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Tuesday 20 October 2009

Hook, Line and Sinker (1930)

Director: Edward Cline
Stars: Bert Wheeler, Robert Woolsey and Dorothy Lee
Sound was new to the movies in 1930, so the opening siren wasn't as annoying to the audiences of the day as it might seem to us watching now. It's a police motorcycle, a really old Harley Davidson, and the cop is pulling them over for traffic violations. That never works regardless of the comedy team on the tandem and it doesn't work here. It's a Wheeler & Woolsey comedy and as they're playing insurance salesmen called Wilbur Boswell and Addington Ganzy, they don't just avoid the ticket they sell a policy too. After all, 'people are dying this year who have never died before.'

While they're held up, up drives Mary Marsh, played by Wheeler & Woolsey's frequent co-star, Dorothy Lee, who I've always felt looked like Marcy Darcy playing Betty Boop. She's running away from home because her rich mother wants her to marry their attorney, John Blackwell. To avoid this, she's heading off to a hotel that her uncle gave her, the Hotel Ritz de Riviera in Floralhurst, which is as utterly unlike what its name suggests as could comfortably be imagined. Naturally Boswell and Ganzy go with her to find that it's more than a little rundown.

They clean it up and persuade the papers to publicise it as the place to be in society that season, a haven for the best and most important people with a large safe to store their valuable jewels. Sure enough, a whole host of nobility promptly check in, from Duchess Bessie von Essie to the Duke of Winchester, but not a one of them is real. John Blackwell is also Buffalo Blackie, underworld kingpin, whose headquarters is under the hotel, and his men aren't the only crooks to turn up either, all of whom are after those non-existent jewels. As the old chestnut goes, hilarity ensues.

Well not quite hilarity, as there are some notable duds in and amongst the hits, but there are certainly some hits. I loved Wilbur and Mary haggling about how many kids they'll have by ringing up numbers on a cash register, the gunfight is as fun as it is inevitable and there are even some solid stunts. I know this furniture must have been made out of balsa wood but there are still some powerful hits that can't help but make us cringe. There are also some highly quotable lines. 'Is it burglar proof?' asks the Duchess about the safe. 'It is so far,' replies Ganzy. 'Are you married?' Mary's mother asks him? 'No, I got this way from riding a bicycle.'

I don't know enough about the comedy teams of the era to suggest who influenced who, something that isn't as simple as just checking the release dates of key movies. The comics of this era were mostly vaudeville comedians too, usually starting there and progressing onto the big screen, sometimes alternating the two, and who knows who stole what from who on the vaudeville circuit. What I do know is that Wheeler & Woolsey were one of the first successful screen double acts, if not the very first, and their substantial success at the time influenced many.

This is the earliest I've seen them, their first success being Rio Rita a year earlier, and I'm seeing an obvious Marx Brothers influence, with Woolsey as Groucho, complete with glasses and cigar (though no oversized moustache), and with Jobyna Howland playing the foil that Margaret Dumont played to Groucho. My wife, growing up in the States, sees a lot of George Burns in Woolsey, and while Burns came to features later and not as successfully, he already had a quarter of a century of entertaining behind him, since starting out as a singer at the age of seven in 1903.

The double act isn't well remembered today, partly because it ended with Woolsey's death in 1938 and perhaps mostly because the highly suggestive nature of the jokes couldn't switch over to television to find a new audience in the fifties. Conversely it's the adult nature of the material that fit the precode era so well that appeals to me more than the more toned down humour that would fill the screen over the next few decades. This is 1930 so they had four more years of freedom to go, which constituted half their screen career as a double act. Given that they were prolific filmmakers, that leaves a lot of risque features to work through. This one's predictable and inconsistent, but all the films I've seen of theirs have been no less than fun thus far and this is no exception.

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