Double Your Fun With Wheeler & Woolsey: HALF SHOT AT SUNRISE (RKO 1930) & COCKEYED CAVALIERS (RKO 1934)


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Welcome back to the wacky world of Wheeler & Woosley! Bert and Bob’s quick quips and silly sight gags kept filmgoers laughing through the pain of the Depression Era, and continue to delight audiences who discover their peculiar type of zaniness. So tonight, let’s take a trip back in time with a double shot of W&W comedies guaranteed to keep you in stitches!

1930’s HALF SHOT AT SUNRISE was their 4th film together, and the first exclusively tailored for their comic talents. In this WWI service comedy, Bert and Bob are a pair of AWOL soldiers on the loose in Paris, chasing girls while in turn being chased by a couple of mean-mugged MP’s (Eddie DeLange, John Rutherford). Bert winds up falling for Dorothy Lee (who appeared in most of their films, almost as a third member of the team), the youngest daughter of cranky Col. Marshall (cranky George MacFarlane)…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: Cimarron (dir by Wesley Ruggles)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1931 best picture winner, Cimarron!)

“Be careful, Hank!  Alabaster may be a little dude but he’ll mess you up.”

“No offense … but he’s from Oklahoma.”

— King of the Hill Episode 5.13 “Ho Yeah”

Some best picture winners are better remembered than others.  Some, like The Godfather, are films that will be watched and rewatched until the end of time.  Others, like Crash, seems to be destined to be continually cited as proof that the Academy often picks the wrong movie.  And then you have other films that were apparently a big deal when they were first released but which, in the decades to follow, have fallen into obscurity.

1931’s Cimarron would appear to be a perfect example of the third type of best picture winner.

Based on a novel by Edna Ferber (who would later write another book, Giant, that would be adapted into an Oscar-nominated film), Cimarron is an epic about Oklahoma.  The film opens in 1889 with the Oklahoma land rush.  Settlers from all across America rush into Oklahoma, searching for a new beginning.  Among them is Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) and his wife, Sabra (Irene Dunne).  Yancey is hoping to become a rancher but, upon arriving at the settlement of Osage, he discovers that the land he wanted has already been claimed by Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor).

So, Yancey gives up on becoming a rancher.  Instead, he becomes a newspaper publisher and an occasional outlaw killer.  Soon, Yancey and Sabra are two of the most prominent citizens in Osage.  Under the guidance of Yancey, Osage goes from being a wild outpost to being a respectable community.  It’s not always easy, of course.  Criminals like The Kid (William Collier, Jr.) still prey on the weak.  As the town grows more respectable, some citizens try to force out people like Dixie Lee.  Struck by a combination of personal tragedy and wanderlust, Yancey occasionally leaves Osage but he always seems to return in time to make sure that people do the right thing.  When even his wife reveals that she’s prejudiced against Native Americans, Yancey writes a vehement editorial demanding that they be granted full American citizenship.

The film follows Sabra and Yancey all the way to the late 1920s.  Oklahoma becomes a state.  Sabra becomes a congresswoman.  Oil is discovered.  Throughout it all, Yancey remains a firm voice in support of always doing the right thing.  In fact, he’s such a firm voice that you actually start to get tired of listening to him.  Yancey may be a great man but he’s not a particularly interesting one.

By today’s standards, Cimarron is a painfully slow movie.  The opening land rush is handled well but once Yancey and Sabra settle down in Osage, the film becomes a bit of a chore to sit through.  Richard Dix is a dull lead and the old age makeup that’s put on Dix and Dunne towards the end of the movie is notably unconvincing.  Considering some of the other films that were eligible for Best Picture that year — The Front Page, The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, Frankenstein — Cimarron seems even more out-of-place as an Oscar winner.

And yet, back in 1931, it would appear the Cimarron was a really big deal.  Consider this:

Cimarron was not only well-reviewed but also a considerable box office success.

Cimarron was the first film to ever receive more than 6 Academy Award nominations.  (It received seven and won 3 — Picture, Screenplay, and Art Direction.)

Cimarron was the first film to be nominated in all of the Big Five categories (Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay).

Cimarron was the first film to be nominated in every category for which it was eligible.

Cimarron was the first RKO film to win Best Picture. The second and last RKO film to win would be The Best Years of Our Lives, a film that has held up considerably better than Cimarron.

