Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Film Review: Peach O' Reno

"Peach O' Reno" *** (out of ****)

There are certain comedians and comedy teams we have all heard of. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, W.C. Fields, Bob Hope, Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello. But how many of you have heard of Larry Semon? Joe E. Brown? The Ritz Brothers? "Fatty" Arbuckle? Harry Langdon? Or the stars of "Peach O' Reno", the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey?

Wheeler & Woolsey were at one time a top box-office draw for RKO pictures, where they made 21 of their 22 films. It is said they alone kept RKO out of bankruptcy. Today though they are largely forgotten.

I can't pretend I'm a big fan of this comedy team. I'm not. But there is no reason they should be forgotten by movie fans. Their comedy, while sometimes dated, can be enduring.

The best Wheeler and Woolsey movies are the ones which don't get boggled down with a plot. We don't watch a Wheeler and Woolsey movie for a plot. We watch them for the jokes and the chemistry between the team. When their movies just give the team room to do their comedy and doesn't reduce them to supporting players for a romance ("Dixiana") their movies succeed.

"Peach O' Reno" is such an example. If you understand anything in this movie you are one step ahead of the game. The movie has jokes coming at you a mile a minute. Not all of them work but you have to admire the movie's energy. Wheeler and Woolsey give it their all. In some ways it reminds me of a Marx Brother comedy. Think of "Duck Soup" or "Horse Feathers". "Peach O' Reno" makes about as make sense as those movies.

In it Wheeler and Woolsey are divorce lawyers in Reno. They are beating out the competition because of their low rates. Only $100 dollars for a divorce. It also helps that they have rows of buses ready to pick up newly arrive tourist who just get off the train.

On their 25th wedding anniversary Mr. and Mrs. Bruno (Joseph Cawthorn, who appeared in another Wheeler and Woolsey comedy, "Dixiana" and Cora Witherspoon, who played W.C. Fields' wife in "The Bank Dick") get into an argument and decide to get a divorce. They both head for Reno and end up hiring the law firm of Wittles & Swift (Wheeler and Woolsey).

Their daughters (Dorothy Lee and Zehma O' Neal) know their parents don't really want to get a divorce and plead with Wittles and Swift to stop the divorce before it is final.

Having me describe "Peach O' Reno" it all makes sense but it is what happens in between these moments where the lunacy (and I use that word as a compliment) begins. After the law office closes it is turned into a night club. The desks are reversable and are transformed into roulette tables and crap boards. The other lawyers suddenly become dealers.

"Peach O' Reno" is one of those pre-code films (it was released in 1931) and boy can you tell. The script is loaded with sexual innuendoes. When Julius Swift (Woolsey) meets one of his female clients, she asks if he remembers her. Swift says no, but, at that very moment she sits down, when she does part of her leg is showing. When Swift notices that he immediately responds he remembers her. The client asks if he has been looking at her legs to which he replies "I'm above that".

When Wittles (Wheeler) is discussing Mr. Bruno's case he informs him the only way he can file for divorce is if Mrs. Bruno catches him with another woman. Mr. Bruno fires back if it is possible for Wittles to arrange it so his wife doesn't interrupt.

According to "Peach O' Reno" marriages don't last, people don't fall in love and there is no such thing as family values. Women only marry men for money, one woman even has two husbands (!). You can tell how something like this would have a hard time being made during the time the production code was in effect. But several other Wheeler and Woolsey comedies made after the code still have suggestive innuendoes. Watch "Hips, Hips, Hooray" (also one of their best films) as an example.

The climax comes in the court scene. Here it becomes a case of anything goes. First we have a radio announcer giving us a play-by-play. There is a popcorn vendor walking around through the courtroom. A jury stands to its feet and cheers when Wittle and Swift walk in. And who ever heard of a jury at a divorce case? When Swift cross examines Mrs. Bruno he and the judge are eating peanuts. When he makes his closing argument Wittles pulls out a violin and starts playing trying to add more emotion. It all builds its way to comedy perfection.

This is what happens when Wheeler and Woolsey are given a talented crew behind them. The movie was directed by William A. Seiter. A comedy pro who had been around directing movies since 1915. He directed five other Wheeler and Woolsey movies including "Girl Crazy", "Caught Plastered" and their masterpiece "Diplomaniacs". He also directed Laurel & Hardy in "Sons of the Desert", considered the team's best film. The script was by Tim Whelan who has worked for Harold Lloyd. He worked on "The Freshman" and "Hot Water". He also wrote the classic silent comedy "Exit Smiling", with Beatrice Lillie and Harry Langdon's "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp". The team was often lucky enough to have talented people behind them. Their "Hips, Hips, Hooray" was directed by Mark Sandrich and "Kentucky Kernels" by George Stevens.

But there is something about Wheeler and Woolsey I don't always respond to. I don't feel there was enough contradiction between the team. Their personas weren't strongly developed and didn't compliment each other. Look at Laurel & Hardy or Abbott and Costello. They each had a distinct personality. Wheeler and Woolsey almost play the same character. Woolsey wears horn rimmed glasses and smokes a cigar. He is sort of a cross between George Burns and Groucho Marx, but can't deliver a one liner anywhere near as good as Groucho. And Wheeler, for reasons unknown to me, played the romantic lead. But there was no straight man in the team. They each went for laughs.

Dorothy Lee was the team's most used female counterpart. Of the team's 22 movies she appeared in 14 of them. In every one she plays the girl who falls for the Wheeler character. She wasn't as talented as some of the other actresses of her era, Bette Davies, Myrna Loy or Joan Crawford but she had a pleasant singing voice and was a good dancer (in every movie she sings and dances to at least one song, usually a duet with Wheeler). Check her out in the "From Niagara Falls To Reno" number. She was also probably the cutest thing I ever saw. She has a playful innocence to her which creates a nice contrast to Woolsey's innuendoes. She was the straight man in the group. She appeared in a few other films such as one with Joe E. Brown, "Local Boy Makes Good". But she was probably at her best in these movies. Even if the movie isn't good, I can always say I enjoyed seeing her.

"Peach O' Reno" is a good introduction into this team's work. The film is fast and funny. Wheeler and Woolsey are no Laurel & Hardy, but how many comedy teams are? If you enjoy good old-fashion comedies "Peach O' Reno" will suit you just fine.