My friend had the opposite feeling about the two groups — liked A&C, disliked the Marxes. It can certainly be suggested, comparing DIPLOMANIACS say with DUCK SOUP, that our boys are about ten per cent as talented as the celebrated freres. But they might in fact be preferred by some to the Marxes, I speculate, as they don’t arrogantly sweep all before them as godlike sprites and spirits, but rather take on the world on their own terms, as a goofball and a huckster, human all too human, nothing more or less.

  • Barry Putterman

    Gregg, I have a slight suspicion as to who you were e-mailing over the weekend given the preferences you mention. I could hazard to suggest that the content of the exchange you had might have been of interest to the rest of us on the site.

    In one respect, both the Marxes and Abbott & Costello have a great advantage over Wheeler and Woolsey in that they are teams which worked together for years on stage before coming to films and that is most evident in the interaction between the team members. It is possible to be indifferent to much of what goes on in Abbott & Costello movies, but whenever they go into one of their stage routines it almost literally becomes music. The pacing of the dialogue interaction and the timing of the gestures is exquisite. I really don’t think I have ever seen another comedy team that can compare with them in that regard.

    On the other hand, as you say, Wheeler and Woolsey accept the world as it presents itself to them without trying to pass judgment on it and engage it as the people who they are without finding it either above them or beneath them. Which is something we might all try to cultivate here regardless of whether we are discussing A MAN ESCAPED or HOLD ‘EM JAIL.

  • Blake Lucas

    I am fine to acknowledge I am the friend referred to in Gregg’s of 2:18, which was mainly to solicit his views on which W & W movies to see since I didn’t take to them in RIO RITA and so have never made the effort but am feeling now like I should.

    My aversion to the Marxes is on record here a long time ago and of course I was duly stoned by a fair number of the group at the time. For the record I think DUCK SOUP is pretty good with McCarey directing–though far from the McCareys I love–and HORSE FEATHERS is also a good comedy but I don’t think I’d go back to any of the others again, and Gregg’s last sentence suggests something of the reason. On the other hand, I someday look forward to the opportunity for an all-out defense of BUCK PRIVATES, a movie supremely important to the zeitgeist and a wonderful alchemy of elements too-comedy/music/programmer (and I also agree any cinema should be discussed here, and happily is). I don’t think A&C always lived up to this afterward, and I think they do are affected by directors–Lubin, Barton and Lamont for example all being different in what they do with the team–but I liked them enough to get through almost all of their movies by now, will catch the few others I haven’t seen eventually, and have enjoyed going back to the ones I liked.

    This discussion was also about comedy teams as Gregg knows I also like Martin and Lewis, especially four of their movies, the two Tashlins, and LIVING IT UP (much warmer, funnier and richer comedy than NOTHING SACRED on which it’s based) and THE STOOGE, which Lewis himself likes and and has a resonance of their off screen history, both of these directed by Norman Taurog, though it seems Lewis himself always had some voice–that said, I’m glad they broke up for the sake of both of them, especially Lewis, though naturally we’d all agree on a couple of movies in which Martin really showed what he was made of as an actor.

    The strongest point of agreement with Gregg, and I know I won’t be stoned for this: The best and funniest comedy team in the history of the planet was surely Laurel and Hardy. And the question never answered from a thread or two back about whether Andrew Sarris likes slapstick (of course he likes Chaplin and Keaton, and Blake Edwards too) might start with his jaw-dropping reference to L&H on page 246 (speaking of Marxes and A&C).

  • Gregg Rickman

    Thanks, Blake. In case anyone is wondering, you can get the best of the team simply by watching the Sandriches and the Seiters. PEACH O’RENO isn’t the best film they did, but may be the best introductory film. I’d then add the precode Clines, the Taurog, and the second Stevens (THE NITWITS). RIO RITA is of great historical interest, and the boys are funny in it, but DIXIANA is pretty bad on every level (I have a DVD of it, btw, that’s so badly cropped that we lose every image of Bill Robinson’s immortal feet as he dances up a staircase). HALF SHOT AT SUNRISE (Sloane/comedy direction by Arbuckle) is well worth seeing too. The last several post-codes are pretty dire, a scene here or there aside. (I’ve never seen Cline’s 1937 ON AGAIN — OFF AGAIN, which Watz says is a cut above the rest. Woolsey was very ill, as Dave mentions, on it and on the team’s last film, HIGH FLYERS.)

    If Abbott & Costello had had George Stevens as one of their lesser directors, sure, I’d like them better, and it’s on my list of things to do to watch the early ones in sequence some time. Certainly “Who’s on First” is a great routine. My major problem with them is that Abbott doesn’t seem to like his partner and is not at all interesting in and of himself.

