Diplomaniacs (1933) by matthew c. hoffman

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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Who Done It? (1942) by matthew c. hoffman

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Transcript from 3/17/16: Our introduction incorporated excerpts from the article “Who Done It?” By Matthew C. Hoffman (Nostalgia Digest, Autumn 2003)

Throughout their careers, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were brilliant at what they did, whether it was those methodical word games or the timing of their lines. They were experts in their chosen field. The proof is in the routines, in the delivery. Set aside the physical stuff and concentrate on those bits like “Who’s On First?” or “Mustard.” There was no greater straight man than Bud Abbott; he could set up a gag, hold composure, and bring Lou back on track if a cue was missed or a word miscalculated. All smooth as silk. They may have been rough-edged burlesque performers, but they were absolute disciplinarians in their craft. And they were just plain funny. You can listen to all the same routines over and over again and still laugh…

Who Done It? was already their ninth film together, and it’s one of the best of their early vehicles that Universal cranked out. One of its distinctions is its wonderful supporting cast, which includes such names as Patric Knowles and Louise Allbritton (who provide the expected romantic element), William Gargan, William Bendix, Mary Wickes, and Don Porter.

This comedy whodunit is set almost exclusively at a radio station. Chick (Bud) and Mervyn (Lou) work as soda jerks downstairs in the Radio Center drugstore. When they’re not serving up Limburger cheese sandwiches, they’re aspiring to be radio mystery writers. “Muck and Mire” they call themselves as they give an impromptu performance at the counter for the new staff writer, Jimmy Turner, played by Patric Knowles. Turner invites them to see a recording of “Murder At Midnight” at the GBS studio. After witnessing a murder at the station, Bud and Lou determine to solve the case themselves, thinking the public will be begging for Muck and Mire as a result.

Who Done It? is more of a prop-driven comedy, and during the course of the night, Lou’s child-like Mervyn is frustrated by a temperamental drinking fountain, frightened to death by ominous “voices” in a sound-recordings library, and is shaken up by an elevator that rockets up and down. Despite all the props, there are some classic verbal routines including the “Alexander 2222” bit on the telephone and the “Watts/Volts” exchange which recalls their “Who’s On First? routine. In fact, there are two references to “Who’s On First?” in the movie.

The initial broadcast of “Murder At Midnight” reveals the atmospheric setting with its studio shadows and unusual camera angles. The scene is visually striking. As characters play to the on-air audience in attendance, director Erle C. Kenton and cinematographer Charles Van Enger bring to life, for the movie audiences, a medium that relies on the listener’s imagination to fill in the details. The filmmakers show us, with dramatic exaggeration, what “Murder At Midnight” might look like if we were trying to picture the set over the radio. Characters do not just stand in front of microphones in a brightly lit studio. The performance itself takes on the visual qualities of what is being spoken from the radio script; the end result being a hybrid between film and theatre.

Who Done It? is, quite simply, a wonderful film about old-time radio, evoking the spirit of the medium.There’s more about the film’s production in an article I wrote years ago for the Nostalgia Digest, including its parallels to a Wheeler & Woolsey film called The Nitwits. I’ll have copies of that article available for those interested. Instead, I’d like to mention an incident that happened after Bud and Lou had finished Who Done It? I’m quoting from Abbott & Costello in Hollywood by Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo:

“After completing the film, Bud and Lou began a whirlwind tour to sell War Bonds. The boys visited seventy-eight cities and one hundred war production plants in just thirty-four days. The Treasury Department credited Abbott & Costello with selling a record $85,000,000 worth of bonds and stamps on the tour. Not all of the venues were theatres or army camps, however. In Omaha, Nebraska, a twelve-year-old boy named Jerry Young sneaked up to Bud and Lou’s suite at the Fontenelle Hotel and asked the team to appear in a benefit show he was staging in his backyard. He offered them 70 cents for their efforts, and Bud and Lou consented. That night, police roped off the streets near Jerry’s house as a crowd overflowed the boys’ backyard. Bud and Lou arrived by special motorcade, fresh from an appearance in Lincoln, fifty-five miles away. After performing a couple of routines, Bud put Costello’s shirt up for auction. When the bids were closing at $10, Lou protested and bid $12 himself so he could keep it.”

