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Sunday, 30 December 2007

Kentucky Kernels (1934) George Stevens

Rich young Jerry Bronson is despondent over his inability to marry the love of his life and so commits suicide by leaping off a bridge into a river. He doesn't end up dead though, he ends instead up in a net thrown out by Wheeler and Woolsey to catch fish. They're out of work magicians lamenting the demise of vaudeville, and they take it upon themselves to help out Jerry by adopting a child from the Children's Welfare League for him to look after. Enter George 'Spanky' McFarland, playing an orphan called Spanky Milford whose idea of a great time is to break any piece of glass he can find.

At the same time, exit Jerry Bronson, who finally manages to elope with his Joan thus leaving young Spanky with the Great Elmer and Company for safekeeping. In case that isn't enough story, Spanky comes into a fortune, inheriting a large Kentucky estate, so off they all run to Banesville unaware that there's a Hatfield and McCoy thing going on with the Milfords and the Wakefields. In fact they're more than unaware, Willie falls for Gloria on the train and Gloria is a Wakefield.

This is my second Wheeler and Woolsey, following Cracked Nuts which played to me like a Marx Brothers movie with only Groucho and Zeppo. This one cements that opinion but at least there are a couple of other talented comedians on board to improve things. Spanky was only six at the time but he already had two years of solid experience behind him as a member of Our Gang and he steals the show with aplomb. He was apparently trained by Stan Laurel but there's obvious influence from both Laurel and Hardy here. He even gets part of a song and it's the best bit.

The other is Willie Best, but given that this is 1934 he's still credited as Sleep 'n' Eat. Like his fellow early African American actor Stepin Fetchit, he always seemed to play a lazy good for nothing janitor or porter or servant, and it's often painful to watch his antics from the perspective of an ostensibly more civilised era. However he was as talented as anyone else in the cast and probably far more so. People who ought to know, like Hal Roach and Bob Hope, saw him as a huge talent.

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