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

  • Barry Putterman

    If one chose to, one could add TOO MANY COOKS to the Wheeler and Woolsey Seiter see. In 1931 both comedians managed to get solo vehicles out of RKO. TOO MANY COOKS was Bert Wheeler’s solo film (well, without Woolsey but with Dorothy Lee). It was a domestic comedy involving courtship, in-laws and real estate.

    Woolsey’s solo vehicle had him as a barnstorming snake oil salesman traveling with his adopted daughter which both sounded like and played like it fell off of W.C. Fields’ plate and landed at RKO. It was called EVERYTHING’S ROSIE (the daughter’s name) and was directed by Clyde Bruckman.

    Actually, both films give a very fair representation of what their solo careers might have looked like. But RKO never repeated the experiment. At least until they came up with another cobbled together team called Astaire and Rogers.

  • Hey, what happened to the Michel Audiard column? Or did I read something outside of the Dave Kehr universe? One thing that that column help me remember was that Audiard wrote one of my favorite French films Garde à vue.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Love the goofy, almost deranged grin on Dot Lee’s face in your still this week, Dave. And thanks for a most appreciative column.

    I’ve seen a lot of Seiters over the years and I think you’ve identified his skill at rendering broad characters naturalistic … which helps round out Laurel & Hardy in SONS OF THE DESERT… although it’s not what people are looking for with the Marx Brothers… although I think ROOM SERVICE is somewhat underrated and works on its own terms. (“Too soon, too soon. He died too soon.” “An hour too soon.”)

    Barry, I’ve seen EVERYTHING’S ROSIE, which also borrows from the Capra-Joe Cook RAIN OR SHINE and probably other films as well. (Woolsey had acted in the big W C Fields stage hit “Poppy” and got to observe the master close up.) Wes Gehring wrote a book about 1930s “huckster comedians,” which was indeed a type, but he limited it solely to Fields and Groucho Marx. I think including the W&W comedies would have strengthened his argument enormously.

  • Re: Comedy doesn’t travel
    Despite RKO’s strenuous attempts to promote Wheeler & Woolsey, in Italy their films were never released. The same is true for Mae West or Marx Bros: if you browse Italian film magazines from early ’30s you find plenty of photos and news about these comedians, but then you check the actually released films and you discover that no one had ever seen these comedians on screen…

    Here a 1936 cover promoting Dorothy Lee “as you’ll see her in a new Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey film”:
    http://i45.tinypic.com/2h33h44.jpg

  • Barry Putterman

    Indeed Gregg, including Wheeler and Woolsey and, as you elude, Joe Cook, and Clark & McCulloch and many others would make for a much deeper study. I haven’t read this book so I can’t really comment on its merits. However, writing a book about a subject as far ranging as the huckster character and restricting it to W.C. Fields and Groucho Marx, seems akin to writing a book about pre-code gangster movies and restricting it to the usual LITTLE CAESAR-PUBLIC ENEMY-SCARFACE troika.

    By the way, my recollection is that Bert Wheeler achieved much more than mid level stardom in vaudeville. Didn’t he pretty much become a headliner? Or am I thinking of Burton K. Wheeler.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Barry, re your question, I do know Bert Wheeler was quite popular; will check the one extant book on the team (Ed Watz’s) when I get a chance; did he get a dinner? I can’t say.

    I’ve just picked up and enjoyed Anthony Balducci’s “18 Comedians of Silent Film” (2012), a book by the author of the one extant book on Lloyd Hamilton, about various obscure or at least lesser-known figures. Discussing female silent comedians (there were several) he digresses into a discussion of the 1950s sitcom “The Gale Storm Show,” making the point that the series’ regular directors were William Seiter, Norman Z. McLeod and Charles Barton, “an amazing gathering of talent.” Dave will be happy to hear that Seiter’s SONS OF THE DESERT “is undoubtedly the greatest film comedy ever made.” (256) How ’bout undoubtedly on the short list?

  • Rick K.

    The Wheeler & Woolsey chronology is a fascinating one, especially when considering just how highly popular they were during one of the cinema’s richest periods of comedy productivity. The early 30‘s not only featured new arrivals in the sound arena (Marx Bros. and Fields at the top of the list of course) but so many remnants of the silent era trying to find their footing, some succeeding (L&H, Harold Lloyd to a certain extent), and others toppling, but still making the effort (Keaton, Langdon). Just an incredible pool of comedy talent being weaved thru the studio system all at one time, and fortunately preserved so we can still admire, enjoy and study them.

