Tuesday 27 October 2009

Peach-O-Reno (1931)

Director: William A Seiter
Stars: Bert Wheeler, Robert Woolsey and Dorothy Lee
Mr & Mrs Joseph Bruno are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, but this is a story about Reno, the biggest little city in the world, so you know that can't last. It takes about five minutes for the dinner to turn vicious and violent and prompt them both to race to Reno to get a divorce each. The law was allowing quickie divorces there in 1931 and it was was allowing gambling too, so Wheeler and Woolsey were quick on the mark to combine these two concepts into a comedy feature. It turns out to be one of their best, with some very sharp and risque gags and only a few misses. It only begins with the ethos of 'Marry in haste, divorce in Reno.'

This is unmistakeably a precode, joyously and blissfully so. Wattles & Swift are the most popular divorce lawyers in town, who advertise on the train platform and have a bus waiting to transport them directly to their offices. However, it's only a law office during the day as it turns into a casino at night, every piece of furniture transforming into something else, up to and including the big set of bookshelves that revolve around to become the orchestra pit, containing the Wattles & Swift 10 Alimony Jumpers. Of course the clientele are precisely the same and so are the employees, who strip off their clothes on cue to serve drinks.

The Brunos comprise the basic framework of the story, not that it matters. They both end up at Wattles & Swift, though separately, so Joe hires Wattles and Aggie hires Swift. To provide grounds for the divorce they even arrange to have them seen in public with members of the opposite sex, so Swift takes Aggie to the casino while Joe goes with Wattles, who dresses up in drag without Joe's knowledge. After all, he has to hide anyway, as Ace Crosby, a hard drinking, fast shooting, gambling man from Arizona, is in town to shoot dead the man who gave his wife a divorce: Wattles, of course. To complicate the divorce still further, the two young Bruno daughters turn up too in an attempt to talk their parents out of such a drastic step.

Nobody who's seen a Wheeler & Woolsey movie before will be surprised to find that one of them is played by Dorothy Lee and sure enough, she's Prudence Bruno. Her sister Pansy is played by Zelma O'Neal, who gets a fun scene on the floor with Robert Woolsey but little else. Lee usually got much more of a part than this but she hardly gets anything to do until a song with Wheeler two thirds of the way through the film. What makes this one so special are the risque gags, always the best thing about Wheeler & Woolsey comedies but even better and even more risque than usual and I spent half the time laughing and the other half wondering how they got away with it. They got away with it because it's a precode, of course.

Most are inevitably about marriage. 'Are you married?' Swift asks Prudence, who replies 'No, I'm just worn out on account of the trip.' I recognise some, including the old gag I know from when Winston Churchill used a version on Mary Astor. 'If I had to live with your father again I'd give him poison,' says Aggie to her daughter. Her husband replies, 'If I had to live together with you again I'd take it.' Best of the lot has to be when Mrs Doubleday-Doubleday (that's four days, the week's almost over) shows Julius Swift her legs. 'Were you looking at these?' she asks, only for him to reply, 'I beg your pardon, madam, I'm above that.' Most outrageous is one gag that doesn't even need a punchline. When Wattles dresses up in drag so Joe Bruno can be seen with a woman in the casino, he's wearing his college football pin. Joe asks him how he can wear it, given that you only get one when you make the team. Wattles merely looks coy and laughs.

They go on and on and I wish this snip of a 63 minute movie would do the same. It's my sixth Wheeler & Woolsey comedy and it's the certainly the best of the bunch so far. While some of their films attempt to build a storyline but do it so flimsily that it falls apart if you even look at it, this one doesn't even make an attempt. We get a setup, we get a set, we get some actors and then in come the gags and that's all that matters. Peach-O-Reno is definitely the peach of their collective filmography thus far for me. I'd happily watch it again next week.

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