    I agree with Blake about Laurel & Hardy!

  • Gregg Rickman

    Hey Mike Schlesinger –

    How bout a disc of the one W&W Columbia, SO THIS IS AFRICA, backed with the two shorts Bert Wheeler did in 1951?

    You can throw in that film with that Sinatra fellow as an extra.

    I did see SO THIS IS AFRICA in a circulating Columbia precode series about a decade ago, but the effect was spoiled by the projectionist switching reels half way through.

    Of course the big problem with the film is that it appears to have been edited for censorship in its negative, so certain scenes have Bert delivering a set-up line, followed by a jump cut within the shot that deletes Bob’s topper, followed by another set-up line from Bert as the shot continues. (Watz’s book has a lot of the missing dialogue.) Maybe you can hire some W&W impersonators to act out the missing footage and edit it in. Just a thought.

  • Brian Dauth

    I love Abbott and Costello. True, their films have little visual wit and few brilliantly constructed visual gags, but Barry is right — when A&C go into one of their routines it is music, poetry and magic rolled into one. Growing up, every Sunday morning there was an Abbott and Costello picture on Channel 11 and through the week there was their television show.

    A&C are schemers and connivers trying to survive in an irrational world. How often do people engage in behaviors equivalent to looking for Beagle Street while wearing a Susquehanna hat, when they are asked: “Is that a Susquehanna hat?” (one of the scariest questions in movies). And their honest, innocent answer causes havoc to ensue. Once it subsides, they will put on another Susquehanna hat (humans are persistent animals), and their friend does not stop them, only reminding them of an increasing indebtedness to Derby Dan. Or how about when a person reveals a hitherto unknown (or acknowledged) cache of knowledge, how wonderful it would be just to say “Club house,” and escape further scrutiny.

    Abbott and Costello’s routines are precise/refined representations in miniature of human tenacity in an illogical world where counting to ten can cost you a lot of money if you don’t know how to do it right.

  • Joe Dante

    I agree with Brian.
    There’s no more cogent statement on the human condition than the great Bagle Street Routine in “A&C in Society”, reprised (as were virtually all of their movie routines) on the perenially popular A&C tv series, produced and directed by “Society” director Jean Yarbrough, a team favorite.

    Some of their films were visually appealing, primarily the genre parodies (“Hold That Ghost”, “Who Done It”, A&C Meet Frankenstein”, etc.) but the term “pure cinema” is no more applicable here than it is to the films of L&H, Hope & Crosby, the Marx Bros. or W.C. Fields. Would they have thrived in a Preston Sturges movie? Who knows? Based on Lou’s reported on-set behavior, probably not. But they sure would have been great in “The Dumb Waiter”!

    And I disagree about Bud Abbott, generally considered one of the great straight men- I think the onscreen tension (which eventually extended to offscreen) is one of the aspects that makes their pairing still interesting in a modern context.

    But I grew up in New Jersey, always a stronghold of A&C worship.

  • Barry Putterman

    One of the important differences between Abbott & Costello and most of the other comedians we are discussing is that they come out of burlesque rather than vaudeville. Vaudeville catered to a primarily middle class audience but burlesque was mostly attened by working class and immigrant audiences.

    As such, the kinds of situations and mind-sets that Brian so wel describes was the meat and potatoes of burlesque comedy. It was about the struggle for survival in a culture that was somewhat baffling and alien. The straight man was the slick well-dressed con artist who leads the buffoonish immigrant (German, Jewish, Irish, Italian or some other recent arrival) through a maze of unfamiliar language tropes and social customs in an effort to take advantage of him in some form or another. That is why so many of the traditional burlesque routines that Abbott & Costello made their own revolve around words and expressions which have multiple meanings or sound a lot like other words; “Mudder and Fodder,” “Tell Her in the Bank.,” or play off the gap between logic and reality like the 7 x 14=28 bit.

    It is a cruel and irrational world they are inhabiting and therefore the characters are cruel and irrational. But beyond the utter brilliance in their performance of these routines, Abbott & Costello did forge a relationship which became attractive to audiences. Most comedy teams formed some kind of a sibling relationship, but with Abbott & Costello it was more like a stern father (Abbott) with a mischievous son (Costello). And that is why the films and the TV series always had so much appeal for children, who saw their own situations more reflected in them than in most other adult comedians.

  • Daniel F.

    With all due respect to the above… when will Dave’s fabulous piece on TRISTANA magically appear?

