Wheeler & Woolsey

Wheeler & Woolsey

Bert Wheeler (April 7, 1895; Paterson, New Jersey – January 18, 1968; New York City) and Robert Woolsey (August 14, 1888; Oakland, California – October 31, 1938; Malibu, California) were a famous American film comedy team of the 1930s.

The former Broadway stars re-created their stage roles in the 1929 movie musical Rio Rita.This established them as movie comedians, and they went on to make very popular comedy features through 1937, all for RKO Radio Pictures except the 1933 Columbia release So This Is Africa. Curly-haired Bert Wheeler played the ever-smiling innocent, who was not very bright and easily led, but who would also sometimes display a stubborn streak of conscience. Bespectacled Robert Woolsey, usually smoking a cigar, played the genially leering fast-talking idea man that often got the pair in trouble. The vivacious Dorothy Lee usually played Bert's romantic interest.

The Wheeler & Woolsey pictures are loaded with joke-book dialogue, original songs, puns, and sometimes racy double-entendre gags:

WOMAN (coyly indicating her legs): Were you looking at these?
WOOLSEY: Madam, I'm above that.

WOOLSEY (worried about a noblewoman): She's liable to have us beheaded.
WHEELER: Beheaded?! Can she do that?
WOOLSEY: Sure, she can be-head. (i.e., "She can be had.")

FLIRT: Sing to me!
WHEELER: How about One Hour with You?
FLIRT: Sure! But first, sing to me!

Such double-entendre gags were a hallmark of early W&W comedies, although they were severely curtailed after the establishment of the Production Code in 1933.

By 1931 Wheeler & Woolsey were so popular that RKO attempted to generate twice the Wheeler & Woolsey income by making two solo pictures—one with Wheeler and one with Woolsey. This experiment failed, and the team reunited as though nothing had happened. Among the team's better features: The Cuckoos (based on Clark and McCullough's Broadway show The Ramblers), Caught Plastered, Peach O'Reno, Diplomaniacs, and Hips Hips Hooray and Cockeyed Cavaliers (both 1934, both co-starring Thelma Todd and Dorothy Lee, and both directed by Mark Sandrich just before he was promoted to the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals). Sandrich was replaced by George Stevens for the team's 1935 film The Nitwits (remade in 1946 as a Brown and Carney film, Genius at Work).

After Stevens left the series, the team faltered; the last five Wheeler & Woolsey pictures (1935–37) were weakened by the combination of bad scripts, lower budgets, and uninspired direction by lesser talents. In some of these later films Bert and Bob don't even appear as a team, but as strangers who encounter each other by chance. The films were still popular and the team might have continued indefinitely, but Woolsey died of kidney disease on October 31, 1938, ending the partnership.

In the early 1940s, after Robert Woolsey had died, Bert Wheeler struggled to restart his career, and asked Dorothy Lee to tour with him in vaudeville. She agreed, and put things on hold, to help her old friend.

Wheeler continued to work off and on through the 1960s. His later appearances were mostly on television; his last theatrical films were two slapstick shorts for Columbia Pictures, filmed in 1950 and produced by Jules White. In 1955 Wheeler co-starred with Keith Larsen in the CBS western series Brave Eagle; Wheeler played the halfbreed Smokey Joe, known for his tall tales and tribal wisdom.

Bert Wheeler starred with John Raitt and Anne Jeffreys in the Broadway musical "Three Wishes for Jamie" in 1952, and continued to perform in summer stock theater and in nightclubs, either alone or with a partner (first writer-comedian Hank Ladd, later comedian-singer Tom Dillon). Information about Wheeler's last years of performing can be found in "Movie Comedy Teams" by Leonard Maltin. The duo, although largely forgotten now, were at the peak of their careers in the 1930s and were the biggest inspiration to the British team of Morecambe and Wise.

Read more about Wheeler & Woolsey:  Filmography

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