Cimarron was the first Western to win Best Picture.  In fact, it would be 59 years before another western took the top award.

Though Cimarron may now be best known to those of us who watch TCM, it’s apparent that it was a pretty big deal when it was first released.  Though it seems pretty creaky by today’s standards, they loved it in 1931.

Film Review: Pride and Prejudice (dir by Robert Z. Leonard)


On this date, in 1813, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was first published.  The book was published Thomas Egerton, who bought the rights for £110.  Apparently, Austen didn’t expect the book to become the success that it did.  As a result, she ultimately only made  £140 off of the book.  (Egerton made considerably more.)  When the book was originally published, Austen’s name was nowhere to be found on the manuscript.  Instead, it was credited to “the author of Sense and Sensibility.”

(When Sense and Sensibility was originally released, it was simply credited to “A Lady.”)

The rest, of course, is history.  205 years after it was first published, Pride and Prejudice remains one of the most popular and influential novels ever written.  Every year, new readers discover and fall in love with the story of outspoken Elizabeth Bennet, the proud Mr. Darcy, the pompous Mr. Collins, and the rather sleazy George Wickham.  There have been countless film and television adaptations.  My personal favorite is Joe Wright’s 2005 version, with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth.  My least favorite would have to be Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

The very first film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was released in 1940.  Originally, the movie was envisioned as being a George Cukor film that would star Norma Shearer and Clark Gable.  However, the film’s production was put on hold after the death of Shearer’s husband, the legendary Irving Thalberg.  When the film finally resumed pre-production in 1939, Gable was now busy with Gone With The Wind.  Cast in his place was Robert Donat (who, interestingly enough, would have played Rhett Butler if Gable had refused the role).  With the film originally meant to be filmed in Europe, the outbreak of World War II led to yet another delay.  By the time production resumed, Cukor had been replaced by Robert Z. Leonard and Norma Shearer had also left the project.  With Gone With The Wind breaking box office records, MGM came up with the idea of once again casting Vivien Leigh opposite of Clark Gable.  However, Gable eventually left the film and Laurence Olivier, looking for a chance to act opposite Leigh, agreed to play Darcy.  However, the studio worried that casting Olivier and Leigh opposite each other would lead to negative stories about the two of them having an affair despite both being married to other people.  So, Leigh was removed from the project and Greer Garson was cast.  Olivier was so annoyed with the decision that, after Pride and Prejudice, it would be eleven years before he would work with another American studio.

Despite all of the drama behind-the-scenes, MGM’s version of Pride and Prejudice is a thoroughly delightful film, one full of charming performances and witty lines.  Though she was 36 when she made Pride and Prejudice, Garson is still the perfect Elizabeth, giving a lively and intelligent performance that stands in stark contrast to the somewhat staid films that she was making at the same time with Walter Pidgeon.  As for Olivier, from the first minute he appears, he simply is Darcy.  That said, my favorite performance in the film was Edmund Gwenn’s.  Cast as Mr. Bennet,  Gwenn brought the same warmth and gentle humor to the role that he would later bring to Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street.  I also liked the performances of Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane and Edward Ashley as disreputable Mr. Wickham.

Pride and Prejudice is not an exact adaptation.  For one thing, the movie takes place in the early Victoria era, supposedly because MGM wanted to cut costs by reusing some of the same costumes that were previously used in Gone With The Wind.  As well, Lady Catherine (Edna May Oliver) is no longer as evil as she was in the novel.  Finally, because the production code forbid ridicule of religion, the theological career of Mr. Collins (Melville Cooper) was considerably downplayed.  Not even Jane Austen (or, more specifically, the film’s screenwriter, Aldous Huxley) could defy the Code.

Seventy-eight years after it was first released, the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice holds up surprisingly well.  It’s an enjoyable film and one that, despite a few plot changes, remains true to the spirit of Austen.

Lunatic Fringe: Wheeler & Woolsey in HOLD ‘EM JAIL (RKO 1932)


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The comedy team of Wheeler & Woolsey is pretty esoteric to all but the most hardcore classic film fans. Baby-faced innocent Bert Wheeler and cigar-chomping wisecracker Robert Woolsey made 21 films together beginning with 1929’s RIO RITA (in which they’d starred on Broadway), up until Woolsey’s untimely death in 1937. I had heard about them, read about them, but never had the chance to catch one of their films until recently. HOLD ‘EM JAIL makes for a good introduction to W&W’s particular brand of lunacy, as the boys skewer both the prison and college football genres, aided by a top-notch comic supporting cast that includes a 16-year-old Betty Grable.

