FILM: WHEELER and WOOLSEY

Bert Wheeler               born 1895, died 1968
Robert Woolsey          born 1889, died 1938

by PETER TATCHELL (copyright 2011)

In the 1930s they were the top comedy team at one of Hollywood’s major studios. In an era when R.K.O. was producing a string of groundbreaking musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, their chief laughmakers were Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey.

Largely forgotten for over half a century, the coming of video, cable television and DVD has resurrected the inane antics of two clever Vaudevillians whose snappy dialogue, eccentric dancing and colourful characters enlivened nearly two dozen offerings from the golden days of the motion picture.

Cherub-faced Bert Wheeler worked his way through vaudeville and (with wife Betty) appeared in the 1923 edition of The Ziegfeld Follies. He also made broadcasts in those years when radio was still in its infancy.

Spectacled and cigar-chomping Robert Woolsey started out as a jockey, before a fall led him to a career in show business. He joined a stock company and later a Gilbert & Sullivan troupe. In the 1920s he appeared on Broadway in such shows as The Right Girl and the W.C. Fields hit Poppy.

In 1927 Wheeler and Woolsey were brought together as comedy supports for a new Ziegfeld musical called Rio Rita, which became a huge hit on Broadway. The recently set up Hollywood movie company R.K.O. bought the screen rights and signed the pair to repeat their roles. (At the time, Bert and Bob also appeared solo in one-reelers for Warner Bros. and Tiffany Pictures.)

R.K.O. then used the team in The Cuckoos and Dixiana before giving them the lead parts in the World War I comedy Half Shot at Sunrise. The studio noted their increasing popularity with movie-goers and the boys were on their way to starring in another twenty pictures throughout the decade.

In those early years of the talkies, Hollywood was more akin to Broadway with its more open approach to adult themes and innuendo (a fact Mae West would soon exploit at Paramount). As a result Wheeler and Woolsey could include more liberal patter in their routines and their wordplay is lively.

After their sixth pairing (Cracked Nuts in 1931) R.K.O. decided to star Bert and Bob in separate features (Woolsey in Everything’s Rosie, Wheeler in Too Many Cooks) but the idea wasn’t a success and they were back as a team in Caught Plastered soon after.

In 1932 the studio produced a film adaptation of another Broadway musical, the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy, with Wheeler and Woolsey adding their comic touch to a show which had originally launched Ethel Merman’s illustrious career. (However, it would enjoy greater success when remade by MGM ten years later starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney).

As a team, Bert and Bob would make only one film for a rival studio, when they were loaned out to Columbia in 1933 for So This is Africa. (The previous year they had also taken part in the fundraising 2-reeler The Stolen Jools which boasted an all-star cast that also featured Buster Keaton and Laurel & Hardy).

By 1934, a nationwide campaign by puritanical religious groups had intimidated Hollywood studios into adopting a code of conduct to sanitize plotlines and remove any questionable dialogue from the scripts. As a result, American movies would suffer a constraint that would last until the late 1950s and it was a severe body blow to the careers of not only Mae West, but also the likes of Wheeler and Woolsey.

From Kentucky Kernels on Bert and Bob’s suggestive byplay was toned down and their outlandish behaviour lacked the sparkle of their earlier work. But though their peak years had passed, R.K.O. still churned out two or three W & W comedies a year. However a more serious problem was on the horizon.

In 1937 Robert Woolsey was stricken with a severe kidney disease and struggled to complete the team’s latest offering High Flyers. It would be his last appearance before the cameras and he spent a year bedridden before succumbing to the ailment in October 1938. He was only 49.

His partner made a couple more features on his own (neither for R.K.O.) but by the 1950s he was limited to nightclub appearances and a supporting role in the western TV series Brave Eagle. He died in 1968.

Stage

Rio Rita
opened February 2 1927 at the Ziegfeld Theatre (later the Lyric, finally the Majestic)

Films

Rio Rita (R.K.O., 1929)

Small Timer (Wheeler only) (Warner Bros. Vitaphone one-reel short, 1929)

The Voice of Hollywood (Wheeler only) (Tiffany one-reel short, 1929)

The Voice of Hollywood (Woolsey only) (Tiffany one-reel short, 1930)

The Cuckoos (R.K.O., 1930)

Dixiana (R.K.O., 1930)

Half Shot at Sunrise (R.K.O., 1930)

Hook, Line and Sinker (R.K.O., 1930)

Cracked Nuts (R.K.O., 1931)

Everything’s Rosie (Woolsey only) (R.K.O., 1931)

Too Many Cooks (Wheeler only) (R.K.O., 1931)

Caught Plastered (R.K.O., 1931)

Oh! Oh! Cleopatra (R.K.O., 1931)

Peach O’Reno (R.K.O., 1931)

Girl Crazy (R.K.O., 1932)

The Stolen Jools (aka Slippery Pearls) (Paramount/R.K.O. 2-reel short, 1932)

Hollywood Handicap (Wheeler only) (Universal 2-reel short, 1932)

Hold ‘Em Jail (R.K.O., 1932)

So This is Africa (Columbia, 1933)

Hollywood on Parade (Woolsey only) (Paramount one-reel short, 1933))

Diplomaniacs (R.K.O., 1933)

Hips Hips Hooray (R.K.O., 1934)

Cockeyed Cavaliers (R.K.O., 1934)

Kentucky Kernels (R.K.O., 1934)

The Nitwits (R.K.O., 1935)

A Night at the Biltmore Bowl (Wheeler only) (R.K.O. 2-reel short, 1935)

The Rainmakers (R.K.O., 1935)

Silly Billies (R.K.O., 1936)

Mummy’s Boys (R.K.O., 1936)

On Again, Off Again (R.K.O., 1937)

High Flyers (R.K.O., 1937)

Cowboy Quarterback (Wheeler only) (Warner Bros., 1939)

Las Vegas Nights (Wheeler only) (Paramount, 1941)

The Awful Sleuth (Wheeler only) (Columbia 2-reel short, 1951)

Videos, Laser Discs and DVDs

Rio Rita                                 

Dixiana                      

Half Shot at Sunrise 

Hook, Line and Sinker

Caught Plastered                  

The Stolen Jools (2-reeler)

Hold ‘Em Jail            

Diplomaniacs

Hips Hips Hooray                             

Silly Billies

Mummy’s Boys

Radio

Bert Wheeler can be heard in several enjoyable appearances on the Bing Crosby Chesterfield Show:
May 2 1951, June 13 1951, November 21 1951 and December 12 1951

Books

Wheeler & Woolsey – The Vaudeville Comic Duo and Their Films 1929 – 1937
by Edward Watz (McFarland, 1994)

also a chapter in
Movie Comedy Teams
by Leonard Maltin (Signet paperback, 1970)

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