I discovered the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey sometime in the 1990s. For many years, on Friday and Saturday nights, Channel 7 would play a late, late movie, which was always from the RKO studio. Often it would be a film starring an actor like Richard Dix—or it might be a B movie series like The Falcon. Within this library were the Wheeler & Woolsey vehicles like Half-Shot at Sunrise, Hook, Line and Sinker, and Cracked Nuts. But their best films I discovered elsewhere, in the rare VHS market. From the early to mid-1930s, Wheeler and Woolsey starred in a string of delightful comedies. Some of their best films included Cockeyed Cavaliers, Hips, Hips, Hooray, Kentucky Kernels, and The Nitwits. Diplomaniacs, made in 1933, is another from this stretch with Wheeler & Woolsey at their peak. They were not comedy geniuses the way we think of The Marx Brothers, but there’s a reason they’ve made it into our lineup while other teams like The Ritz Brothers were left out.
To understand Wheeler and Woolsey’s brand of comedy we should go back to their roots. Both men emerged from the vaudeville tradition and became stars on Broadway. Bert Wheeler always loved the stage and played vaudeville with his wife Betty. He first made a name for himself as a Charlie Chaplin impersonator, of which there were many in the years before World War I. But the fad for Chaplin imitators passed and Bert developed his own persona, often ad-libbing onstage with the audience. He became a headliner and excelled in musical comedy, eventually catching the eye of Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld. Bert and Betty were cast in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1923, which, at that time, was the height of stardom for a stage actor. Bert would later be selected for Ziegfeld’s 1928 production of Rio Rita. It was here where he would meet his future partner.
Robert Woolsey was on a path to becoming a horse jockey when an accident convinced him that acting would be a safer choice. He performed in stock theatre where be became friends with another actor named Walter Catlett. Woolsey appropriated the props that Catlett used in his onstage act– the eyeglasses and the cigar. Bob made it to Broadway in 1919 but struggled to stand out. However, he learned much from W.C. Fields, whom he worked with in 1923’s Poppy. The shyster persona that Woolsey later developed in the movies was influenced by studying Fields. Woolsey finally emerged from a backdrop of secondary comics, and once again, Florenz Ziegfeld was there to notice the potential of a rising star. Woolsey was cast in Rio Rita, where he provided the comedy relief with Bert Wheeler. A year later it would be turned into a blockbuster musical at RKO with Wheeler and Woolsey recreating their Broadway roles.
By the time Diplomaniacs came out in 1933, Wheeler and Woolsey had already starred in nearly a dozen features. The last, So This is Africa, had been made at Columbia during a contract dispute with RKO. The film had been hacked to pieces by censors. Their joke-book patter was often filled with double-entendres. Most of the one-liners and quips were provided by Woolsey, usually with a tap of his ever-present cigar. Wheeler, by contrast, was the exuberant innocent who sang, danced, and always got the girl. Diplomaniacs marked their return to RKO and it continued their box office winning streak.
In Diplomaniacs, the boys are two nitwit barbers on an Indian reservation who are sent to represent the tribe at the Geneva peace conference. Out to stop their outrageous mission of peace is the dastardly Winkelreid, General Manager of the High Explosive Bullet Company. The film is a perfect example of an anarchistic comedy, the sort of nonsense best exemplified with the Marx Brothers.
The story was written by Joseph Mankiewicz, who would later write and direct All About Eve. RKO had borrowed Mank from Paramount where the Marx Brothers worked. In the book Wheeler & Woolsey, author Edward Watz writes, “Before long, studio spies were keeping an eye on Mankiewicz’s activities. At one point Paramount producer Emanuel Cohen accused Mank of lifting material from the tentative Marx Brothers story in preparation, Cracked Ice (eventually to become Duck Soup). Mank was eventually cleared of all charges of plagiarism but did not appreciate the accusations.” Mank’s story, In the Red—later retitled A Five-Cent War and then finally Diplomaniacs— is a satire like his earlier Million Dollar Legs, but it pokes fun at more things than just politics. Edward Watz writes,
“There are more in jokes in Diplomaniacs than in all the other Wheeler and Woolsey films combined. Subjects touched on the surface include the Bronx, Bing Crosby, Fu Manchu movies, Greek diners, Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight, Jeanette MacDonald, homophones (‘sheik,’ ‘chic,’ and ‘cheek’), Columbia University (Mank’s alma mater), Al Jolson, the stock-market crash, and numerous oblique references that possibly baffled infrequent moviegoers in 1933.” There are plenty of references audiences today won’t get, and it’s almost certain to offend modern sensibilities.
One factor in Wheeler & Woolsey’s success in the 1930s were the men behind the camera at RKO—these were usually up and coming directors who went on to greater things like George Stevens and Mark Sandrich. Diplomaniacs was made by William Seiter, who had directed Sons of the Desert that same year with Laurel & Hardy.
Another factor in the film’s success is its cast—the best supporting cast Wheeler and Woolsey would ever have, including Louis Calhern (who would next appear in Duck Soup), Hugh Herbert as the Yiddish-speaking Chinese servant, Edgar Kennedy, Phyllis Barry, and Marjorie White, mugging her way through the movie as a blonde vamp. (In the earlier Wheeler & Woolsey vehicles, the leading lady was usually played by Dorothy Lee. She would star in thirteen of their films.)
Ultimately, it’s Wheeler and Woolsey who hold it all together. Diplomaniacs is a good representative of their vaudeville style. In fact, Wheeler incorporates his old crying bit from vaudeville. This was his signature routine in which he’d start crying to a song while eating an apple or a sandwich. Author Henry Jenkins has written of the vaudeville aesthetic and said of them, “Of all their vehicles, Diplomaniacs allows Wheeler and Woolsey the greatest chance to display the range of their performance skills and devotes the least time to plot development. Each sequence invites its own distinctive type of performance: crossfire comedy, Busby Berkeley-style choreography, tearful Irish ballads, knockabout romantic duets, parodic operetta, comic acrobatics, and minstrel cakewalk. Everywhere they go, Wheeler and Woolsey stumble upon spaces ideally suited for performance.”