Thursday, October 15, 2009

Imagine never having heard of the Marx Brothers and suddenly discovering them by accident. I only use the Marx Brothers as the obvious example. I've never found them funny, and that goes double for Charlie Chaplin. I'm more partial to Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton but there are two men who outdid them all.
One recent night came as a sort of miracle. Turner Classic Movies was airing three 1930/31 comedies by Wheeler and Woolsey, a sublime comic duo each of whom started out on Broadway. I ate up every minute, then googled them for more.
At first I took Robert Woolsey to be George Burns, then dismissed the possibility since it would have made Burns too old too young. It turns out Burns patterned himself after Woolsey down to the omnipresent cigar, vest and speech patterns. Bert Wheeler gave me another start: he's the image of Lee Bacchus, and I'm not just saying that because he runs this blog.
Wheeler and Woolsey were anarchs in the true sense. Immensely popular but almost unknown today, they ran afoul of the more priggish critics of the times, who accused them of being vulgar and deprived them of their rightful place as classics in the pantheon of American comedy. Vulgar they certainly could be. Woolsey eyes the legs of a primly coquettish woman who says, "Are you looking at these?" Woolsey says, "I had higher things in mind." They were pre-Code and would never have got away with this stuff after 1934. There's a long scene with Wheeler in drag (to escape a thug) in Peach O'Reno, 1931, in which a line says something about making a football team. Silent, Wheeler rolls his eyes saucily. It was one of many times that I burst out laughing.
Google them — you'll get some idea of what they're about though you'll probably get just a musical number. But even those were wonderful, and never overdone. Maybe write a letter. They were too great to be overlooked. Maybe they were penalized for being so flighty and air-borne. They make today's idea of humor look dull and Victorian.
— Lloyd Dykk

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