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The Story Of Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey

` The comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Bob Woolsey rocketed to stardom in the early 1930s. Bob's characterization of
the wise cracking, cigar smoking smart alec, combined with Bert's lovable simpleton persona, proved to be a winning
combination. But while other great comedy teams of the 1930s are still fondly remembered today, Wheeler & Woolsey are
almost forgotten. This is probably because other teams, like Laurel & Hardy, The Marx Brothers, and The Three Stooges,
continued to appear in movies and on television into the 1950s, whereas the Wheeler & Woolsey story ended with Bob's
death in 1938. This is a shame, because Wheeler & Woolsey at their best were just as funny and entertaining as any
other film comedians, before or since. Films like
Diplomaniacs and Caught Plastered are full of goofy, wholesome humor,
and are sure to provoke laughter, even now, more than 70 years after they were made.
Bert Wheeler, frequent co-star Dorothy Lee, and Bob Woolsey
` Bert Wheeler was born in Patterson, New Jersey on
April 7, 1895. Even as a young boy, he dreamed of
being an actor. At the age of 16, he left for New York
City and began performing in vaudeville. By 1915 he
was appearing at the Palace Theater. He continued to
improve his act, and finally made it to Broadway as
the featured comedian in the
Ziegfeld Follies Of 1923.
` Robert Woolsey was born in Oakland, California on
August 14, 1889. He also took up performing as a
teenager, beginning with a tour of county fairs in the
Midwest. He returned to California, where he worked
for several years before setting out for New York. By
1919 he was also working on Broadway, where he
appeared in a number of successful shows.
` By 1927, Bert and Bob were veteran performers
who were both well known to New York audiences,
when they were both signed up as the featured
comedians in the Broadway show
Rio Rita. The pair
had never worked together before, but soon developed a chemistry together. It was here that they first adapted their
characterizations of "the sap" and "the wise guy" to complement each other.
Rio Rita soon became a big success and had
a run of 494 performances. When it finally closed in early 1929, newly formed RKO Radio Pictures bought the rights to
turn it into a feature film. Bert & Bob were signed to recreate their stage roles in the picture. During the filming, the pair
first met with Dorothy Lee, who would go on to co-star with them in 13 of their films. As a result of their work in the
filmed version of
Rio Rita (which was remade in 1942 with Abbott & Costello), RKO offered the two comedians the
chance to star in their own feature,
The Cuckoos, as well as an appearance in the musical comedy Dixiana.
` Up to this point Bert and Bob had not thought of themselves as a team, just two comedians who happenened to be
working together. But during production of
The Cuckoos they decided to officially become partners. Their early efforts
were uneven, with some first class comedy sequences, but also some sequences where the films would start to drag.
The pair also had to learn how to perform in front of a camera, without feedback from an audience. But as time went on
their output improved.
The Cuckoos did very well, but their next picture, Half Shot At Sunrise, was a fantastic success,
and propelled Wheeler & Woolsey to international stardom. By the time they made
Hook, Line & Sinker in 1930, the duo
were among the biggest comedy stars of the time, and were making quite a lot of money for RKO.
` For some reason, at this point RKO decided to try them out as single performers, without each
other. Both Bert and Bob starred in their own features (Bert with Dorothy Lee), but neither film was
a hit. Following this experiment, Wheeler and Woolsey came back with a string of features which
are undoubtedly their best work. Beginning with
Caught Plastered, their next 10 features were the
best of their careers. At times the films were so wildly inventive that they were surreal (a good
example being
Diplomaniacs). At other times they were more down to Earth, but just plain
hysterically funny (example:
Girl Crazy). The boys were at the pinnacle of their careers from 1931
to 1935, turning out two or three movies per year.
` During their stay at RKO, Wheeler & Woolsey managed to work with a number of other big stars.
Former silent comedy star Roscoe Arbuckle co-wrote
The Cuckoos. Boris Karloff appears with the
boys in
Cracked Nuts. Betty Grable was featured in both Hold 'Em Jail and The Nitwits . Comedy
stalwarts like Edgar Kennedy, Thelma Todd, Margaret Dumont, and Charlie Hall, all had parts in
Wheeler & Woolsey pictures. Bert and Bob also appeared in the odd short film The
Stolen Jools
, a fund raising promotional film for the NVA (a group which looked after
former actors who were now sick with serious illnesses) that also featured Buster
Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, and The Little Rascals. One of the Little Rascals, Spanky
McFarland, also starred as Bert & Bob's adopted son in
Kentucky Kernels.
` In 1933, Wheeler & Woolsey made their only film for a studio other than RKO Radio.
The time had come to renegotiate their contract with RKO, and Bert had let it be
known that he was unhappy with what they had been recieving. Columbia Pictures
made the boys an offer to come and make a picture with them. The result was
So This
Is Africa
, not a bad picture, but not as good as some of the others the boys had done.
The picture was very popular with the public, however, and was a top money maker
for Columbia that year. When RKO saw what had happened, they were willing to give
Bert & Bob almost anything to get them back. Wheeler & Woolsey returned to RKO,
and Columbia went in search of new comedians to take their place, ultimately signing
the Three Stooges. After their return to RKO, Wheeler & Woolsey produced what
many fans feel were their three best pictures. The first was
Diplomaniacs, followed by
Hips, Hips, Hooray! and Cockeyed Cavaliers. Wheeler & Woolsey were by this time
among the biggest names in comedy, but unfortunately it would all end very soon.
` Following The Nitwits in 1935, RKO assigned new writers and a new director to work on the Wheeler & Woolsey
pictures. As a result, the quality of the films immediately declined. The duo's next three pictures were all pretty bad, with
Mummy's Boys being the absolute worst of them all. Disgusted with what they had been given to work with, Bert & Bob
even began to turn in lackluster performances themselves. The critics quickly turned against them, but their fans were a
little more patient. Finally, in 1937 they were given a worthwhile script which produced a very good picture,
On Again, Off
. But as work progressed on the film, it soon became apparant to all involved that something was seriously wrong
with Robert Woolsey. Bob had learned that he was suffering from a kidney disease. Despite his waning energy levels, Bob
shows no signs of being ill in the film. It would be the last great Wheeler & Woolsey picture.
` After a number of delays due to Bob's illness, work began on the last Wheeler & Woolsey film,
High Flyers, in the
summer of 1937. By this time, Bob knew that this would be his last picture, and he gave it everything he had to turn in
one last good performance. Sadly, Bob was unable to complete the film's schedule, but enough footage was shot for the
producers to be able to assemble a feature film. The resulting picture was really not that bad, but is marred somewhat
by Bob's obviously ill appearance. Robert Woolsey died from kidney and liver ailments on October 31, 1938.
` Bert Wheeler continued to work sporadically in films, on stage, and later on television. He starred in two more feature
films on his own, and also starred in a couple of short films for Columbia. However, he was never able to achieve
anywhere near the level of success that he had reached when he worked together with Bob. Bert Wheeler died of
emphysema on January 18, 1968. By this time, most of the Wheeler & Woolsey pictures had not been shown anywhere
for many years. It was not until the 1990s that some of the boys old films would begin to be shown on cable television. As
a result, fans of classic comedy have finally now begun to rediscover some of the wonderful gems that were created by
these two forgotten stars of Hollywood's golden age.