Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey: a Forgotten Comedy Team

The comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey are nearly forgotten today. But back in the 1930s, Wheeler and Woolsey “churned out 21 films, many of them — Diplomaniacs, Hips Hips Hooray, Cockeyed Cavaliers —  among the best and most profitable comedies of the 1939s.”

Robert Woolsey was born August 14, 1888. His father died when Robert was only seven years old. Robert had to work to help support his mother and five siblings. His slight build made him a natural jockey. A bad fall when Robert was fifteen resulted in a broken leg and the end of his racing career. He went to work as a bellboy in a Cincinnati, Ohio hotel that catered to actors. That glimpse of Hollywood helped Robert decide to become a comedian. He created a character that he patterned after a comedian friend “right down to the horn-rimmed glasses and ever present cigar.” Robert Woolsey joined various stock companies and played small roles on Broadway. His big break came in 1927.

Meanwhile, Bert Wheeler was born April 7, 1895. His mother died when he was 17. Bert eventually went to New York City to try to break into show business. He met his first wife, Margaret, and formed a successful vaudeville team with her. They went on to be stars in the Ziegfeld Follies. Several people, including silent film great Harold Lloyd tried to lure Bert Wheeler to Hollywood but he opted to remain in vaudeville. His big break came in 1927.

Robert Woolsey                          Bert Wheeler

In 1927, Robert Woolsey and Bert Wheeler were both hired by Florenz Ziegfeld for his Broadway musical spectacular Rio Rita. This was the first time Robert Woolsey and Bert Wheeler had been teamed together. The play was such a success that RKO Pictures made a film version of Rio Rita in 1929. The film was so successful that Wheeler and Woolsey were given contracts to star in their own series of comedy films.

Rio Rita

In the next eight years, Wheeler and Woolsey made 21 films. Many of these films were hilarious and profitable hits. “Curly-haired Bert Wheeler played an ever-smiling innocent, who was easily led and not very bright.” And “bespectacled Robert Woolsey played a genially leering, cigar-smoking, fast-talking idea man who often got the pair in trouble.” Vivacious actress Dorothy Lee, who first met Wheeler and Woolsey in Rio Rita, co-starred in 13 of the Wheeler and Woolsey films. But by 1937, it was apparent that something was wrong with Robert Woolsey. Diagnosed with a kidney disease, Robert struggled to complete the Wheeler and Woolsey film On Again – Off Again (released on July 9, 1937). Robert gamely struggled on and tried to complete the next – and last – Wheeler and Woolsey film, High Flyers (released November 26, 1937). But he was unable to finish. However the studio was able to assemble a feature film from the completed footage. Robert Woolsey died from kidney and liver ailments on October 31, 1938.

Bert Wheeler continued to work sporadically in show business. He and Dorothy Lee even toured as a vaudeville act for a time. Most of Bert’s later appearances were on television; he only made four films after Robert’s death (two features and two shorts). After Robert Woolsey’s death, Bert Wheeler was never able to again achieve the level of success the Wheeler and Woolsey team had achieved. Bert died of emphysema on January 18, 1968, just two weeks after his only daughter, Patricia Anne, born 1936, died of cancer.

Our film, Hook, Line and Sinker, is the fourth team-up film for Wheeler and Woolsey as well as their fourth film for 1930. In Hook, Line and Sinker, Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey play two insurance salesmen who meet up with Dorothy Lee as Mary, a young woman who is running away from her wealthy but overbearing mother. Bert as Wilbur Boswell instantly falls in love with the sweet faced Mary. He and Woolsey, as J. Addington Ganzy, agree to help Mary renovate and run a dilapidated hotel she inherited. Unfortunately for our trio, Mary’s mother is determined to upset their plans and there are two groups of gangsters who have their own interests in the hotel.

Robert Woolsey as J. Addington Ganzy is a smooth talking, quick thinking, flimflammer. He brandishes his ever-present cigar as if it were an extension of his rapier wit. Unfortunately for Ganzy, his wit is not quite as sharp as the wit of some of the dubious characters circling in on the hotel and its safe.

Bert Wheeler as Wilbur Boswell is Ganzy’s cuter, sweeter, and slightly dumber partner. Wilbur falls instantly in love with Dorothy Lee’s baby faced and squeaky voiced Mary. The two of them are sweet and silly together, except for one scene which I’ll mention a bit later.

