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OUCH! A Salute to Slapstick - Films of the 1930s

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Peach O’Reno, starring Wheeler and Woolsey (1931)


Peach O’Reno wasn’t included in the TCM Ouch! festival, but I wanted to see a Wheeler and Woolsey film after learning about the two comedians in the course. I didn’t have a chance to see Hips, Hips, Hooray, which was part of the Ouch! festival.


I watched “Wes Gehring on Film Comedy, Episode 5: Saturation Comedy” again because the topics that he discussed apply to Peach O’Reno, too. Dr. Gehring talked mostly about the Marx Brothers and A Night at the Opera, and how people in the 1930s liked this Marx Brothers film because of the variety show format. Everything was thrown in to the narrative so that the film could provide something for everyone because everyone in the family went to the movies. Peach O’Reno has everything but the kitchen sink, although maybe it does have the kitchen sink and I missed it!


The variety show format adds to the exaggeration of the comedy in Peach O’Reno. The plot was threadbare, and every type of gag was thrown into a movie that was barely over an hour long:

  • The law firm run by Wattles and Swift turns into a casino after regular business hours.
  • Wattles, dressed in drag for a good part of the film, plays Joe Bruno’s date at the casino.
  • The dance numbers performed by Wheeler (dressed in drag) and Woolsey in the casino were funny because viewers, Woolsey, and of course Wheeler were the only ones in on the gag.
  • Wattles (Bert Wheeler) and Prudence Bruno sing and tap dance in the casino.
  • A carnival atmosphere prevailed in the courtroom for the divorce proceedings, with a food vendor selling peanuts, chewing gum, popcorn, and candy; a radio announcer from GIN (a nod to the Prohibition era?) radio covering the case; and jury members taking out instruments and playing the wedding march.


And there was plenty of verbal slapstick, with malapropisms and double entendres. I think I’ll have to see this one again, to make sure I didn’t miss anything!


An Aside: Was Robert Woolsey the inspiration for George Burns? He wears the round glasses with the black frames and chain-smokes a cigar throughout the film.

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   The Charlie Chase shorts were filmed in the early years of the sound era and show the signs of some the difficulties of integrating sound into film.  The action is subdued and controlled to allow the primitive recording techniques to pick up the sound.  Charlie is his exasperated self, and Thelma Todd is stunning, as always.  Actually, I think Chase was funnier in his bit part in Laurel & Hardy’s “Sons of the Desert” (1933), and he is the only comedian in this course to demonstrate the proper use of an actual slapstick.  We can safely say that money on the floor gag fits the definition of slapstick, both literally and figuratively!  This movie is L&H at there best.  It is a simple story (unlike some of their other movies) that allows the comedy to flow effortlessly and shows the chemistry and affection between the two.  Stan intentionally eating the wax apple is great physical comedy that was done in silence, but the gag is made more humorous when Ollie’s wife (Mae Busch) says “So that’s where they have been going.”  Later, after the wives discover the boys lied to go to the convention, they make a bet between them about which one of the boys will confess the truth. Ollie sticks to the lie, but Stan cracks and confesses.  In the end, Ollie is in hot water and Stan is in clover. Just as “Sons of the Desert” is the best among their feature films, “The Music Box” (1932) is the best of their shorts.  It was so good, that Hal Roach allowed it to run three reels, rather than the standard two. Almost two thirds of the film is spent trying to get the player piano up the long stairs, but the potential monotony of the drawn out scene is avoided by breaks provided by people coming down the step.  The short has no “Hal Roach music” soundtrack, until the player piano is set up, then the music starts while the boys clean up.  In the process, they break into a humorous and charming dance -- at least until Professor von Schwartzenhoffer (Billy Gilbert) arrives home and destroys the piano.  Gilbert was famous for his drawn out sneeze, so much so that Walt Disney had him provide the voice of Sneezy in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937).  Gilbert provided comic relief in many movies: he was the bartender in “Destry Rides Again” (1939).


     Harold Lloyd, in ‘Movie Crazy” (1932), showed how effectively he made the transition to sound in this wonderful movie that spoofs Hollywood and the filmmaking process.  While he still shows his physical comedy prowess, he effectively uses his voice to make his naive character convincing.  It is interesting to contrast his voice with that of Buster Keaton.  Keaton’s voice is flat and slow in its delivery, in stark contrast to his silent screen persona, while Lloyd’s voice is light and evocative and seems a perfect fit for his silent screen persona.  Another great movie from this early sound era is “Elmer the Great” (1933), starring Joe E. Brown.  Brown made lots of pictures in this period and was very popular.  He was always the loud-mouth country bumpkin who somehow made good in the end.  His movies often had athletic themes that created numerous opportunities for visual slapstick.  With its baseball theme, this movie is no exception.  He did one more baseball comedy, “Alibi Ike” (1935).


     So much has been said about “A Night at the Opera” (1935) already; all I’ll add here is a word about Alan Jones (who played Ricardo).  He plays the role that had been played by Zeppo Marx in the Paramount movies and is involved in the romance with Rosa (Kitty Carlisle).   He was a great singer, who could fit in with the operatic theme. He could also handle popular music, as he showed in James Whale’s production of “Showboat” (1936).  He re-teamed with The Marx Brothers in their next film, “A Day at the Races” (1937).  His son, Jack Jones became a popular singer in the postwar period.  I have seen many Wheeler & Woolsey comedies, but not “Hips, Hips Hooray” (1934).  It was wild and wacky in the style of The Marx Brothers, but with more variety show elements added in.  Robert Woolsey does remind me of George Burns, but it is not George Burns in this era.  Woolsey, in the thirties, looked like George Burns would in the sixties and seventies -- especially with the round glasses.  Finally, slapstick music was represented in “Sweet Music” (1935) and “Gold Diggers in Paris” (1938), both starring crooner Rudy Vallee.  “Sweet Music” featured the Frank & Milt Britton Band, while “Gold Diggers” featured the Freddie “Schnicklefritz” Fisher Band.  As mentioned, these kinds of bands were the precursor to the 1940’s “Spike Jones and his City Slickers”  The musical antics of the slapstick bands provide the comic highlights in both of these movies.     

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. . .


Wheeler & Woolsey's film was complete insanity . . . .


I've seen two Wheeler & Woolsey films now (Peach O'Reno and Girl Crazy) and "complete insanity" is pretty close to describing both of them! Each one is a complete variety show, with tap dancing and comedy bits and some romance and thin story lines. Girl Crazy takes place in the old West, with gunslingers and cowboys. The pace of both films is so fast that I'm sure I missed something. I don't think I would have appreciated all the elements if I hadn't taken Dr. Edwards's slapstick course.

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