Monday, September 1, 2014

Film Review: So This Is Africa

"So This Is Africa"  *** (out of ****)

The largely forgotten comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey star in this raunchy Columbia Pictures release "So This Is Africa" (1933).

Wheeler & Woolsey starred in 21 feature length films between 1929-1937. During that time they appeared in two comedy shorts; "The Stolen Jools" (1931) and "Oh! Oh! Cleopatra" (1931). All of these movies were released by RKO Studios except for "So This Is Africa". This makes it one of the more difficult films to find starring the comedy team. Nearly all of their movies have been put on DVD, thanks to Warner Brothers, but not this one.

"So This Is Africa" has a controversial past. It was made at a time when the production code was starting to be more strictly enforced. The censorship board forced Columbia Pictures to edit the movie. Like most Wheeler & Woolsey comedies "So This Is Africa" is filled with sexual innuendos. Take a look at the movie's tagline; "two big sexplorers go big dame hunting". This was pretty risque material for 1933. 

The sad part is the movie was sloppily edited. The cuts are noticeable. One liners are cut in mid-sentence. Fans of the comedy team or those who like pre-code movies have been disappointed a complete copy of the movie does not exist. But, we will never see the footage which ended up on the cutting room floor.

A lot of the movie doesn't make any sense at all. There is no real story arc, no character development but not all of that is because of the censorship board, a lot of that has to do with the script and it is not necessarily a negative thing.

Wheeler & Woolsey work best when they are in movies which don't have a strong plot. Plot  drags them down. They need freedom to do their comedy. A consistent story-line restricts them. Their best movie is "Diplomaniacs" (1933), their following film, which RKO Studios released immediately, to capitalize on this movie's success. RKO couldn't let Columbia Pictures make money off of their stars and that movie is even goofier than this one. Some critics and film historians compare "Diplomaniacs" to "Duck Soup" (1933). Both pictures are political satires.

The silly story in "So This Is Africa" involves a movie studio called Ultimate Pictures. For two years they have planned to make a movie in Africa. According to the head of the studio (Berton Churchill) African pictures are all the rage. Audiences thrive on them. An African explorer, Mrs. Johnson-Martini (Esther Muir) was sent to Africa to get footage of the jungle. Unfortunately, she was not able to. She reveals to the studio head she is afraid of animals.

After wasting several hundred dollars and two years it is decided to hire two vaudeville comedians; Alexander (Robert Woolsey) and Wilbur (Bert Wheeler) to accompany Mrs. Martini to Africa. You see, the boys won five tame lions in a raffle. A raffle in which they bought the only ticket that was sold. Since the lions won't hurt anyone Mrs. Martini is not afraid.

As soon as everyone arrives in Africa the story-lines disappears. Alexander and Mrs. Martini flirt with one another and Wilbur finds a native girl, (Raquel Torres), who looks an awful lot like Maureen O' Sullivan, who starred in "Tarzan the Ape Man" (1932), so it could have been intentional.

In Africa a lot of the sexual innuendos start to fly. We learn of an Africa tribe comprised of all women who have the power to "love you to death". And it is mating season! What will Wheeler & Woolsey do?

Even in our modern times you can quickly tell why "So This Is Africa" would cause a stir. Still, the jokes that remain are funny. One scene involves Wilbur lost in the jungle, he screams for help only to hear his echo, he notices the native girl, she suggest they go in her cave. Wilbur yells out he can't go with her, to which his echo replies "don't be a dope"!

Another funny scene involves the audience being able to hear everyone's thoughts as they say different things. At one point Alexander and Wilbur can hear each other's thoughts and begin to argue mentally.

But my favorite scene might be a song and dance number. Alexander and Wilbur sing "Hello Africa" written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby (the team also wrote songs for the Marx Brothers such as "Hooray For Captain Spaulding"). The song has a lot of funny lyrics involving how brave the boys are fighting animals and gets in some good visual gags. My favorite being as they are singing and dancing they trip over a man whose foot is wrapped in a bandage. He stands up to scold the boys but quickly realizes he is cured and starts to dance with the boys. 

It is this type of lunacy I enjoy watching. I like movies that try anything for a laugh. Movies which defy logic. The stories never make much sense. The plot is not what is important. Only the jokes matter. You can't take anything serious in the movie. You can't allow yourself to evaluate the plot. You can't judge the movie the way you would others. The only way to decide if the movie should be recommended or not is by asking yourself, did I laugh? If the answer is yes, the movie worked. If you didn't, it failed. I laughed. 

There are audiences that will look at this movie and complain the humor is corny and dated. You are correct! The humor is dated. In fact it is dated 1933! Naturally some of the humor will get "lost in translation". Jokes 80 years old may not make a twenty-something laugh. I'm not surprised and neither should you be especially since "There's Something About Mary" (1998) which pushed the envelope so far since that time we have had a slew of comedies that have tried to gross us out. But, "So This Is Africa" has enough jokes that work. It created enough situations that are funny for me to be comfortable recommending it. Yes, somewhere along the way the movie lost its plot but that's okay because it remembered to pack the jokes.

I have confessed in the past Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey are not my favorite comedy team. There are several movies they appeared in I don't like. But "So This Is Africa" is one of the few that works. I rank it with their best such as "Diplomaniacs", "Peach-O-Reno" (1931), "Hips, Hips, Hooray! (1931) and "Half- Shot At Sunrise" (1930).

If you are able to find it "So This Is Africa" is worth seeing.