The downright peculiar pleasures of pre-Code Wheeler and Woolsey
In his Bright Lights review of the botched DVD transfer of Dixiana,1 Alan Vanneman slams the “mind-numbing antics” of the comedy duo Wheeler and Woolsey. A fair enough comment, given that this was only their third film appearance, and they played in support of non-comedic stars in this very stiff and bloated early sound musical. Based on a viewing of some of their 18 starring vehicles (all made at RKO between 1930 and 1937, with the brilliant exception of So This Is Africa), it would be easy to lose patience with their tiresome, talky vaudeville-derived shtick. But when their antics happen in the right vehicle, Wheeler and Woolsey can elicit a more receptive response from viewers 70 years after their heyday. They were lucky enough to appear in a compatible series of films in the all-too short period between 1930 and 1934, between the articulation of a Production of Code and its very strict enforcement, beginning in the summer of 1934.2 Going back in cinema history to retrieve the Wheeler and Woolsey starrers that attracted the most vexed attention from the censors (at the state, local, and industry level) reveals a body of comedic work that today seems like an early, and enduring, but largely overlooked chapter in the representation of “genderfuck” on film. Films like Diplomaniacs (1933), Peach O’Reno (1931), and So This Is Africa (1933) outraged bluenoses in the early 1930s for precisely the reasons that they stimulate, rather than numb, sensibilities in Bush’s America: they challenged conservative sex and gender norms then, giving them still a great deal of relevance now.
In his recent comprehensive history of gay representation in Hollywood film, Screened Out,6 Richard Barrios describes an extended sequence in Rio Rita (1929) ending with Wheeler and Woolsey slapping each other and kissing each other on the lips — in their very first screen appearance. “What were they thinking?,” he asks (45). Because the more things change, the more they remain the same, it’s pretty easy to answer: just exactly what we would think today, for comedy based on transgressing gender and sex norms is as good for a laugh now as it was then. We don’t really need Bakhtin’s theory of the value of carnivalesque (although he’s useful) to tell us that comedy alleviates a huge amount of anxiety, psychic and social, as we temporarily remake the world in a topsy-turvy way to break boundaries and then, comfortingly, reinstantiate them. I wouldn’t want to make a case for this, or any other pre-Code comedy, being “liberationist.” What comedy disrupts, comedy usually comfortingly repairs. Yet, the mere disruption itself threatens many reactionaries, because the disruption of confining norms can embolden and empower those on the margins by at least opening up the possibility of difference. Wheeler and Woolsey’s “queerness,” on ample display in the films I’m highlighting here, isn’t a true reflection of their own personal self-expression; rather, their “queerness” is just a concentrated site in which long-standing comedic traditions of drag, “dirty” double entendre, gender role reversal, and presentation of non-normative sexual identities and behaviors (what entertainment journals in the 1930s like Variety racily called “panze humor”) were on ample display between 1930 and 1934. It was this short period when extremely conservative standards of allowable subject matter and representation were disregarded by Hollywood filmmakers and their employers, who were under pressure to fill theater seats in a depressed economy. At least a half dozen7 of Wheeler and Woolsey’s starring vehicles could provide a perfect encapsulation of just how marvelously free (or appallingly lax) Hollywood’s standards got in the first four and a half years of the 1930s.
On the other hand, Wheeler’s soft, round face and high-pitched voice made him more amenable to full-on “glamour drag,” which was used to spectacular effect in Peach O’Reno. For almost a third of the film’s length, Wheeler poses as the Widow Hanover, “professional divorce correspondent.” The film is predicated on Wheeler’s drag act being completely convincing to virtually every other character in the film. That he succeeds until the end, when everything becomes unraveled, is a testimony to one of the best female impersonations on screen before Some Like It Hot. Wheeler appears in a black V-neck gown with a white fur collar, but doesn’t alter the standard pitch of his voice, merely the inflections on words like “ducky.” So Wheeler doesn’t sound like a woman, so much as a stereotyped pre-Code pansy. For the viewer, who is more knowing than the characters in the film who don’t question that Wheeler is an actual woman, it’s not so much that he is a woman, but a man who is absolutely determined to erase all traces of conventional masculinity, but never totally succeeds. Gender is never so plainly a matter of performance as it is in glamour drag and Peach O’Reno is fully attuned to that. One of the Widow’s slobbering suitors remarks, on inspecting her costume, “that’s a swell-lookin’ dress you got on there, baby; I guess you believe clothes make the man.” Even before Wheeler dons women’s clothes, he balks by saying to Woolsey, “I could never pass for a woman, I don’t look masculine enough.”
