Bright Lights Film Journal

<em>Dixiana</em> on DVD: Has Everything but Bill Robinson’s Feet

Where’s the rest of him?

Why, Roan Group Archival Entertainment, why? Why did you go to the trouble of restoring the thoroughly lame 1930 musical Dixiana and then fail to notice that you were lopping off Bill Robinson’s feet when you reformatted the picture for modern TV screens?

On paper, Dixiana sounds intriguing. A 1930 musical starring Bebe Daniels, with a twenty-minute color finale set in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, featuring Bill Robinson? Yeah, I’d pay for that. Except that Robinson is barely on screen for two minutes1; except that none of the songs are memorable2; except that 80 percent of the film’s running time is devoted to the mind-numbing antics of the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey.

Dixiana starts with a blast: Wheeler and Woolsey dressed up as ostriches, pulling a giant egg out of which Bebe hatches. Nothing in the rest of the film comes close to this bit, largely because so much of the film is devoted to Bert ‘n’ Bob. If you’re addicted to the truly obscure, you may enjoy the German dialect humor, the screeching melodrama (“You’re lovely when you want revenge!”), and the lumbering comic bits, but my palate isn’t quite that jaded.

Wheeler and Woolsey were one of the most popular comedy teams in the country during the thirties, making three or four films a year until 1938, when Woolsey died.3 Seen today, their popularity is incomprehensible, except when they’re doing some song and dance with the lovely Dorothy Lee, which doesn’t happen nearly enough in Dixiana.4 Strangely, the trio has inspired one of the best websites I’ve ever seen,

In addition to Dixiana, the DVD has La Cucaracha, a 1934 musical short that is the first three-color Technicolor film ever produced. It’s a definite curio, but not much more than that – worth seeing, but probably not worth buying. If nostalgia’s your bag, save your money and check out the website. It’s a gas.

  1. And, as I’ve noted, he ain’t got no feet. This is frequently a problem with film to TV transfers, but Dixiana is the worst I’ve seen. Most of the time, the bottom of the screen is hitting Robinson in mid-ankle. The faux pas is doubly strange, because the rest of the film is a model restoration, and the liner notes mention Robinson’s performance as the highlight of the film! []
  2. Ever heard of “Dixiana”? “Here’s to the Old Days”? “My One Ambition Is You”? “A Lady Loved a Soldier”? or “Guiding Star”? I didn’t think so. []
  3. Wheeler and Woolsey did 27 films together, with titles like Oh! Oh! Cleopatra, Caught Plastered, Hips, Hips, Hooray!, The Kentucky Kernels, and The Cockeyed Cavaliers. They were not low-budget performers. For directors they had the likes of George Stevens and Mark Sandrich, who did Top Hat and Follow the Fleet, among others. Dixiana is the only Wheeler and Woolsey vehicle available on home video. []
  4. Bert Wheeler comes across as a second-rate Billy Crystal in Dixiana, while Bob Woolsey resembles a fourth-rate W.C. Fields. In the mid-fifties, Bert picked up some spare change as “Smoky Joe,” the comic relief in Brave Eagle, a syndicated TV western about Indians. Even though the Indians were the good guys in “Brave Eagle,” I doubt if Bert’s act would have passed muster with today’s PC Police. []