Wednesday 21 October 2009

Caught Plastered (1931)

Director: William Seiter
Stars: Bert Wheeler, Robert Woolsey and Dorothy Lee
Vaudeville stars Wheeler & Woolsey play vaudeville stars Tanner & Higginbotham here, arriving in Lockville without a dime and eager to find a way to make some money. They befriend an old lady called Mother Talley who they find crying on the bus because she's about to lose her drug store because she hasn't a clue how to run it, so naturally they run it for her. It's on its last legs, as evidenced by Harry Waters, the bank man who comes in to point out that she has thirty days to pay back her loans. Waters is played by Jason Robards, though not the one you'd think. This is 1930 so it's Jason Robards Sr, before he ever found the need to use the Sr, and he looks surprisingly like Marlon Brando, especially in profile.

Meanwhile Lockville is beginning to succumb to the plague of liquor and the cops are eager to quash it before it takes hold. Chief Morton believes that these two strangers in town are planning to set up a racket out of the drug store, mostly because Waters tells him precisely that. If you've seen a single Wheeler & Woolsey movie, you'll know from moment one that he's going to be the villain and if he's suggesting that our heroes are bootleggers then that must be his racket. You'll also know that Dorothy Lee will be around somewhere to provide a love interest for Bert Wheeler, and sure enough she soon turns up as the chief's daughter, Peggy Morton.

The story is never the most important thing in a Wheeler & Woolsey film, that being reserved for the gags, but there's more of it than normal here. Waters wants the property badly so when our heroes turn the store around to the degree that they'll be able to pay off their debts, he tries an ambitious scheme to stop them in their tracks. He cons them into buying some sort of lemon soda that is really his bootlegged liquor, not that they notice in the slightest even when they get Peggy drunk as a skunk. Somehow these shenanigans take precedence over the jokes, which are at least as risqué as usual. 'I love to curl up with a book,' says Miss Newton. 'I'd like to see you try,' replies Higginbotham.

There's more vaudeville here than normal, not least because our pair of vaudevillians play vaudevillians. One idea they have to drum up sales is to set up a radio show, the Sunshine Hour, broadcast out of the store, and that gives Wheeler the opportunity to sing to Woolsey's piano, with Dorothy Lee providing backup. The pair also try to make sad old Mother Talley laugh by performing a set of gags which must have been old even in 1931 but the delivery is perfect and we still can't help laughing even as we groan. This is hardly essential but it's a fun way to spend an hour.

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