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Football crazy Warden Elmer Jones (slow-burn master Edgar Kennedy ) is the laughing-stock of the Prison Football League. His team hasn’t had a winning season in years, and he sends a message to the president of “the alumni association” to send some new recruits “for the old…

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Cleaning Out The DVR #26: Little Women (dir by George Cukor)


(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by this Friday.  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)

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Based on the beloved classic by Louisa May Alcott, the 1933 film Little Women tells the story of the March sisters.  Growing up in Concord, Massachusetts during the Civil War, they wait — with their mother, Marmee (Spring Byington) — for their father to return from serving as a chaplain in the Union Army.  There are four sisters.  The oldest, Meg (Frances Dee) is a responsible and practical (which is a nice way of saying that someone is boring) seamstress.  The youngest, Beth (Joan Bennett) is beautiful but selfish.  Meanwhile, saintly Beth (Jean Parker) spends her time playing a severely out-of-tune piano.

And then there’s Jo (Katharine Hepburn).  Jo is just a year younger than Meg and … well, basically, she’s Katharine Hepburn.  She’s an independent-minded intellectual who dreams of being a writer and who isn’t interested in conforming to society’s expectations.  She’s head-strong and occasionally, she’s too stubborn for her own good.  But she’s also kind-hearted and loves her sisters, even if she does sometimes disagree with them.  We follow Jo as she rejects one potential suitor, poor earnest Laurie (Douglass Montgomery) and discovers another when she meets the older Prof. Behar (Paul Lukas).  We also watch as a family tragedy brings her and her sisters back together.

In fact, Katharine Hepburn is so perfect as Jo that it throws the rest of this adaptation out of balance.  So totally does Hepburn dominate this film that it’s hard not to feel that the other March sisters end up getting a short shrift.  To a certain extent, it does make sense.  Jo is the lead character and the story is largely told through her point of view.  But, for someone who enjoyed reading Alcott’s novel, it’s hard not to be disappointed.  I mean, Jo is great but some of us may have related more to one of the other March sisters.  Like Beth, for instance.

Another problem with this version of Little Women is that the March sisters are all supposed to be teenagers and yet, they’re played by actresses who were in their 20s.  For instance, 23 year-old Joan Bennett played Amy, who is supposed to be only 12 years old when we first see her.  By casting actresses who were already clearly adults, it makes t difficult for the film to work as a coming-of-age story.

(Personally, my favorite version of Little Women — and the first one that I ever saw — was the 1994 version that starred Winona Ryder as Jo.  Even though Ryder was clearly the film’s star, the other three March sisters were all given time to make an impression as well and, as a result, they felt like a real family.  Speaking as the youngest of four sisters, there was a lot about that movie to which I could relate.  Add to that, Christian Bale made for a far more interesting Laurie than Douglass Montgomery.)

With all that said, it bears repeating that Katharine Hepburn is absolutely perfect as Jo and, if you’re a Hepburn fan (and who isn’t), this is one of her essential films.  It helps that she was directed by George Cukor, the director who was responsible for some of Hepburn’s best performances.  The rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to Hepburn’s performance but she was such a great talent that it almost doesn’t matter.

Little Women was nominated for best picture.  However, it lost to Cavalcade.

Curiouser & Curiouser: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (Paramount 1933)


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Lewis Carroll’s 1865 children’s classic ALICE IN WONDERLAND was turned into an all-star spectacular by Paramount in 1933. But the stars were mostly unrecognizable under heavy makeup and costumes, turning audiences off and causing the film to bomb at the box office. Seen today, the 1933 ALICE is a trippy visual delight for early movie buffs, thanks in large part to the art direction of William Cameron Menzies.

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Menzies’ designs are truly out there, giving ALICE the surrealistic quality of the books themselves. He actually storyboarded his ideas right into the physical script, earning a co-writer credit along with Joseph L. Mankiewicz . Menzies was the cinematic wizard whose art direction brought the magical 1924 THE THIEF OF BAGDAD to life. He was co-director and special effects designer for 1932’s CHANDU THE MAGICIAN, and the title of Production Designer was invented for him on the classic GONE WITH THE WIND. Menzies also directed a few films; especially of…

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