Along for the zaniness is Mary’s mother who is literally twice the size of her dainty daughter and the very picture of the words “old battle-axe.” Also at the hotel is a suspicious bell-boy and an oblivious house detective. There are also two different groups of gangsters, each with their own agenda, including a vampy gangster’s wife named Duchess Bessie von Essie.

Hook, Line and Sinker is filled with witty remarks and slapstick action. The various characters maneuver madly around each other and the hotel until they all collide in one wild nocturnal chase and shootout. Here are a few of my favorite funny lines from the film:

  • A traffic cop scolds Ganzy and Wilbur, “You broke a traffic law.” Ganzy replies, “Can’t you make another one?”
  • Ganzy comes up with a reason for the cop to buy life insurance: “People are dying this year that have never died before.”
  • Ganzy offers another reason: “Do you realize you have enough gallstones to start a quarry?”
  • Mary, Wilbur, and Ganzy are aghast at their first sight of Mary’s hotel. Mary says, “You know, it’s supposed to be early Victorian.” “Very early,” replies Wilbur. “Too early,” says Ganzy. Mary adds, “Mother said that all the big bugs used to live here.” “They’re probably still here,” snaps Ganzy.
  • Ganzy comes up with a plan to save the hotel, “I’ve just given birth to an idea!” “My, how you must have suffered,” replies Wilbur.
  • Ganzy is impressed with Mary’s mother and her money, “That’s a lot of woman, boy. A lot of woman.”
  • Mary and her mother think Wilbur is having an affair with the Duchess. Mary’s mother snaps, “Well there’s your Romeo making Juliette.”
  • The Duchess tries to get Ganzy drunk. Ganzy looks at his drink and says, “You know this stuff makes you see double and feel single.”
  • Ganzy flirts with Mary’s mother: “But tell me, tweetums, are you unmarried?” quizzes Ganzy. “Quite often,” replies Mary’s mother, “You know, I shall never forget my second husband.” “Your second husband?” “Yes,” Mary’s mother replies, “We met by accident. He ran over my first husband with his car.”
  •  Mary and her mother sneak around in the dark while the gangsters are shooting at each other. Mother complains. “You’ve got to stop inviting bullets in this direction. I’m too easy to hit!”

Hook, Line and Sinker is a black and white 75 minute long film. The jokes and the slapstick both come fast. There are some great scenes of Ganzy attempting to be flirtatious by making noises and acting like a wolf. And also of him repeatedly getting upset when other characters mistake his name for “Pansy”. One of my favorite scenes is where Mary’s mother literally trashes a bed and makes a club out of a bed post and goes marching off to confront the bad guys.

The movie is dated in places but nothing that is too jarring for modern viewers except maybe one particular scene. In this scene, Mary is convinced that Wilbur has been unfaithful with the Duchess. The Duchess has actually been pursuing and flirting with Wilbur in an effort to get the hotel safe’s combination. Wilbur resists her and also manages to sneakily get her gun away from her. After leaving the Duchess’s room, with the gun, Wilbur sees an angry Mary and tries to explain but Mary refuses to listen. So Wilbur pulls the gun on her and engages in what one reviewer called a “pistol seduction”. I realize that scene was supposed to be cute and amusing but I’ve seen too many real life idiots stalking and shooting their exes to find that particular scene very funny. But otherwise I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the movie.

Overall, Hook, Line and Sinker is a good old-fashioned slapstick laugh-fest. The video quality is good despite a few quick jumps in the film and the audio quality is excellent. Modern viewers who are opposed to smoking may not like Robert Woolsey’s ever-present cigar. It is very in your face but also very much a part of the times in which the movie was made. There is a lot of slapstick violence at the end of the film with people running around in the dark shooting at each other and getting smacked and poked and knocked down. But it is all played for laughs and no one is really hurt. It is not scary enough to disturb younger viewers. There are a few double entendres, especially when Robert Woolsey is pursuing Mary’s mother (played by Jobyna Howland) but they are very mild by today’s standards.

I really enjoyed Hook, Line and Sinker. It’s too bad that most Wheeler and Woolsey films have been forgotten in time. In part, it was because of Robert Woolsey’s untimely death and in part it was because the Wheeler and Woolsey films were never packaged for television the way the films of other comedy teams were.

Of course, the best thing about Hook, Line and Sinker is that it is FREE in the Public Domain at the Internet Archive.

Please click this link and go to the Internet Archive to download or watch Hook, Line and Sinker.

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