Sunday, December 22, 2013

Film Review: Cockeyed Cavaliers

"Cockeyed Cavaliers" 
** 1\2 (out of ****)

This RKO comedy starring the forgotten comedy team, Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey, starts off pleasant enough as a town crier (Franklin Pangborn) sings the town's news as the townspeople reply by singing as well. This sets a playful, silly tone that made me believe "Cockeyed Cavaliers" (1934) would be an entertaining, light diversion. It partly is.

Wheeler & Woolsey star as a couple of drifters, in 16th Century England, who go from town to town. They can't stay in any one place too long because Bert (Wheeler) is a kleptomaniac and his actions get them thrown out of every town they go to.

At our introduction of Bert and Bob (Woolsey) they immediately get into mischief as they ride into town hiding under the carriage of a Duke (Robert Greig, a character actor who made a career out of playing butlers) and the Lady Genevieve (Thelma Todd). Bert falls into one of his "spells" and ends up stealing the horses from the carriage, Lady Genevieve's necklace and eventually the carriage itself. This results in them being cast in irons on public display.

The reason the Duke has come to this town is to meet his bride, a young peasant girl, Mary Ann (Dorothy Lee, a frequent co-star in Wheeler & Woolsey comedies). She doesn't love the Duke and wants nothing to do with him. In panic she tells someone, the Duke is "going throw his second childhood", meaning he is a skirt chaser. So Mary Ann does the only logical thing a woman in her position can do. She dresses up as a boy and sneaks out of her house in the hopes the Duke will never find her.

On her escape, Mary Ann passes the public display of Bert and Bob, which has now turned violent as the villagers are throwing objects at our pillagers. Mary Ann decides to intervene and causes a distraction for the boys which allows them to escape with her.

As one thing leads to another the three of them find themselves at an Inn where Bert and Bob are mistaken for the King's physicians and are called to the home of the Duke who has fallen sick.

This all sounds pretty good so far and I honestly wanted to like the movie. I even laughed at some of the jokes in these early scenes. When Bert explains to Bob he is a kleptomaniac Bob tells him he should take something for that. To which Bert replies "I've taken everything." Heavy emphasis on "taken". These are the kind of jokes one should expect in a Wheeler & Woolsey comedy. To more modern audiences these jokes might seem corny and flat. I would imagine there are those that would describe a movie like this or any Wheeler & Woolsey comedy as "dated". Maybe. But I like these puns and one-liners.

Other funny moments involve the boys meeting the Duke for the first time and giving him an examination. Naturally the duo doesn't know what they are doing and Bert accidentally picks up a book on horses, thinking it is a medical book and gives Bob instructions on how to treat his patient. It lends itself to some funny situations as they treat the Duke as if he were a horse and try to give him a horse pill.

I also like the interplay between Bob and Lady Genevieve, who is married to the Baron (Noah Berry, Wallace's brother). Their dialogue is on par with Groucho and Margaret Dumount. Robert Woolsey was a bit of a Groucho type of character, wearing glasses, smoking a cigar and always making a pass at the nearest woman.

The movie follows the standard formula of any Wheeler & Woolsey comedy. There is singing and dancing. The boys go into a song and dance routine. Bert Wheeler and Dorothy Lee play the love interest (eventually they find out Mary Ann is a girl) and do a cute number together. Woolsey in turn does a comedic version of the same song with Thelma Todd. And the boys dish out the sexual innuendos which give their comedies an adult playfulness.

Yet for all the things which work and the movie's good intentions I am unable to recommend it. I didn't find the movie as funny as other Wheeler & Woolsey comedies such as "Diplomaniacs" (1933, which I have reviewed), "Peach-O-Reno" (1931, which I have reviewed) or "Hips, Hips, Hooray!" (1934). What I also felt hurt the movie was the historical setting. Wheeler & Woolsey were contemporary comedians. Their movies normally took place in the modern day. Their characters don't seem to work in a period piece setting.

That is not to say it couldn't. In fact I may even understand why you would want to put these characters in a historical setting. Again, their humor was rather adult and playful. It would make for a nice contrast against a more Victorian setting if they engage in anachronistic humor, speaking in 1930s slang. And there is some of that but not enough. There is just something not funny about seeing Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey in Victorian costumes. They don't have as much fun as they could have had with the time period.

Better examples of this would be Bob Hope in "Casanova's Big Night" (1954) or "Monsieur Beaucaire" (1946, which I have reviewed). There is also the Laurel & Hardy comedy "The Devil's Brother" (1933) one of the team's best and the Ritz Brothers in "The Three Musketeers" (1939, which I have reviewed). And though he is not of their era Woody Allen did something similar in "Love & Death" (1975). Hope and Allen nicely contrast their own modern sensibility against the historical period and make contemporary jokes while the characters around them act as if they don't get the joke.

This is what "Cockeyed Cavaliers" needed to do. Though I must admit everything else about the movie is well done. It has nice costume and production designs. The score is decent, there is a nice song the duo sings about a big bad wolf. All of the actors are fine. And the direction by Mark Sandrich is competent. Sandrich made a career directing musical comedies. He also directed Wheeler & Woolsey in "Hips, Hips, Hooray!" and worked on several Fred Astaire / Ginger Rogers musicals; "The Gay Divorcee" (1934), "Top Hat" (1935, which I have reviewed) and "Follow the Fleet" (1936) as well as "Holiday Inn" (1942, which I have reviewed) and the Jack Benny comedy "Buck Benny Rides Again" (1940, which I have reviewed).

Wheeler & Woolsey appeared in two other historical comedies. One dealt with World War I, "Half Shot At Sunrise" (1930), which is one of their best, and "Dixiana" (1930) which takes them back to the ol' south. It is a disaster.

I never thought Wheeler & Woolsey were a great comedy team. I dislike the majority of their movies together but I must admit they have made a small handful of comedies which have really entertained me. I have reviewed several of their comedies. I have seen all 22 comedies they starred in together between 1929 - 1937. It was said of them they saved RKO from bankruptcy. In their day they were a popular comedy team but time has not been kind to them. They are unfairly forgotten. Though I may not be their number one fan I still believe their work should not be ignored. I have made my own minor attempt to introduce them to readers.

"Cockeyed Cavaliers" is not a disaster. It has some qualities going for it. There are some laughs to be had but I just wish more would have been done with this material. The historical setting just doesn't seem to suite this team. They work better in a modern setting. Still, worth seeing if you happen to find it on TV.