    W&W probably became movie headliners by accident or fate, making their initial appearance in a prestige musical which was given a big push as RKO’s first major release, where their levity (already honed from the stage version) became an easy highlight. Indeed they could/should be considered archetypes for all the other wisecracking comics that followed in the movies, since that form of comedy was as yet virtually untapped on film. RKO, of course, was quick to parlay that audience-pleasing element, first in RIO RITA retreads (DIXIANA, THE CUCKOOS), and then in a series of hastily-written vehicle formats with varying degrees of success. As Dave K. points out, a good director DID make a considerable difference, though what W&W really needed most were good writers, which weren’t always forthcoming. One could argue that DIPLOMANIACS holds up better than most other W&Ws because it was co-scripted by Joe Mankiewicz (who reportedly first planned it as a Marx Bros. movie while he was working at Paramount, around the time of MILLION DOLLAR LEGS). Very little of Seiter’s noted attributes would seem to have contributed to the lunatic ambiance of that particular outing.

    My choice for the most inspired W&W director would be Mark Sandrich, who had just come off of his innovative MELODY CRUISE, applying his considerable skills with the musical-comedy format to both COCKEYED CAVALIERS and HIPS HIPS HOORAY before appropriately taking the helm of the Astaire-Rogers series (there again, Sandrich trumps Seiter with the integration of music and comedy, comparing Seiter’s ROBERTA with THE GAY DIVORCEE, TOP HAT, etc). Incidentally, Warner Archive has somehow avoided releasing the two W&W movies that I would most like to have … Sandrich’s COCKEYED CAVALIERS (their best film?) and the stagebound early-talkie THE CUCKOOS which still exists in the vaults with all its Technicolor sequences intact, and has some catchy numbers and often amusing banter to offset the stilted proceedings, tho perhaps still more a guilty pleasure than anything else (I’m a sucker for those early-talkie musicals, good or bad, and especially with color inserts!).

  • For those who didn’t notice, herer is a link to Dave’s column on Michel Audiard, which falls between Fritz and W&W:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/movies/homevideo/on-dvd-michel-audiards-tontons-flingueurs-and-barbouzes.html?ref=davekehr&_r=0

  • I’m afraid I have to disagree with you there, Rick. Seiter’s “Peach-o-Reno” and “Diplomaniacs” may be “crazier” than “Caught Plastered,” but he does have a psychological fix on the relationship between the boys that seems to elude their other directors, emphatically including Sandrich. Never more than a passable technician, who got what was necessary on the screen (and who did not direct the musical numbers in the Astaire and Rogers films, of course — that was Fred’s job), Sandrich stands or falls on the basis of his actors, as is evidenced by the quite rapid decline of his career after “Carefree,” the last of his Fred and Ginger movies, in 1938. “Hips Hips Hooray” is quite entertaining but in no way shows the discipline of Seiter’s approach. I don’t think it’s reasonable to compare “Roberta,” in which Astaire and Rogers are supporting characters shoehorned into a famous musical, with “Top Hat,” which was written for them and based, in no small part, on the Rogers persona as developed by Seiter and Rogers over a series of films including “Professional Sweetheart” (1933), “Rafter Romance” (1933), “Chance at Heaven” (1933), and “Roberta” itself. Seiter and Rogers continued to work together brilliantly on “In Person” (1935) and “Having Wonderful Time” (1938). A more apt comparison with Sandrich might be Seiter’s work with Astaire and Rita Hayworth in the wonderful “You Were Never Lovelier” (1942), one of the few times in which Astaire managed to project a sexual magnetism with his co-star outside of the musical numbers — which you might want to compare to Sandrich’s ineffective attempt to match Astaire with Marjorie Reynolds in “Holiday Inn.”

    Print issues are holding up the release of “Cockeyed Cavaliers” and “The Cuckoo,” though I’m equally eager to see Seiter’s solo film with Bert Wheeler, “Too Many Cooks” (1931).

  • Gregg Rickman

    Rick, the merits of 1930s W&W directors, including Sandrich, for whom I share your enthusiasm, were gone into with some detail in this site’s “George Stevens’ ANNE FRANK” thread of July 5th 2009. You could look it up. My first posting on these parts ends with this flourish: “Good luck in getting a Wheeler & Woolsey boxed set!” Well, it only took three years.

