Friday, March 23, 2012

Film Review: On Again-Off Again

"On Again-Off Again" ** (out of ****)

The 1930s RKO comedy team Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey are not among my all-time favorite comedy teams. That honor goes to Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers and Abbott & Costello. Still, readers know, I have a great affection for comedy. And I love watching movies by the teams and comedians time has forgotten; Olsen & Johnson, Harry Langdon, Joe E. Brown, the Ritz Brothers and the stars of "On Again-Off Again" (1937) Wheeler & Woolsey.

Wheeler & Woolsey worked at RKO and appearred in 21 feature films and one short two-reeler. They only made one film outside RKO, "So This Is Africa" (1933) which was released by Columbia Pictures.

Initially I had seen nearly every single one of their movies except "On Again-Off Again" and "So This Is Africa". So it was with great excitement when I ordered "On Again-Off Again" on DVD, thanks to Warner Brothers.

"On Again-Off Again" was the team's second to last movie. By this time in their partnership the quality of their films was starting to drop. Their work at this time includes "Silly Billies" (1936), "Mummy's Boys" (1936) and "High Flyers" (1937) their final film.

On paper "On Again-Off Again" sounds like a decent concept. Robert Woolsey plays Claude Horton and Bert Wheeler is William Hobbs. They have invented a pink coated pill, which I am not exactly sure what it is good for. They do nothing but argue. Their arguments reach such a high level that each speaks of dissolving the partnership and buying the other out.

The problem is the boys can't agree on who should buy who out. Each man feels they are responsible for the company's success. In a moment of utter frustration their attorney, George Dilwig (Russell Hicks) suggest they wrestle one another. The winner gets the company and the loser must become the winner's valet for a year.

By the time "On Again-Off Again" was made Robert Woolsey was in poor health. He was in constant pain during filming due to kidney problems. Woolsey was in such bad health he died in the same year.

I mention all of this for a reason. It shows on Woolsey's face he is in pain. Woolsey's health affects the team's chemistry. There doesn't seem to be any enjoyment in Wheeler or Woolsey's performance. There is no energy to what they are doing. Everything is slowed down. Pay attention to an early song and dance routine the boys do at the beginning of the picture. They engage in a dance duel with taps and smacks across the face. It is similar to a routine they do in "The Cuckoos" (1930). Compare both routines. Tell me that the routine doesn't work better in "The Cuckoos". In "The Cuckoos" they are in the moment. They are vibrant. In "On Again-Off Again" they seem weak and uninvolved.

And this is the biggest problem with the movie. Wheeler & Woolsey aren't "selling" it. The jokes fall flat. Woolsey has no zest for his lines. Someone could argue the comedy in a Wheeler & Woolsey movie is dated, and I won't disagree, but the boys "sold" it. They could find a way to make the material work. They had some pretty good moments of banter in their movies.

The script, written by Nat Perrin and Benny Rubin, from what I could tell, is decent. Perrin worked with Abbott & Costello and Olsen & Johnson, writing such movies as "Keep 'Em Flying" (1941), "Pardon My Sarong" (1942) and "Hellzapoppin' (1941, which I have reviewed). He also wrote a Red Skelton vehicle, "Whistling in Brooklyn" (1941) which is pretty good and co-wrote the Marx Brothers comedy "Duck Soup". Rubin on the other hand wrote "High Flyers" and a decent Joe E. Brown comedy "Bright Lights" (1935).

The script has a few holes. First of all the "wrestling" match happens too soon in the picture and they don't play it for all the laughs they could have by exaggerating upon the situation. In the movie the boys fight in their office dressed in their suits. Well, fight is the wrong word, they walk in circles. What they should have done was have it be an actual fight. Put them in a wrestling ring and wearing wrestling trunks.

When one of them becomes the valet there needed to be more scenes where ridiculous orders are placed upon the valet. I can imagine Abbott & Costello having fun with this set-up. They could engage in some word play with Bud Abbott confusing Lou with his words.

In a majority of Wheeler & Woolsey comedies Dorothy Lee would co-star with the team playing a love interest to Wheeler. They would even get an chance to sing and dance to a tune. Here the boys are paired with Majorie Lord, who would also appear with the team in "High Flyers". She really doesn't add anything to this picture. She has a few scenes with Wheeler, she doesn't sing, dance or even tells jokes. Dorothy Lee wasn't a great actress but she was as cute as a button. Her innocence was a perfect counter-balance to Wheeler & Woolsey's sexual innuendos. In "On Again-Off Again" Majorie Lord doesn't serve that purpose and Woolsey doesn't have any good sexual innuendos. That of course isn't Woolsey's fault, it is the fault of the writers.

The movie was directed by Edward F. Cline. He directed a few movies with the team; "Cracked Nuts" (1931, which I have reviewed), "Hook Line & Sinker" (1930, which I have reviewed) and "High Flyers". He also directed movies with Olsen & Johnson; "Ghost Catchers" (1944) and "See My Lawyer" (1945). Every film Cline directed with Wheeler & Woolsey was better than "On Again-Off Again".

My advice would be to skip this movie. If you are a true fan of this comedy team, naturally, you will want to see it. And now that is it available on DVD you will get your chance. I would seriously doubt though if fans would say this movie is funnier than "Diplomaniacs" (1933), my favorite of their comedies, "Hips, Hips, Hooray!" (1934) or "Peach-O-Reno" (1931, which I have reviewed). For those who have never seen a comedy by this team, start with one of the three movies I just mentioned. I don't like "On Again-Off Again" but I'm not sorry I saw this movie. I like to collect Wheeler & Woolsey comedies because at one time they were rare.