Wheeler also puts on a woman’s feathery negligee and a manicurist’s frilly outfit at various points in Diplomaniacs, and in So This Is Africa, he, like his partner, appears as a native “Amazon” woman. So This Is Africa, made on the fly at Columbia during a brief salary dispute with RKO, contrives to mock all kinds of perversion and sexual violence. As Edward Watz details in his exhaustive book on the duo, Will Hays proclaimed it was the “rawest picture ever seen” (181). The National Board of Review condemned the film: “Nothing as salacious has ever come before the National Board in eight years of reviewing … It outrages every common standard of decency” (qtd. in Watz 181). The cross-dressing in So This Is Africa only adds to the outrageous aspects of the sexual comedy, for the films plays around with the possibility that coercive forms of sex (being, as the film euphemistically calls it, “loved to death” or “kissed to death”) are perpetrated by both men and women. Wheeler and Woolsey have to “dress up” like their assailants, Amazon women, in order to escape from being attacked as men. Surrendering men’s clothes is a necessary form of self-preservation from sexually aggressive women. But doing so only makes them vulnerable to the invading men (“Tarzans”). As they are carried into a hut by two hunky men, they protest, “Boys! Boys! You’re making a terrible mistake!” Most subversively of all, So This Is Africa even refuses to restore gender order: at the end of the film, Wheeler and Woolsey have been rescued from their male assailants, but their female rescuers have made them perpetual women. The last shots show the boys still in “jungle girl” drag, at their washtubs, made maternal by their children strapped to their backs in papooses. The entire well-regulated order of sex and gender has irretrievably broken down.8
Wheeler and Woolsey carried the sexual double entendre, a staple of vaudeville and burlesque in the 1920s, with them into the early sound film, and, fortuitously, Code enforcement was sufficiently slack to enable some great verbal gags to make their way into their work. Not that it went unnoticed by critics of “smut.” Variety remarked that, in general, Wheeler and Woolsey “went to extremes to bolster” their weak films “with rowdy byplay” (qtd. in Watz 154). Variety also noted that the preview version of So This Is Africa went “overboard on blue gags,” but called the writing “smart” (qtd. in Watz 154). Some degree of sophistication, at least, is required to make lines have at least more than one meaning, and Wheeler and Woolsey’s writers provided much verbal double meaning, or euphemistic use of language, to allude to the actuality, and pleasures, of non-procreative sex.