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LOL2 Promo Video

Here is our 2016 promotional video for Legends of Laughter 2. Thank you to our narrator Mick Lewis!

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Sons of the Desert: Opening Night!

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Sons of the Desert (1933) was made at a time when the Hal Roach Studio was gradually shifting away from two-reel comedies to feature film production. Sons was the fourth feature film starring Laurel & Hardy. They had recently starred in The Devil’s Brother, which we will see later in the series. Like The Music Box, Sons of the Desert is one of the films most associated with Laurel & Hardy, a comedy masterpiece often ranked as one of their finest films. But a great Laurel & Hardy film is more than just the slapstick. Their success was in the characters and the situations we see onscreen.

What separates this film from their previous features is how well the comedy is integrated into the overall storyline. A lot of this has to do with the direction of William Seiter, who knew how to build the story. He had more of an impact on the film than most directors on the lot who usually just followed Stan Laurel’s direction. One of his best known films is the RKO musical Roberta, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Seiter also directed one of Wheeler & Woolsey’s best films, Diplomaniacs, which we’ll see in a few weeks. And he worked with the Marx Brothers on Room Service. In The Films of Laurel & Hardy, William K. Everson writes, “Sons of the Desert has fewer virtuoso comedy episodes than such other major features as Blockheads and Way Out West, but thanks largely to Seiter’s handling, it has that indefinable quality of charm which broadens its appeal quite beyond the legions of Laurel & Hardy devotees.”

Sons of the Desert was written by Frank Craven with additional dialogue by Frank Terry, who was a gag writer for the studio. Sons was influenced by earlier Laurel & Hardy films like 1928’s We Faw Down. In that film, Laurel & Hardy snuck out of the house to play poker but invented an elaborate excuse about going to the theatre—a theatre, coincidentally, that burns down. In many of their films, marital discord was part of their world. In these domestic comedies, they played hen-pecked husbands whose hot-tempered wives usually went around toting guns or throwing dishes.

Playing Oliver Hardy’s wife is the “ever-popular” Mae Busch, whose career went back to the early days of Mack Sennett comedies. At the time of this film’s production, she was filling in for the unavailable Anita Garvin, who was always the first choice on the lot. Dorothy Christy is Mrs. Laurel, and playing a rowdy practical joker at the Sons of the Desert convention, Charley Chase. Chase was a top comedian in his own right, one of the stars for Hal Roach who had appeared in hundreds of two-reel comedies in the silent and sound eras. Here, he lends some fine support. Chase’s younger brother, James Parrott, was a frequent Laurel & Hardy director and had directed The Music Box.

Although you wouldn’t normally associate a Laurel & Hardy film with the pre-Code era, there are certainly adult elements in Sons of the Desert that made it through the censors. The most famous example is the hula dance at the cabaret which features songwriter Marvin Hatley’s memorable “Honolulu Baby.”

Stan Laurel, who was always the creative force of the team, never believed in analyzing comedy– nor shall we in this series. You can’t analyze the things that make one person laugh louder than someone else. But we can analyze the process of building comedy, how story conferences lead to gags that create magic on the screen. So often was the case that material was simply ad-libbed by the boys– the script only serving as a general outline of the action on-screen. The various deviations between script and what we see in the finished film is a testament to their genius. Inspired bits of business were often created on the set.

What makes the series fun is not just the films themselves, but the experience of seeing these movies with an audience. Comedy needs that group reaction more than any other genre. When you see these films with an audience here tonight, you’ll see just how funny they remain all these years later. In the weeks ahead, we’ll see them the way they were intended.