    I agree that COCKEYED CAVALIERS is one of the team’s best. They peaked in the years beginning with Seiter directing them, through the enforcement of the Code in 1934. A key point on the late decline of the teams’ work is that the studio lost interest in them that; Stevens’ were the last W&Ws with any ambition. (There’s a lengthy sequence in one of the late films with Woolsey and some codger playing Parcheesi. That’s all; playing Parcheesi. “Whoooah,” to quote the vocalism Bob W adopted some point in the middle of the series… in the late films waiting for Bob W to say “Whoooah” is the comedy highlight.) As I recall the overlap between DUCK SOUP and DIPLOMANIACS (Mankiewicz moved from one studio and project to the other) seriously irked Paramount with Mankiewicz (this detail is in Watz); and at another point Leo McCarey was announced as a director of a W&W project by RKO (this detail is somewhere in an early 30s “Variety”). “One of the cinema’s richest periods of comedy” indeed!

  • Gregg Rickman

    Dave’s comment of 10:20 went up while I was composing mine. I’ve just read Astaire’s old autobiography (“Steps in Time”) and he has high praise in it for Sandrich, who had the intelligence to give him his head on the visual presentation of his choreography (no small thing, given the Mamoulian and Berkeley strains in directing dance via domination at the time). For whatever it’s worth Astaire neutrally mentions Seiter a couple of times, merely in passing. Maybe this was because he was “Ginger’s director,” although he’d be too polite to say so. (Another outstanding “Ginger director”: Greg LaCava. Clearly, she had something; I think she’s overlooked today.)

    RKO directors Sandrich, Seiter and Stevens all directed both Wheeler & Woolsey AND Astaire & Rogers vehicles. A perfect laboratory for auteurist comparisons.

    Rephrasing my 10:20 post: “the studio lost interest in them AFTER that” (the adaption of the Code). And of course it’s four years since 2009 (seems longer, not shorter).

  • Robert Garrick

    Dave’s analysis of the Astaire/Rogers films and of the relative merits of Seiter/Sandrich, above, is great stuff. I have always considered “Top Hat” to be the funniest (easily) of the A/R musicals, and indeed one of the funniest films of the 1930s, which is high praise. Sandrich never hit a home run like that again, so maybe the writers and actors, particularly supporting players Blore, Horton, Rhodes, and Broderick, should get most of the credit. But at least Sandrich didn’t get in the way, as Sam Wood (for example) did with those two MGM Marx Brothers films.

    I’m going to try to lay low for a while after too much posting last week, but I do want to say some quick things about Wheeler and Woolsey. Look at that lobby card above, and look in particular at Woolsey, the chap on the right. He’s 42 years old there, only seven years older than Wheeler. I’d say Wheeler looks about 25, and Woolsey looks more like 70, in that photograph.

    I wonder if Woolsey was a heavy drinker, or if his kidney issues aged him prematurely. Another physical characteristic of these two is that they were quite short. Woolsey (who once tried to be a jockey) was 5 foot 5. But Wheeler was even shorter, at 5 foot 4.

  • Barry Putterman

    It has been a while since I read the Arlene Croce book, but, as I recall, she provided some evidence that Sandrich was very much involved in devising how Astaire’s choreography was going to be filmed. Anyway, if Seiter was Ginger’s director, then Sandrich was very much Astaire’s director. In her autobiography, Rogers said that she and Sandrich got into a dispute about one of her costumes for TOP HAT which Pandro Berman resolved in her favor, and after that point Sandrich treated her with disdain.

    I believe that we have far too many S directors pouring into the discussion. Sandrich and Stevens on the negative for our host versus Seiter on the positive. Possibly that is why he attributed HAVING WONDERFUL TIME to Seiter when it is actually one of his other favorite S men, Alfred Santell. In any event, Ginger Rogers is not overlooked in my house.

    Actually, I was never really confident of what the screen relationship of Wheeler and Woolsey actually was. Sometimes, as in CRACKED NUTS they would go into what sounded like a Chico (Wheeler) and Groucho (Woolsey) routine. Sometimes it was more like Clark (Woolsey) and McCulloch (Wheeler). In short, it seemed to me that Woolsey always had a fixed persona and Wheeler filled in whatever role the scene needed. But I would like to hear more about that from others. It has indeed been four years since 2009.

  • Rick K.

    Didn’t mean to downplay William Seiter’s contributions to the W&W cycle in my earlier comments, but feel one could argue that a “technician” like Sandrich was probably more suited to creating a better W&W vehicle in context of the dynamics which made them a successful comedy team. Seiter proved to be an ideal director for the likes of Laurel & Hardy, enhancing upon the characters they created through a succession of films dating back to PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP (which wasn’t even a typical L&H film, but which seemed to almost define the difference between the Roach school of comedy opposed to Sennett), reaching a summit during the sound era in Seiter’s handling of SONS OF THE DESERT. W&W were a somewhat different entity as a team, so that Seiter’s deft approach may not have been the best prescription for them. Boil it down to the artistry of L&H vs. the schtick of W&W.