Exhaustively citing all the sexual innuendo in Wheeler and Woolsey’s best films would be virtually impossible, but here are a few choice examples. In Diplomaniacs, the sexually aggressive Fifi tries to assassinate Woolsey’s character by kissing him to death, but he survives and causes the vamp to drop to the ground, her body smoking. Wheeler asks him: “Hey, where’s your cigar?” Woolsey confidently claims: “She swallowed it.” Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but never in a Wheeler and Woolsey film. There are usually a couple of verbal gags in the smuttiest of their films centered on the now-defunct use of the verb “make” (as in “have sex”). A tattooed woman (with an anchor on her breast) onboard ship in Diplomaniacs is said, by Woolsey, to be “makin’ the navy.” In Peach O’Reno, when Wheeler’s wig catches fire from a lit match, tough-guy Ace, bewildered at the character’s cross-dressing, remarks, “I smell punk,” with knowing audiences aware of “punk”‘s meaning in the homosexual “underworld.” When a female character remarks that Wheeler’s Widow Hanover “looks like a loose woman,” Woolsey punningly assures her: “Don’t worry, she’ll be tight before the night is over.” The best gag in Half-Shot at Sunrise (1930) has Dorothy Lee’s character, a rebellious military brat, diss the lecherous Woolsey by raising her pert buttocks in the air and snapping, “and that’s for your Papa!” Woolsey, not intimidated, smirks: “Papa gets the best of everything.” In Cracked Nuts (1931), the seductive Leni Stengel vamps Woolsey by saying, “Your royal highness is so cute.” In a verbal gag typical of the relentless focus on rear ends in the films, Woolsey leeringly checks her out and remarks, “Yeah, well, yours isn’t so bad either.” Girl Crazy clearly jokes around with sodomy in a moment when Woolsey assumes Wheeler is goosing him, when in fact, it’s beefy badguy Stanley Ridges shoving his pistols in Woolsey’s backside, and reproachfully says “Quit it…cut out that backgammon business.” In Half-Shot at Sunrise Wheeler (impersonating a military officer), calls attention to his new status by saying, “I may look like a million dollars, but I’m going to be much easier to make” (batting his eyes at Woolsey). Immediately thereafter, when kissed on both cheeks by Woolsey wearing a fake beard, he exclaims: “Beaver!” And, of course, some of the most suggestive humor is non-verbal. Even sadomasochism is up for a laugh, as in Peach O’Reno when Woolsey smacks a woman with a flyswatter and she turns around and smiles seductively (he smiles, too).
Masculine Women, Feminine Men
Pansies and Bulls
Since “panze humor” was commonplace in American film before mid-1934,9it’s not surprising that Wheeler and Woolsey’s Pre-Code films contain many gay and lesbian characters (however “coded”) but much merriment also ensues at the possibility that anyone can cross over from one sexual category to another when placed in unpredictable situations, or can “pretend” to be gay for comic effect. Outsized, deep-voiced, mannish women are played by such consistent comic foils for Woolsey as Edna Mae Oliver, Jobyna Howland, Kitty Kelly, and Natalie Moorhead. Many gags depend on Woolsey finding them more sexually alluring than the audience does. His insistent wooing of them breaks them down into girlish giggles and hand fluttering. Among the obvious pansies populating their films include the excitable male office receptionist (“Stunning! Stunning!”) in Peach O’Reno; the male perfume customer in Caught Plastered (1931); the carefully coiffed man who faints in Hold ‘Em Jail‘s speakeasy; the haughty butler in Diplomaniacs; and the dance director in Hips, Hips, Hooray.
Wheeler, on the other hand, and while there is no doubt that he will always get the female ingenue at the end of each film, is always less aware of his own, and other men’s, attraction to men and male effeminacy. When he kisses his cigar-wagging partner, he’s the one who usually initiates the act (however inadvertently, for example, by being “asleep” in Hips, Hips, Hooray! ) In fact, he’s frequently oblivious, as in Half-Shot at Sunrise when he skips back to the kitchen and Woolsey remarks, “I bet he comes back with a cream puff.” Thereupon, Wheeler capers about with a small tablecloth, narcissistically lost in his own willingness to surrender conventional masculinity. Of course, nothing in any of these films dissociates homosexuality from femininity, but the films never made claims to be “radical.”