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Legends of Laughter 2: The Comedy Teams

They came from vaudeville and Broadway, from the silent cinema and radio, and later, the nightclubs. They are some of the most recognizable names in American screen comedy—names that are synonymous with Hollywood’s golden age. Laurel & Hardy… The Marx Brothers… Abbott & Costello…. Individual talents who, through destiny or chance, became united with partners just as talented. Legends were born, and they’ve entertained generations ever since. These are the faces of comedy. This is Legends of Laughter 2: The Comedy Teams.

This spring, the Park Ridge Public Library Classic Film Series returns for its eighth season with a series devoted to the movie comedy teams of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. In addition to the most famous teams, the series will showcase the lesser-known comedy acts that managed to carve out a niche for themselves. Comics like Wheeler & Woolsey churned out vehicle after vehicle at RKO with their bawdy, vaudevillian sensibility and Pre-Code lunacy. And Olsen & Johnson, Universal’s other comedy act, were visually inventive, offering audiences deliriously surreal sight gags that were ahead of their time.

Wheeler & Woolsey
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If there were ever two patron saints of comedy, it was Laurel & Hardy. To this day, they are universally recognized for the good cheer they’ve brought to millions and the almost magical ease with which they accomplished this onscreen. There was Ollie, the larger man with his “tie twiddle” and his exasperated stares into the camera; and Stanley, the smaller, more child-like man who would often cry while pulling up his hair. Stan & Ollie were a team built on the law of opposites with a strong, deep abiding love and affection for one other. It is this affection that always seemed to transcend the “nice messes” each put the other through. The warmth that these two characters felt for each other, and which we feel towards them, is a quality few other comedy teams possessed.

They were from opposite worlds. Stan Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in Ulverston, Lancashire, England. He came from the English music hall tradition, travelling with the same troupe of stage performers that produced Charlie Chaplin. In fact, Stan Laurel had been Chaplin’s understudy in the Fred Karno troupe. After touring America in vaudeville, Stan made the U.S. his home and later became a writer and director for producer Hal Roach.

Laurel & Hardy
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Oliver Hardy was born in the American South, in Harlem, Georgia. “Babe” Hardy could sing, but it was the call of the cinema that drew him to comedy. He appeared in many silent films, usually in support of other silent comics like Larry Semon. Eventually, Oliver Hardy, too, became part of Hal Roach’s stock company in the mid-1920s. In 1926, with the assistance of Hal Roach and director Leo McCarey, Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy were brought together and movie history was made.

Their slapstick was rooted in visual comedy. Their films did not always have the frantic pace of other comedies; their success rested in the timing and deliberate buildup of a gag. The timing is best displayed in their “tit-for-tat” routines which contained a high degree of destruction of personal property! Over the course of nearly a quarter century, the duo would appear in dozens of films, but the most polished were those made for Hal Roach.

Laurel & Hardy came together within the medium of film, but for the Marx Brothers, it was on the stage where the spotlight first shone…

The Marx Brothers
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They remain one of the most popular teams of all-time. They poked fun at everyone– and everything. They were the Marx Brothers: Groucho, the cigar-smoking ringleader with the greasepaint mustache; Harpo, the horn-honking, girl-chasing throwback to the silent world comics; Chico, the piano playing Italian who wasn’t really Italian; and Zeppo, the romantic straight man sometimes lost in the shuffle. Whether it’s a television marathon on New Year’s Eve or a screening during Legends of Laughter, their movies will always be revived. They remain a laughing tonic against life’s troubles.

The brothers were born in the closing decades of the 19th century and were already performing by the first decade of the 20th century. The sons of Jewish immigrants who lived in a poor section of New York’s Upper East Side, the Marx brothers became a family act that grew up in vaudeville. It was here, through trial and error, where they worked out their material and formed their classic personas. By the mid-1920s, they were stars on Broadway, excelling in musical comedy. Beginning in 1929 with The Cocoanuts, the Marx Brothers became movie stars. In their best films, the brothers were known for a type of anarchistic comedy in which institutions, authority figures, and even society matrons were mocked—usually by Groucho. The lines were often absurd, the situations, surreal. Their brand of lunacy hit its creative peak with 1933’s Duck Soup. Directed by Leo McCarey, the film utilized a variety of comedic forms –from satire and song to slapstick and pantomime. Their humor was predominantly in the dialogue– in Groucho’s puns and witty observations. For a medium learning how to talk, movies never had it so good.

