Wheeler & Woolsey

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Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey

Wheeler & Woolsey were an American comedy double act who performed together in comedy films and vaudeville routines from the 1920s until Robert Woolsey's death in 1938. The team comprised Bert Wheeler (1895–1968) of New Jersey and Robert Woolsey (1888–1938) of California.

The Broadway theatre performers were initially teamed as the comedy relief for the 1927 Broadway musical Rio Rita, and came to Hollywood to reprise these roles for the 1929 film version. The film's success convinced them to become a permanent team, and they continued to make very popular comedy feature films from 1930 until 1937, all for RKO Radio Pictures—except the 1933 Columbia Pictures release So This Is Africa (which was made during a contract dispute with RKO).

Curly-haired Bert Wheeler played an ever-smiling innocent, who was easily led and not very bright, but who would also sometimes display a stubborn streak of conscience. Bespectacled Robert Woolsey played a genially leering, cigar-smoking, fast-talking idea man that often got the pair in trouble. The vivacious Dorothy Lee usually played Bert's romantic interest.

The Wheeler & Woolsey pictures are loaded with joke-book dialogue, original songs, puns, and sometimes racy double-entendre gags:

WOMAN (coyly indicating her legs): Were you looking at these?
WOOLSEY: Madam, I'm above that.

WOOLSEY (worried about a noblewoman): She's liable to have us beheaded.
WHEELER: Beheaded?! Can she do that?
WOOLSEY: Sure, she can be-head. (i.e., "She can be had.")

FLIRT: Sing to me!
WHEELER: How about One Hour with You?
FLIRT: Sure! But first, sing to me!

Such double-entendre gags were a hallmark of early W&W comedies, although they were severely curtailed after the establishment of the Production Code in 1933.

Wheeler & Woolsey's "The Rainmakers" showing at the Liberty Theater in New Orleans, 1935. Photo by Walker Evans.

By 1931 Wheeler & Woolsey were so popular that RKO attempted to generate twice the Wheeler & Woolsey income by making two solo pictures—one with Wheeler and one with Woolsey. This experiment failed, and the team reunited as though nothing had happened. Among the team's better features: The Cuckoos (based on Clark and McCullough's Broadway show The Ramblers), Caught Plastered, Peach O'Reno, Diplomaniacs, and Hips Hips Hooray and Cockeyed Cavaliers (both 1934, both co-starring Thelma Todd and Dorothy Lee, and both directed by Mark Sandrich just before he was promoted to the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals). Sandrich was replaced by George Stevens for the team's 1935 film The Nitwits (remade in 1946 as a Brown and Carney film, Genius at Work).

After Stevens left the series, the team faltered; the last five Wheeler & Woolsey pictures (1935–37) were weakened by the combination of bad scripts, lower budgets, and uninspired direction by lesser talents. In some of these later films Bert and Bob don't even appear as a team, but as strangers who encounter each other by chance. The films were still popular and the team might have continued indefinitely, but Woolsey died of kidney disease on October 31, 1938, ending the partnership.

Bert Wheeler and Dorothy Lee, in Half Shot at Sunrise (1930)

In the early 1940s, after Robert Woolsey had died, Bert Wheeler struggled to restart his career, and asked Dorothy Lee to tour with him in vaudeville. She agreed, and put things on hold, to help her old friend.

Wheeler continued to work off and on through the 1960s. His later appearances were mostly on television; his last theatrical films were two slapstick shorts for Columbia Pictures, filmed in 1950 and produced by Jules White. In 1955 Wheeler co-starred with Keith Larsen in the CBS western series Brave Eagle; Wheeler played the halfbreed Smokey Joe, known for his tall tales and tribal wisdom.

Bert Wheeler starred with John Raitt and Anne Jeffreys in the Broadway musical "Three Wishes for Jamie" in 1952, and continued to perform in summer stock theater and in nightclubs, either alone or with a partner (first writer-comedian Hank Ladd, later comedian-singer Tom Dillon). Information about Wheeler's last years of performing can be found in "Movie Comedy Teams" by Leonard Maltin. The duo, although largely forgotten now, were at the peak of their careers in the 1930s and were the biggest inspiration to the British team of Morecambe and Wise.

Nine of the 21 movies the duo made together were released in a DVD collection entitled "Wheeler & Woolsey: RKO Comedy Classics Collection" in March 2013 by Warner Archive.[1] Three films have fallen into the Public Domain (Dixiana, Half-Shot at Sunrise and Hook, Line & Sinker).

Filmography[edit]

Year Title Role
Bert Wheeler Robert Woolsey
1929 Small Timers (short) Himself N/A
Rio Rita Chick Bean Ned Lovett
1930 The Cuckoos Sparrow Professor Cunningham
Dixiana Peewee Ginger Dandy
Half Shot at Sunrise Tommy Turner Gilbert Simpkins
Hook, Line and Sinker Wilbur Boswell J. Addington Ganzy
1931 Everything's Rosie N/A Dr. J. Dockweiler Droop
Too Many Cooks Albert "Al" Bennett N/A
Cracked Nuts Wendell Graham Zander Ulysses Parkhurst
The Stolen Jools (short) Himself Himself
Caught Plastered Tommy Tanner Egbert G. Higginbotham
Oh! Oh! Cleopatra (short) Mark Antony Julius Caesar
Peach O'Reno Wattles Julius Swift
1932 Girl Crazy Jimmy Deegan Slick Foster
The Hollywood Handicap (short) Himself N/A
Hold 'Em Jail Curley Harris Spider Robbins
1933 So This Is Africa Wilbur Alexander
Diplomaniacs Willy Nilly Hercules Glub
Signing 'Em Up (short) Himself Himself
1934 Hips, Hips, Hooray! Andy Williams Dr. Bob Dudley
Cockeyed Cavaliers Bert Winstanley (surname not mentioned or credited in the film) Bob Maltravers (surname not mentioned or credited in the film)
Kentucky Kernels Willie Elmer
1935 The Nitwits Johnnie Newton
A Night at the Biltmore Bowl (short) Himself N/A
The Rainmakers Billy Roscoe Horne, the Rainmaker
1936 Silly Billies Roy Banks Prof. Philip "Painless" Pennington
Mummy's Boys Stanley Wright Aloysius C. Whittaker
1937 On Again-Off Again William Hobbs Claude Augustus Horton
High Flyers Jeremiah "Jerry" Lane Pierre Potkin
1939 The Cowboy Quarterback Harry Lynn N/A
1942 Las Vegas Nights Stu Grant N/A
1950 Innocently Guilty (short) Hodkinson G. Pogglebrewer N/A
1951 The Awful Sleuth (short) Bert Wheeler N/A

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Kehr, Dave (2 March 2013). "DVD Ribaldry Before the Code". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 March 2013. 

External links[edit]