    What is it that makes a successful comedy film? … is it the number of laughs it generates, or the creative manner in which it plays out. Ideally, its both, but creating that depth in a somewhat shallow oasis of vaudeville patter can depend on what approach by the director works best. I believe Sandrich enhanced the comedy framework of W&W through visual devices and creativity (mechanical though it may be) more indigenous to the team’s byplay than that of William Seiter. Yet I doubt if L&H would have benefitted even half as well under the direction of Sandrich. Seiter’s later encounters with the Marx Bros. and Abbott & Costello were actually rather problematic. In both cases, the films (ROOM SERVICE, LITTLE GIANT) tried to bend the established characteristics of these comedians in interesting ways, but neither emerged victorious in that regard … the resulting films were not total failures by any means, but illustrated perhaps a mismatch of talents or intentions.

  • alex

    What a great exchange on Seiter vs Sandrich Re Fred and Ginger film (on which I lean toward Writer and Dave K.) . However, evaluation of the subtle over the trite should not, I think, obstruct mention of what seems to me the absolute superiority of Stevens and SWING TIME where Fred & Ginger films are concerned nor marginalize Stevens from the King of The Wheeler and Woolsey directoral sweepstakes round robin.

  • Gregg Rickman

    This is where I came in! Back in July 2009, Alex made the same point about his love for SWINGTIME as his follow-up to my same points on Stevens’ work with A&R. But I don’t think we discussed Stevens’ two films with W&W. “King of The Wheeler and Woolsey directoral sweepstakes”? Really? Whoooah!

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen KENTUCKY KERNELS all the way through, but as I recall it’s burdened by its cowtowing to a charmless child actor. Stevens’ other W&W, THE NITWITS, is stamped with the young director’s ambition; it opens with a moody scene in the fog with some supporting actors, and its nighttime b&w cinematography is, as I recall, unusually crisp and sharp for what RKO by this time considered a simple programmer. But due to its post-code status, it’s nowhere near as funny as the precode Seiters, Sandriches or Clines; they were instantly rendered childish. As a marker for studio attitude toward Wheeler & Woolsey, look at the titles they chose for the popular team in these late outings: “nitwits,” “silly billies,” “mummy’s boys.” Their earlier designations – “cuckoos,” “cockeyed cavaliers,” “diplomaniacs” — assign them a crazier edge, just as those films had more verve.

    Barry is right about the changing status of the pliable Wheeler next to the steady Woolsey, who I also agree with Robert looked much older than his years. But in his last film, Cline’s HIGH FLYERS, he pulls himself together for a vivacious song-and-dance number with Lupe Velez, which is a real treat and a fitting swan song. It’s on YouTube last I looked; check it out.

  • Barry Putterman

    The allegedly charmless child actor in KENTUCKY KERNELS is none other than Spanky McFarland.

    If you apply Rick K.’s ideas about directorial methods in relation to star comedians, George Stevens makes for a very bad matchup with Wheeler & Woolsey. His extreme slow pacing and long held shots matches much better with Laurel & Hardy (for whom he was a cinematographer) and Edgar Kennedy (for whom he directed a number of shorts). It also matches much better for Stuart Erwin in BACHELOR BAIT.

    One thing you could credit Stevens for is being one of only two director to direct Astaire & Rogers (SWING TIME), Astaire without Rogers (A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS) and Rogers without Astaire (VIVACIOUS LADY). The other being William A. Seiter (ROBERTA, YOU WERE NEVER LOVLIER, and a whole bunch of titles).

  • > The allegedly charmless child actor in KENTUCKY KERNELS
    > is none other than Spanky McFarland.

    Being born and raised in Tulsa, I was lucky enough to watch
    McFarland’s local kids TV show (The Spanky show) during my childhood years (but never was in the studio audience for this).

  • Steve elworth

    Michael, was it a good show? Some details I assume that he never talked about his most favorite or least favorite directors?

  • I must say I can’t recall any discussions about directors on the Spanky Show –then again, I was 8 (or so) when the show went off the air. Here a link to a web memorial to this rather eccentric show:

    http://tulsatvmemories.com/spanky.html

  • Steve elworth

    I did not think so but I need to keep on track and mention the directors.

