I have written once before about the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. Today they are largely forgotten by the mainstream public and are only remembered by film and comedy buffs.
Their comedy never really appealed to me. I prefer the work of Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers and Abbott & Costello. The problem with Wheeler and Woolsey was their material was never first rate and secondly their characters weren't clearly distinguished and never became as familiar to us as the persona's of other comics.
But this makes it sound as if Wheeler and Woolsey should be avoided. I wouldn't go that far. I like to collect rare movies and as a result I have seen nearly ever single one of the team's films. In all they appeared in 21 RKO comedies together. They are routinely said to have saved the studio from bankruptcy. In the 1930s they were a popular comedy team though never critical successes. You can read some of the reviews the New York Times gave their films and they are rarely positive.
In "Hook, Line and Sinker" (1930) the team plays insurance salesmen. They are Wilbur Boswell (Bert Wheeler) and Addington Ganzy (Robert Woolsey). When we first see them they are being pulled over by a policeman. In this set-up the jokes start flying. Woolsey, the funnyman, throws out one-liners in the great tradition of Groucho Marx, whom he is most often compared to. Trying to talk his way out of a ticket he tries to sell insurance to the policeman. He tells him of a new policy they have which "offers protection against bruises, earthquakes and relatives." When he hasn't quite convinced the officer, he tries to prove the importance of getting insurance by telling him "people are dying this year that have never died before."
If these one-liners don't appeal to you, the film as a whole probably won't. These are the kind of one-liners Woolsey delivers. And to be honest, they make me laugh. Listen to the way he delivers the line. He may not be remembered as a great comic but he could handle a one-liner.
Soon after the boys meet Mary Marsh (Dorothy Lee). As is the case in their films, Lee and Wheeler become romantically involved. If you've ever seen Bert Wheeler's face, you'll have to ask yourself why? I know I do every time. She is running away from home after her mother (Jobyna Howland) insist she marry the family attorney, John Blackwell (Ralf Harolde). But she doesn't love him. So she has decided to make it on her own by re-opening the family hotel. Which according to John Blackwell is in fine shape. Not being one to turn down a pretty face Wilbur agrees to help Mary run the hotel with help from Ganzy.
When Ganzy hears Mary's last name he tells her "I love the name Marsh, it's so mellow." I told you what kind of jokes to expect people!
The hotel is not in the condition they were expecting. It is completely run down but Ganzy gets an idea. Call the newspapers and flat out lie. Tell them they are re-opening the hotel and already have some of the wealthiest people all over the world staying there. And brag about their burglar proof safe.
What Ganzy and the gang don't realize is now every crook in town wants to break into the safe if so many of the elite are staying at the hotel placing their jewels in the safe.
"Hook, Line and Sinker" has a little more plot then I like in a Wheeler and Woolsey comedy. The best comedies the team made I feel were ones which didn't get boggled down in plot. They focus more on the team and give them room to do their comedy. Their comedy "Peach-O-Reno" (1931) is an example of this. Their best picture might be "Diplomaniacs" (1933). If anything in that film makes sense to you, you are one step ahead of the game.
When their films follow a plot too closely it restricts them. Now they have to follow a particular formula. When their films are loose on plot it gives us more comedy and becomes unpredictable. This works in their favor.
The film was directed by Edward F. Cline. He had been around the film business since the early silent era. Often working in comedy. He directed several W.C. Fields comedies though with a talent like Fields on the set it is hard to say just how much input Cline had on these films. But he directed "Never Give A Sucker an Even Break" (1941) and "The Bank Dick" (1940). He also worked with Wheeler and Woolsey before directing their last film "High Flyers" (1937) and "Cracked Nuts" (1931). Neither of which I personally like.
The script was by Ralph Spence. Another man who had been around since the silent era writing comedy. He wrote the Laurel & Hardy comedy "Flying Deuces" (1939), one of the few films the team made I don't like. And was responsible for the play in which the Ritz Brothers' comedy "The Gorilla" (1939) is based on. A lot of people damn that film but for reasons unknown to me I actually like it. And finally he too worked with Wheeler and Woolsey before on their comedies "Cockeyed Cavaliers" (1934) and "Peach-O-Reno". The other writer was Tim Whelan, who was also a director. He went uncredited for the 1951 film "Utopia", Laurel & Hardy's final film. He also worked with Harold Lloyd, writing two of Lloyd's best, "Girl Shy" (1924) and the lesser known but equally funny "Hot Water" (also 1924). And wrote the Wheeler and Woolsey comedy "Hold 'Em Jail" (1932), which has some funny moments.
While you can say Wheeler was the straight man of the two and as I said put in the romantic lead, he was thought to be the more talented of the two. I completely disagree with this. Robert Woolsey is much more fun to watch. It is not often that the straight man is thought to be better than the comic. Did you ever hear someone say, boy that Bud Abbott, what a guy!? Lou Costello got all the attention. Did anyone ever say Zeppo was their favorite Marx Brother? No, it is usually Groucho. So why people think Wheeler was better than Woolsey I'll never understand.
The female lead, Dorothy Lee, was in 14 of the team's films. I don't think she was great actress but she has to be one of the cutest people I have ever seen. If her objective in these films was to offer innocent sexual innuendos she succeeds beautifully. She is always cheerful and sunny. She always has a smile on her face. While you don't get to see it on display in this film, oddly enough, she could also sing and dance. This is one of the few Wheeler and Woolsey films I can think of that has no musical numbers. Usually Wheeler and Lee do a duet. With Woolsey doing a comedic version of the same song.
Woolsey is paired with the mother, Mrs. Marsh. His interest in her is purely financial. In one scene she is telling him about all her previous marriages and how each husband died. It is hard not to think of Groucho and Margaret Dumont's banter watching these two. Which has to be what the writers were going for.
One scene in the film feels terribly out of place. Wilbur is caught with another woman, Dutchess Bessie Von Essie (Nathalie Moorhead) a crook in disguise, she pulls a gun out on him so he will tell her the code to the safe. He manages to get the gun away from her but Mary sees them together. As Wilbur tries to explain what happened to Mary, he pulls a gun out on her. This does not seem fitting for the character at all. Surely there must have been another way to get the two lovers to resolve their problems other than having the guy pull out a gun on her!
Also in a small role is Hugh Herbert as the house detective. He is given practically nothing to work with. He became a little better known during his years after this working for Warner Brothers, where often he played in Ruby Keeler musicals as a sugar daddy.
"Hook, Line and Sinker" has some funny moments. It waste no time getting into the comedy. The climax drags a bit but Wheeler and Woolsey are watchable. The team has made better films, "Peach-O-Reno", "Diplomaniacs" and "Half Shot at Sunrise" (1930), but "Hook, Line and Sinker" still has some fine comedy moments. It is good innocent fun a slight and simply diversion.
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