  • Brian Dauth

    When I was a child in New Jersey (guess A&C love was fated), it was the A&C routines that my brother and I repeated incessantly (I could call him up right now and say “Club house” and he would crack up). Barry’s insight is great — we felt that we were Costello in relation to the world, but wanted to be Abbott. I wanted to be the straight man (stop laughing) who calmly said that each week Who picked up his money, and why shouldn’t he — he earned it. The greatness of Abbott is that you can never really tell what he feels about Costello — he is always just there — he must care since he sticks around, mustn’t he? — a part of Costello’s universe that must be dealt with (which makes the dice routine so great — it is one of the few times that Costello gets the best of Abbott — and Abbott is none too pleased).

    I did not like L&H when I first saw their movies (there goes what little rep I have), and only came to appreciate them later. But A&C were the best part of Sunday.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Some great insights into the appeal of A&C from everyone, especially Barry’s burlesque vs vaudeville distinction, and Brian’s comment on their cruel world. Of course, Keystone-era Chaplin, Ham & Bud et al inhabit a pretty cruel world too. I didn’t see their films as a kid (or Wheeler & Woolsey’s for that matter) so I’ve responded, or failed to respond, to these stars without that crucial component. The same goes for Martin & Lewis, or Jerry solo for that matter; I was the right age to be dropped off at Lewis matinees, but I never was, so appreciate Lewis only from seeing THE BELLBOY as a 25 year old, or whatever. It does make a difference. As a silent comedy fan the 1910s and 20s are actually more alive to me than the 1940s and 50s. The nostalgia factor only kicks in when we have our occasional discussions of MY FAVORITE MARTIAN and MR. ED. I do get Lou as a big kid; he’s actually very good. And I DID see Laurel & Hardy as a little kid, so that may explain why I like them best.

    “I grew up in New Jersey, always a stronghold of A&C worship.” Anyone remember the SOPRANOS episode with a couple of the tough guys meeting beneath the Lou Costello statue in some Jersey town? Ahh, the 2000s… good times.

  • Barry Putterman

    Gregg, I expect that the Lou Costello statue is in his oft mentioned home town Paterson. Bud Abbott hails from Asbury Park. So, like Brian & Joe, Abbott & Costello are Jersey boys.

    Sennett did indeed establish a kind of film burlesque tradition in the teens with the characters in outlandish costume and makeup in relentless pursuit of the satisfaction of their primal needs. The Ham & Bud films which I have seen can be quite astonishing in that regard and I dearly wish that I could see more of them. Indeed, one wonders just how much of this kind of comedy existed in the teens which no longer exists for us to view.

    Of course, the film audiences changed over time and both Sennett and Lloyd Hamilton adjusted with them. By the time that Abbott & Costello broke into films, you couldn’t possibly have gotten away with the kinds of protagonists that you see in the teens, but the burlesque routines do, in fact, remain consistant with their screen characters. I’d very much like to hear Blake’s assessment of BUCK PRIVATES when he is ready to offer it.

    And throw it in at any time. As I intimated earlier, you can talk about Bunuel in the same philosophical terms that we are using for these comedians. So, while we wait for that thread to offcially open, there is no reason why Daniel or anybody else can’t inject him into the discussion. In the meantime, laugh it up folks, these are the jokes.

  • Brian Dauth

    Costello trying to find Bagle Street or learn the names of the players on the baseball team may be analogous to Bunuel’s diners who never get to have their meal or the guests who cannot find a way out of the room they are in. Desire — while continuously thwarted — remains unabated.

  • Blake Lucas

    Barry is right and so is Brian. Bunuel himself would have been just fine talking about these comedians, and in the same discussion that he himself is in too. From my understanding of him he’d be the last man to say he was in a different world from them. And let’s remember, he had as great a sense of humor as any of these guys–comedic or tragic may not be the words for his films though they often have both elements.

    TRISTANA is my favorite Bunuel so have been looking forward to Dave’s piece too–and now I see that it’s here, but can’t see the next thread as unrelated to this one, since the idea of subversion has already been eloquently discussed.

    Meantime, great to see so much love for Abbott & Costello. If no one felt they had any place in talking about cinema, it would be sad. And I’m not even from New Jersey.

  • Daniel F.

    Well, TRISTANA is up, and the comedy / subversion noted here — could they be one and the same? — indeed inform Bunuel’s universe. Thanks for indulging my impatience.

    Actually, I am originally from New Jersey. But the very little A & C / L & H I’ve seen was in distant childhood; thus I’ve held back from commenting above. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is an invaluable conversation. I quite enjoy the interchange between threads, even if unintended.

  • mike schlesinger

    Greg: Re SO THIS IS AFRICA. I tried. Lord knows how I tried…