  • Barry Putterman

    Steve, it should be noted that when TCM had Edward L. Cahn as director of the month, Robert Blake offered a tribute regarding how much he loved working with him on the Our Gang shorts.

    As a 5 (or 6) year old New Yorker, I had the high privilege of sitting on the fake grass in the studio audience on “The Johnny Jellybean Show” (aka “Just For Fun”). I don’t believe that Johnny (aka Bill Britton, who later went on to become New York’s Bozo the Clown) ever worked in Hollywood, so directorial preferences never became an issue.

    Nor, to my knowledge, did Joe Bolton ever go on record regarding his experience of working with Norman Maurer on THE OUTLAWS IS COMING.

  • Alex Hicks

    Gregg Rickman,

    Seems I’ve seen a few other hobby horse ridden hereabout from time to time besides my Swing Time.

    Glad to hear Barry bring Stevens into the directing comparisons involving W&W.

    Not sure I’ve ever seen W&W, though Woolsey’s face looks very familiar. (He ever appear in a Preston Stuges film?)

    Perhaps directorial quality is especially variable with regard to comedy — or even specific comics and sub-genres.
    For example Ford has a great gift for masculine Tomfoolery and exuberance but has always seemed rather lackluster to me with relatively pure, modern urban comedy scripts like those of THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALIKING and WHEN WILLIE COMES MARCHING HOME.

  • Steve elworth

    I remember Joe Bolton, and later Just for Fun but we all know Bozo

  • Joe Dante

    Wow.
    Uncle Johnny Jellybean!
    I haven’t thought about him in…well, let’s just say a lotta years!

    Officer Joe Bolton always struck me as pretty level headed for a kid show host, and of course he was careful to tell us not to imitate the miscreant behavior of the Stooges.

    I did see Pinky Lee have a heart attack on live tv. He was doing one of his strenuous on-the-floor dance routines. They cut to a card and when they came back he was gone…

    Ah, New York tv in the fifties….

  • Barry Putterman

    Joe, it is tempting to follow down the path of New York kids shows in the 50s. Particularly in what looks to be another slow week.

    Neverteless, this way lies madness. Not to mention admonitions from above.

    But, before returning to matters more cinematic, let his dwell for a second on those two magic words; Sandy Becker.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Ed Watz, author of “Wheeler & Woolsey,” contacted the adult Mr. McFarland while researching his book; however the senior Spanky claimed to have “no recall of KENTUCKY KERNELS. Good luck with your book.” (227) Traumatized by multiple Stevensonian takes? Frightened by the sight of Bert Wheeler in Kentucky colonel garb? Alas, the record is silent.

    Also according to Watz, Stevens advised the British National Film Theatre against looking up a print of the film when they were planning a Stevens retro in 1970:
    “there is no need.”

    Alex, I too admire SWING TIME. “Woolsey’s face looks very familiar. (He ever appear in a Preston Stuges film?” No, but he does look like Sturges regular Jimmy Conlin, who someone (Agee? Farber?) called “the human peanut.”

  • david hare

    Barry at 1.12 March 27, you beat me to the gate re Sandrich and his limitations/contributions. But I really want to add some thoughts to Dave’s comments on Sandrich and his very significant contributions to the Astaire Rogers pictures he directed. He was IMO probably the ideal journeyman/facilitator to become the glue for such a highly collaborative team that must also give honor to Astaire’s long time assistant Hal Bourne. It was Bourne who, in response to Astaire’s desire for spatial continuity in the filming of the dances always rehearsed and blocked the numbers particularly to allow for maximum possible length takes. Bourne and Astaire also wanted technical refinements in two areas – film to playback and storyboarding – and it was the first of these elements that Sandrich was able to perfect with the RKO technicians and the virtual invention of multi stemming miking including the all important tap foot track (for which Hermes Pan usually “doubled” for Ginger) to the mono magnetic mixdown track for playback to final filming. The efforts these three very much under Sandrich’s guidance revolutionized the movie musical forever. It’s absolutely to Sandrich’s credit that he provided the will and energy to achieve it. Also his meticulous, shot by shot storyboarding for everything from Follow the Fleetwhich was done initially to satisfy Pandro Berman’s budget goals. It was not only successful in keeping those wolves at bay but it gave the creative team including Astaire and Bourne and Pan real control over narratively integrating the numbers for balance. It was particularly valuable of course for Gay Divorcee and Top Hat with their big two reel Dance Craze sequences, “The Continental”and “The Piccolino” respectively. Budget and planning were especially critical here as both sets required opening up two adjacent soundstages to accomodate the sets and floors (painted red, as Croce tells us, to look blacker than black in panchromatic negative stock.)

