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Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Mummy's Boys (1936)

Director: Fred Guiol
Stars: Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey
Those in the know seem to regard Mummy's Boys as one of the worst Wheeler and Woolsey comedies. Some, like Edward Watz, who wrote a book on this pioneering double act called Wheeler & Woolsey: The Vaudeville Comic Duo and Their Films 1929-1937, called it the very worst of them all, describing it as 'an embarrassment from shaky start to forced finish.' I'm only about a third of the way through their 23 films together but this is certainly the least of them thus far, even though their films were notoriously inconsistent and usually full of as many bad jokes as good ones. I wouldn't recommend Cracked Nuts or Kentucky Kernels either but they're certainly better than this.

It's an Egyptian curse movie as we soon find out when Egyptologist Col Robert Stilwell dies and the papers proudly proclaim that the curse of King Pharatime's tomb has claimed its ninth victim. The tenth dies while expounding on how preposterous the whole idea of a curse is and that leaves three, because the men who explored this tomb laughed so much at superstition that there were thirteen of them. The three remaining are Moroni Olsen as Dr Edward Sterling; Phillip Browning, played by Frank M Thomas, who comes off as a lesser version of Jack Holt; and his lovely daughter Mary, played by Barbara Pepper because Dorothy Lee's last film with Wheeler & Woolsey was Silly Billies earlier the same year.

In the face of such numbers, Browning decides to return all the treasures he took from King Pharatime's tomb and puts an ad in the paper to hire scientific excavators to work with him to do so. Enter our intrepid heroes, this time called Aloysius C Whittaker and Stanley Wright, and they're ditch diggers so naturally answer the ad, wearing tablecloths on their head to pretend they're Egyptian. Needless to say they're comedic idiots but we get the added treat that Wright has a terrible memory. Well, that's not much of a treat, because it's merely an excuse for him to need help to remember what he forgot to remember. That those lines are the best in the film, right up there with five minutes of people managing not to say 'as the crow flies', is really not much of a compliment.

Much of this one would have been bad as a children's school play, which it often seems to be. There's not a single risque Wheeler and Woolsey gem to be found, the script descending to the depths of throwing pots at people and shouting 'come out, come out, wherever you are'. The chase scenes are straight out of Scooby Doo with the villain of the piece unable to catch the heroes in an enclosed room because hey, there are pots to run around and butts to paddle. In case you thought it couldn't get any lower, there's even Sleep 'n Eat himself, Willie Best, to make jokes about. Of course nobody would see him in the dark! Yep, that's the level we're working at here.

The script is the worst thing by far, though it has competition in the sets and the jokes. Amazingly there are no less than four people with their names out there as writers: Jack Townley and Lew Lipton wrote the story, which was turned into a screenplay by Townley, Philip Epstein and Charles Roberts. There isn't enough material here to warrant one name let alone four, especially as they're names with pedigrees going as far back as the silent era and with many more credits to come. Surely they could have turned out something better than this, especially as one of them, Philip Epstein, went on to some serious quality material, turning out screenplays for minor little movies like The Strawberry Blonde, Casablanca and Arsenic and Old Lace. I bet he tried to pretend this one didn't exist.

It's directed by Fred Guiol who had also made The Rainmakers and Silly Billies with Wheeler and Woolsey in 1936, apparently a pretty poor time in their careers, perhaps unable to find good material that they could get past the production code. The direction is poor but not awful, the script outdoing it by far, but it's hard to come up with compliments here. You can tell a film is bad when even Willie Best spends most of it hovering around doing nothing and not even being funny in the process. I'm still not convinced that man ever got a worthy part to play in his entire career but he could be funny sitting down and funny standing up and funny doing anything in between. Here he's given precisely nothing to do except make a few facial expressions, shriek a couple of times and show us his spindly legs. It's a shame that he didn't get more in any of his movies but this is worse than usual even for him.

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