Gotta admit I knew so little about the work of 30’s comedians Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey that when I received a copy of one of their movies as part of a taped collection of little-remembered movie comedies, I didn’t know whether it was a feature film or a short subject. Turns out that Hips, Hips, Hooray! (1934) is a short feature, one of several that the twosome made for RKO Pictures. Smoothly directed by Mark Sandrich (who would go on to helm the early Astaire & Rogers musicals), the movie is frequently touted by the duo’s admirers as one of their best vehicles. On the basis of my first viewing, I’d say the praise isn’t misdirected because Hips is a pretty entertaining movie: packed with plenty of pre-Code innuendo and comic inventiveness, not to mention chorine-heavy song-&-dance intervals and the kind of art deco set design RKO seemed to have a lock on in the thirties.
The movie concerns a pair of amiable hucksters, Andy Williams (Wheeler) & “Dr.” Bob Dudley (Woolsey) who’ve been selling a line of Dr. Dudley’s Flavored Lipstick on the city street corners. When they set up shop across the street from a struggling cosmetics company, Maiden America Beauty Products, they sweet-talk dippy salesgirl Daisy (Wheeler-&-Woolsey regular Dorothy Lee) and her boss Mrs. Frisby (a statuesque Thelma Todd, gamely matching Woolsey’s every double entendre) into believing they’re really wandering millionaires. Lurking in the background is an oily type named Armand Beauchamp (George Meeker), who is spying on the company for rival cosmetics firm, Madame Irene. After our heroes are mistakenly accused of swiping securities from the office of a banker, Armand takes advantage of the situation to force the duo to go on the lam.
There’s more in the movie – unlike some of the earlier 30’s comedies I’ve been reviewing, this ‘un is stuffed with story – along with two delightful musical interludes. The first ‘un features Ruth Etting at the mic (the songstress is given prime billing alongside Todd, though she really only appears in the movie’s opening), the second contains the boys with Daisy and Mrs. Frisby doin’ an extended comic song-&-dance entitled “Keep On Doin’ What You’re Doin'” as they wreak havoc to the city office set where they’re cavorting. There’s a comic pool game – where our heroes enter into a “friendly” game with the two cops tailing them – featuring lots of stop motion work, plus a climactic cross-country car race filled with cartoony visual resourcefulness. And speaking of cartoonishness, we even get a moment where the bespectacled Woolsey, checking out the flavors on his lipstick line with a group of obliging beauties, lifts both legs and stiffens his body like a Tex Avery wolf! There are several erection/arousal jokes in this flick, and each one’s surprising and amusing.
In their heyday, Wheeler & Woolsey matched the Brothers Marx and Laurel & Hardy in terms of popularity, but they’re rarely remembered today. In part this can be attributed to the shoddy treatment that the duo received at RKO (once the studio started making money on its Astaire & Rogers musicals, it shifted the moviemaking talent to those projects and away from the comedies) and the fact that Woolsey started having health problems that led to a too-early demise in the late thirties. But I also think that their obscurity can be explained by the nature of their characters. Though the twosome played distinct types (Wheeler was the watery-eyed, somewhat dim boy ingénue with the pleasing tenor voice; Woolsey was the lankier, somewhat shiftier “brain”), in Hips, at least, their characters remain a little fuzzy around the edges. They lack the distinctness of their better-known peers, who immediately stand out the moment any of ’em enter the movie frame. Contrast Wheeler & Woolsey to a more enduring comedy duo from the forties, the “Road” Hope & Crosby, and the issue becomes even clearer. The two may’ve been adept at playing comic characters, but they weren’t full-blown comic personalities.
Perhaps a longer career and better treatment would’ve changed that. But, as it stands, the boys’ work has since become the kind of movie fare that you’re more likely to find broadcast on the movie channels at 7:00 in the a.m. than on prime time. It’s definitely worth tracking down if you’re a fan of old movie comedies, though. Turner Classic Movies is dusting off two as part of its April Comedy showcase (Hips is being broadcast on April 24th), in fact, and I know I’m setting the timer. . .
ADDENDUM: An Interesting Fact That Nearly Everyone Who Writes About This Movie Winds Up Mentioning: Bobby Watson, who plays a flagrantly flitty choreographer in Hips (“My girls could never do that – they bruise!“), had a steady movie career from the forties on, playing Adolph Hitler. He’s also the diction coach in Singin’ in the Rain.