    Roberta occupies a very special place for me. Seiter seems to have been given a two headed production, one whose larger head is the romantic melodrama from the stage play “Gowns by Roberta” with a couple of sublime Jerome Kern numbers for Irene Dunne at least. And this entire part fo the hybrid seems superbly dovetailed with the death of the old lady, after Dunne sings nothing less than “Smoke gets in your Eyes”. The soon to be prototypical “assumed identity” character for Ginger, here the “Countess Scharwenka” gets its first run with Seiter who very shortly after the old lay’s death gives us the literal birth of the Astaire-Rogers picture, with their first ever and best ever Challenge Dance, “I’ll be Hard to Handle”. This is so stratospherically beautifully realized it seems to lift and land like a perfectly executed flight, with the pair, now born to the world, taking their first bow to the camera with one reverse shot to their first “audience”, the cleaning staff of the nightclub with their feet firmly back on earth. These elements alone surely give Seiter a major heave up in the auteurist stakes.

  • Blake Lucas

    Great contribution by David above at 8:18; I really appreciated his observations.

    I just want to add that although I haven’t seen “Roberta” for a long time, my memory is that “I’ll be Hard to Handle” was done (meaning the dancing part of it) in one long take, what theoretically they always wanted to do (meaning Astaire and those working with him) and sometimes were able to, sometimes not. But I thought this was electrifying and was my favorite number in “Roberta.” If I’m wrong about the single take, I must have blinked so someone who is expert, please confirm or tell me I missed the cut.

    I was very interested watching this because the history of long take dance sequences ties in to what directors I like later, especially Vincente Minnelli, took very much to heart and had not only Fred Astaire (and other gifted dancers) but their own artistic visions and so we wound up with a “Dancing in the Dark” (three shots) or “Heather on the Hill” (something like that, not many and it’s very elaborate), which are to me sublime cinema.

    Honestly, I like Sandrich/A & R movies too–“The Gay Divorcee” “Follow the Fleet” and especially “Top Hat” not only have great musical numbers but are very funny as comedies. I’m not taking a position on the directors except to acknowledge they are all a little different. My memory of “You Were Never Lovelier” conforms to what Dave said about it–it was much less heralded than A & R musicals even though Rita Hayworth was surely as great a partner–and knowing Seiter’s gifts with comedy too I’m sure it would hold up to it now. A movie I really want to see again.

    Re “Swing Time” that’s a film I mostly love (among a handful of Stevens I would say that about), mostly for the musical numbers which I think are exquisite. Surely, Stevens himself deserves a little of the credit there, but still, after “Never Gonna Dance” (my favorite of all A & R numbers because so dramatic as well as visually beautiful), Stevens is so pokey in taking the movie to its end that it almost wears out my good will.

  • david hare

    Blake, yes all 3 minutes 7 seconds of “I’ll be Hard to Handle”is a single take. Stevens gets close with – from memory – one invisible edit in the “Dust Yourself Off” number. Regarding Stevens I re-viewed Swingtime last week with some trepidation about glacial pacing, and the slow burning comedy, but I also noticed he was doing much more quite lyrical mise en scene with Fred and Ginger as a couple to really bed down the genuinely romantic aspects of the screenplay, which he does with considerable grace and gravity. Certainly I think Seiter gives birth to them as a screen couple, then Sandrich and RKO give them a whirlwind adolescence in which the old sophisticated precode RKO outrageousness is never far from the dialogue and extras (the sheer volume of gay related gags is incredible: “don’t mind me boys, go right ahead”, etc…). But with Stevens they grow up all of a sudden and it’s never the same again. The last two Sandrich films are dull and stuffy, despite scores from Gershwin et al, and it’s all terribly self consciously knowing. There’s little fun or discovery left, albeit some very fine music. But the films from Follow the Fleet to Swingtime are an irrestible joy. And I’m compeltely revising views on the relatively few Stevens I like these days. I now think Something to Live for is his masterpiece.

  • alex

    David Hare,

    Well, champaign flirtations, progress toward bedding the principals and “exquisite ” romantic scenes –musical or otherwise– are what I mainly want in a romantic comedy. I quess Barry ‘s right about Sarris ‘ preference for romantic over other comedy — and that sounds good to me. Faced, as the ship goes down, with saving THE AWFUL TRUTH or DUCK SOUP, TRUTH ‘s an easy choice for me.Laughs are fun but best of all for adding sparkle to properly light romance — or skewering its obstructors on a sharp wit.