In Diplomaniacs, as Wheeler and Woolsey make their dramatic entrance into the ship’s dining room wearing outlandish military garb complete with knee breeches, Wheeler turns to his sidekick and remarks, out of the side of his mouth, “If we can get away with wearing these pants, we can get away with anything.” In the period 1930-1934, they did indeed get away with a lot. Wheeler and Woolsey’s best comedies adopt this provocative attitude of “anything goes,” and Depression audiences ate them up (Watz details how profitable most of their films were, except for the short period when David O. Selznick ran RKO into the ground financially). Their spirit of “anything for a laugh” caused significant repercussions with their critics, who frequently cited them (even more than Mae West) as responsible for dragging American film into the gutter. While their comedy gets a “G” rating on TV broadcasts 70 years later, the best of their films exemplify the free-wheeling and Rabelaisian spirit of the Pre-Code era. So much so, that the first of their films after the strict enforcement of the Code by Joseph Breen’s Production Code Administration, Kentucky Kernels (1934) co-starred them with a kid, Spanky McFarland. Movies became more “innocent,” and Wheeler and Woolsey’s riotous comedic challenges to gender-sex conventions lay as buried treasure for rediscovery in a later period undergoing its own culture wars. Wheeler and Woolsey’s best films show us, in a new century, how little changes when it comes to comedy’s expression of anxiety and delight in “perversion” of all kinds.
- Vanneman, “Dixiana on DVD Has Everything But Bill Robinson’s Feet,” Bright Lights 34. He piles on the negative critique of the duo in this review. Tino Balio adds to contemporary critical consensus in Grand Design (Scribners, 1993) by dismissing them as a kind of “road company” rip-off of Zeppo and Harpo Marx (263). But Bert Wheeler (1895-1968) and Robert Woolsey (1889-1938) had developed their complementary comedic personas during the run of Ziegfeld’s Rio Rita in 1928: Wheeler the earnest and naive, nasal-voiced male ingenue, Woolsey the cigar-wielding, four-eyed blowhard comically oblivious to his own charmless sense of self-importance. They didn’t deviate from this in their subsequent decade-long pairing. [↩]
- For detailed accounts of the history of the imposition of the Code in 1930, its subsequent lax enforcement, and the protests and political machinations leading up to the iron-handed enforcement by Production Code Administration Chief Joseph Breen after 1 July 1934, I can recommend Thomas Doherty’s Pre-Code Hollywood (Columbia University Press, 1999) and Mark Vieira’s Sin in Soft Focus (Abrams, 1999). [↩]
- Maltin’s chapter on Wheeler and Woolsey in his 1970 survey of Movie Comedy Teams aptly remarks on the varying quality of their films, but calls for “at least one more look” at the duo (85). [↩]
- Henry Jenkins, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic (Columbia University Press, 1992). Jenkins provides the most sustained academic analysis of one of Wheeler and Woolsey’s films, in this case Diplomaniacs (1933) as an archetypal example of a kind of “anarchistic comedy” also practiced by the Marx Brothers (185-213). [↩]
- I’m referring, naturally, to NBC’s successful sitcom Will and Grace, CBS’s The Amazing Race, and Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as just three instances of contemporary gay visibility in mass media. [↩]
- Richard Barrios, Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall (Routledge, 2003). [↩]
- For a full account of Wheeler and Woolsey’s career and detailed description of all their films and each film’s production, there’s Edward Watz’s superb monograph, Wheeler and Woolsey: the Vaudeville Comic Duo and their Films, 1929-1937 (McFarland, 1994). Vanneman also notes the existence of the great fansite here. The handiest filmography can be found on the Internet Movie Database. Wheeler and Woolsey’s first two starring vehicles, Half-Shot at Sunrise and Hook, Line, and Sinker are now available on VHS from VCI Home Entertainment. Many of their RKO films show up on Turner Classic Movies. A 65-minute release cut of So This Is Africa circulates among “interested collectors.” [↩]
- An imaginary “African” jungle-wilderness is the only permissible or conceivable space for all of this to happen, of course; a reversion to “savage” and “primitive” gender/sex relations. Needless to say, like most film comedy of this period, Wheeler and Woolsey’s comedy would fail any litmus test for enlightened social attitudes. [↩]
- See Barrios (37-122), as well as David Lugowski’s article in Cinema Journal (38.2, Winter 1999) on “Queering the (New) Deal: Lesbian and Gay Representation and the Depression-Era Cultural Politics of Hollywood’s Production Code” (3-35). [↩]