But the Marx Brothers weren’t the only comics who made audiences laugh with clever verbal exchanges and rapid-fire dialogue. Nearly eighty years later, fans of classic comedy are still laughing at “Who’s On First?”

Abbott & Costello
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They did not sing. They did not dance. But in their films, Bud Abbot and Lou Costello were experts at what they did, whether it was those methodical word games or the timing of their lines. Bud and Lou never worked with Hal Roach or Leo McCarey, but their appeal rested in the stage routines where it didn’t matter who the director was; they didn’t need direction to make people laugh. In their films, Bud was usually the nattily-dressed fast-talker, and Lou, his child-like patsy who was easily confused. They were the most popular comedy team in the business until post-war America embraced a more unhinged style of comedy.

They were top ten box office champions throughout most of the 1940s, but they were equally successful on radio and later, television. William “Bud” Abbott, the greatest of all the straight men, came from a show business family. He had been a burlesque performer in the days when vaudeville had passed. Lou Costello had also performed in stock burlesque after first appearing in films as an extra and stunt double. Bud and Lou appeared together for the first time in 1936. It was during these years on the stage where they performed sketches they would further develop in motion pictures. By 1940, Universal Pictures had signed them to a contract, but it would be a year later before they would become major stars with the release of Buck Privates. Throughout the forties they starred in military service comedies and later, horror spoofs that extended their careers into the 1950s.

Legends of Laughter 2 will also showcase the team that succeeded Abbott & Costello in popularity: Martin & Lewis—the biggest comedy act of the 1950s and the first to skyrocket in the television age.

Legends of Laughter 2 runs from March 3 to May 26, 2016.

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LOL2 Art Print

Thank you to artist Matt Hansel for designing this original artwork for us! We hope to make this print available soon on t-shirts!

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The Sons of the Desert International Laurel & Hardy Fan Club

In anticipation of our 2016 spring film series, “Legends of Laughter II,” the Park Ridge Public Library will have a Laurel & Hardy-centric display case throughout February featuring artifacts connected with the Sons of the Desert International Laurel & Hardy Fan Club. We would like to thank Marcia Opal of the Chicago Bacon Grabbers for her kind assistance with this exhibit.

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The Chicago “tent” of the Sons of the Desert…
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Laurel & Hardy Filming Locations

From their 1929 short Big Business:

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Recommended Reading

Movie Comedy Teams was one of the inspirations for our spring series. Film Historian Leonard Maltin will be contributing a special introduction for us which can be found in our series programs– available March 3!

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Abbott & Costello Break Attendance Record!

“Hope all of you enjoy the screening of this A&C classic, by far the cult film of all their movies. Wish I could be here with you to see it on the big screen, but will be there in spirit… Keep the laughter flowing, and thank you for keeping the A&C legacy alive. Enjoy the film, and Happy Halloween. Chris Costello and the entire Costello family.”

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This past Thursday night (10/29/15), Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein set a new attendance record for the Pickwick Theatre Classic Film Series. Nearly 800 people (782) attended our screening, breaking the old record of 735 held by last season’s showing of Gone With the Wind. We are extremely grateful to all those who attended this Halloween event, especially the dozens of kids who came in costume.

Special thanks to Chris Costello, Lou Costello’s daughter, for the special introduction she sent us, our guest organist David Drazin, and our costume contest judges: Allison, Allie, and Elizabeth.

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The largest crowd we’ve ever seen came out for the antics of Bud and Lou…
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Parade of the ghouls…
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Starting the costume contest…
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Our First Place winner, Connor…
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Ringmaster Matthew with Movie Hostess Allison/Marilyn
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Morticia (Elizabeth)
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This entry was originally published on the Park Ridge Classic Film website.

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