  • Alex

    Blake Lucas

    I see now that my wee hour reading was faulty and I mainly was responding to your Swing Time comments in my last last post. But welcome back, David Hare.

    Greg Rickman,

    Jimmy Conlin! Thanks. Sherlock.

  • Johan Andreasson

    I like all of the Astaire/Rogers films, regardless of director, but my favorites are the Sandrich directed THE GAY DIVORCEE and TOP HAT, when the series felt the freshest.

    My guess would be that the most important person creatively, aside from Astaire himself, was producer Pandro S Berman, who made a team out of Astaire and Rogers despite Fred’s reluctance to form a new dancing team after the one with his sister Adele. Berman also recruited the trio Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore and Erik Rhodes to provide the laughs (although both Blore and Rhodes were in The Gay Divorce on stage), and selected the capable Sandrich as director.

    There’s a funny story about Astaire and Berman in “Astaire, the Man, the Dancer” by Bob Thomas:

    One day at RKO, Pandro Berman encountered Fred Astaire on a studio street. “I want to thank you,” Fred remarked.
    “What for?” the producer asked.
    “I’ve been thinking. Sam Goldwyn, Jack Warner and David Selznick are good friends of mine, but they don’t hire me. You’ve made pictures with me, and they’ve been good. So I want to thank you.”
    As Fred sauntered down the street, Berman stared after him in astonishment. Theirs had been strictly a professional relationship, and it was the first time Fred had ever said anything personal. And the last.

    From the same book I get the impression that Sandrich was selected at least partly because he had shown interest and ability with musical numbers in the 1933 short SO THIS IS HARRIS. Has anyone here seen this film?

  • Barry Putterman

    Johan, SO THIS IS HARRIS and the aforementioned (by Rick K) MELODY CRUISE, which also stars Phil Harris, are very much influenced by LOVE ME TONIGHT with lots of rhyming dialogue and optical effects but not a whole lot of singing and dancing.

    Although Sandrich was quite young at the time of his first features in 1933, he had actually had years of experience directing dozens of comedy shorts dating back to 1926. At the time of SO THIS IS HARRIS and MELODY CRUISE, he appears to have been the regular director of the Clark & McCulloch shorts at RKO. Which would seem to be a natural lead in to Wheeler and Woolsey features, just as Stevens’ work with Edgar Kennedy shorts would.

    Quick addition, Sandrich had previously made a feature in 1929, THE TALK OF HOLLYWOOD, as an independent production.

  • Alex

    “Swoon Time”
    (Inspired by the 2012 BFI listing of B “Brent” Kite)

    Chimes at Midnight,
    L’Atalante

    Vertigo
    et L’Argent

    Out 1, Vampyr
    Vertigo

    Playtime, Swing Time
    …Doc Marbuse.

    2 ou 3
    Choses que
    Je Sais d’elle

    Dark or light,
    each casts a spell.

  • Steve elworth

    I would like to mention and maybe I mentioned the last time we discussed W and W, My old friend Henry Jenkins’s first book What Made Pistachio Nuts? Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. The book is still in print after 20 years and is real interesting for this period. I think Henry is the third person that I spoke to about Wheeler and Woolsey. Barry was the first back in pre-history.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Steve, Jenkins’ book is very good indeed. It’s the only scholarly examination of where W&W fit into early 30s comedy I know of… at least before this week’s column by Dave.

    There was a lot of what was called “nut” comedy in the early 30s, including one-off features with Ed Wynn and Baron Munchausen at MGM, the Clark & McCullough shorts at Fox and later at RKO, and some terrible films with Ted Healey and his Stooges (maybe I just never find Healey funny). Coming off of two hit Broadway plays, the Marx Brothers’ films at Paramount were much more prestigious than some of these, at least judging from the ads in the trade press of the time.

    Comedies come in cycles and it’s easy to see the “nut” comics of 1930 as heirs of the heavily made-up zanies of early slapstick comedy (Larry Semon being the obvious example). Those comics were going out of fashion by 1920, again judging by reviews in the trades praising Harold Lloyd’s normal young man character, and the shift of say Roscoe Arbuckle to dapper business suits when Paramount moved him up to features. (Or Keaton’ gradual shift to being a real fashion plate in feature comedies like BATLLING BUTLER.)

    One interesting thing my research indicates is that the slapstick comedy star of the early-to-mid 1920s was going out of fashion by 1927; the trend in the late silent era was toward teams in both features (Beery & Hatton and Dane & Arthur were hugely popular) and shorts (Laurel & Hardy). Some newspaper articles of the time refer to starring solo clowns as passe, even as Keaton and Lloyd were doing some of their best work. Thus the stage was set in public taste for the wave of comedy teams from B’way and vaudeville once sound came in a couple of years later.

  • jbryant

    Anyone else finding that wwww.davekehr.com is not working? Whenever I try to come here by clicking the bookmark or just typing the url into the search bar, I get “No site configured at this address.” But if I Google search the site and click one of the articles, it will take me to the article, where I can then click the current post (which is how I’m here now). It’s been this way for a couple of days now, and I’m not having the issue with any other site.

  • Foster Grimm

    Having watched HOOK, LINE, AND SINKER I’m surprised Edward F Cline has not entered the discussion. Whatever else, his films had energy.
    I was amused to see that LONESOME’s leading man was credited with “additional dialog” on H,L & S. Knowing Tryon’s background in comedy shorts,
    this should be no surprise.
    And thanks for alerting me to ROBERTA. Wunderbar.
    Cheers.

  • george

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1A0k5epWSvA

    Glad Dave’s review mentioned the preserved-in-amber quality of “Rio Rita.” It’s as close as we’re gonna come to seeing a Broadway musical-comedy of the ’20s. (The Marx Bros’ first two films — also no great shakes as movies — have this same quality.)

    I love this song, and the fact that it’s all in one take. It adds to the “you are there”/time capsule feeling. Dorothy Lee was a doll.

  • partisan

    So nothing about the new releases of “A Man Escaped” or “Monsieur Verdoux” from Criterion?

  • Barry Putterman

    Foster, Glenn Tryon had a substantial career as a producer and a director as well as a writer after his acting days ended. Indeed, he worked on quite a number of Seiter’s films as a writer during this mid 30s period.

  • Foster Grimm

    Barry,
    Right.
    And think of the silent comedians who ended up, or spent time in, the studio offices once sound hit.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Barry asked (March 26 at 8:44 pm) “my recollection is that Bert Wheeler achieved much more than mid level stardom in vaudeville. Didn’t he pretty much become a headliner?” You are correct sir. A Chaplin imitator — seen and praised by Chaplin — at age 20 (1915), he was a v’ville star by 1920, and headlining at the Ziegfeld Follies, with Will Rogers, Fields, Cantor — after 1923. That was the top of the profession. When the Ziegfeld show RIO RITA, which had first teamed Wheeler with Bob Woolsey, was transferred by RKO to film, they were retained by RKO, and while they were big stars for them, as I mentioned the studio thought less and less of their prize acquisitions as the years went on. Wheeler did a couple of low-budget films after Woolsey died, but the teaming had ruined him as a solo star in Hollywood, and it was back to live performance (and later tv) for the rest of his life. He did do a couple of Jules White shorts at Columbia in 1951…

    … one of which, THE AWFUL SLEUTH, was directed by Richard Quine, popular in these parts.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Partisan, who need Chaplin when you have Wheeler?

    And who needs A MAN ESCAPED when you have HOLD ‘EM JAIL? (Now that double bill would look good on a marquee.)

  • Barry Putterman

    Foster leads towards a contemplation of Raymond Griffith, Douglas MacLean (sp?) and some guy named Buster something-or-other in terms of behind the scenes movie careers after silent movie stardom.

    Gregg, if you will check back in your archive, you will see that Cinecon ran THE AWFUL SLEUTH a few years ago and we had a bit of a back and forth about it and latter day Bert Wheeler.

    I see that we are about to go from DIXIANA to TRISTIANA, so the discussion will indeed get a bit more high falutin’ even if the topic will remain essentially the same. And for those of us who also consider Robert Bresson to be a laff riot, there is always “wait till next week.”

  • David Cohen

    Has anyone on here seen the Bert Wheeler vehicle LAS VEGAS NIGHTS, which I’ve seen identified as the movie debut of Frank Sinatra? … My wife had an interest in that for a historical fiction novel she is working on.

  • Barry Putterman

    David, I have seen LAS VEGAS NIGHTS and it is considered Sinatra’s movie debut because the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra is in it and he was the band’s male singer. As such, there are no mob rub outs or chorus girl orgies to report. But, as long as it is historical FICTION….

  • Steve elworth

    Barry, I heard that Bert does not get shot by Bugsy either?

  • David Cohen

    Is there much of Sinatra in the movie? And is it any good?