Sunday, October 4, 2015
Film Review: Mummy's Boys
Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey cry for their mummy in the RKO comedy / horror movie "Mummy's Boys" (1936).
Movie fans are not always kind to the comedy team of Wheeler & Woolsey. Many consider their comedy dated and corny. They simply feel Wheeler & Woolsey don't "bring the funny". The movies in which they appeared in together are not "timeless" the way Laurel & Hardy or Marx Brothers comedies are. Those movies seem to be able to continue to attract younger generation of fans. Also, a lot of people have not heard of Wheeler & Woolsey. Time has not been their friend. Once they were a hugely popular team in the 1930s and today they are almost completely forgotten. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies (TCM) they stand a chance of being re-discovered, as the channel occasionally airs their comedies.
Unfortunately "Mummy's Boys" is not going to be the best example of Wheeler & Woolsey at the top of their game. Watching "Mummy's Boys" will lead you to believe the comedy team should be forgotten. There is no reason the masses should suffer and be forced to watch this.
"Mummy's Boys" fails on two levels. First it fails as a Wheeler & Woolsey comedy. Secondly it fails as a comedy / horror movie. Wheeler & Woolsey comedies often have music in them. Bert Wheeler fashioned himself as something of a singer and was the "romantic lead" of the team. He was usually paired with Dorothy Lee (whom sadly does not appear in this movie) and they would often do a duet together. Robert Woolsey was the "leader" of the team. He was the "big idea" man who often came up with get rich quick schemes for the team. A lot of his jokes were one-liners, in the tradition of Bob Hope or Groucho Marx, and were risque for the times. Dialogue in a Wheeler & Woolsey comedy was peppered with sexual innuendos.
There is no singing and dancing in "Mummy's Boys". There shouldn't have been anyway. There is no time for a romantic sub-plot either. There shouldn't have been one to begin with. But, on the other hand, that's what made a Wheeler & Woolsey comedy. But, this is a comedy / horror movie. A comedy / horror movie needs to be able to blend the two styles. You need to find the right balance of comedy and scary scenes. You need to almost think of it as two movies in one. Take your comedy scenes serious and create a realistic horror plot.
It may not sound easy. Some may think it is impossible. But it has been done. The best examples include "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948), the Ritz Brothers in "The Gorilla" (1939) and a pair of Bob Hope comedies; "Ghost Breakers" (1940) and "The Cat & the Canary" (1939). Those movies had funny sequences but they also created an eerie atmosphere. They put the comedian in typical horror scenarios and then poked fun at the genre. "Mummy's Boys" forgets to do that. It creates a nice set-up but doesn't fully capitalize on the situation it has created.
Wheeler & Woolsey star as Aloysius C. Whittaker (Woolsey) and Stanley Wright (Wheeler). They are a couple of ditch diggers who answer a newspaper ad by an archaeologist, preparing to go on an expedition to Egypt, who acquires assistance.
What Aloysius and Stanley don't know is the archaeologist, Phillip Browning (Frank M. Thomas), was one of 13 men that traveled to Egypt a year prior and discovered the tomb of King Pharatime. Each man brought back treasures with him and now Phillip feels a curse has been placed on him as 10 of the men that traveled with him have died. Phillip now plans to go back to the tomb and return what he took. He only hopes he will live long enough to make it to Egypt.
Going along with Phillip is his daughter, Mary (Barbara Pepper) who is supposed to serve as the romantic interest for Stanley. The two take a liking to each other and some scenes are created to allow them to flirt with one another. There is also a stowaway, Catfish (Willie Best, a popular black comedian of the time) who agrees to accompany the group. He is as big a coward as Aloysius and Stanley and was supposed to provide more humor.
The banter between Aloysius and Catfish may borderline as racist to younger, liberal audiences. One joke for example, has everyone about to enter a dark cave. Aloysius, afraid, asks Catfish to go first, but he is also afraid there may be ghosts, to which Aloysius replies, even if there are ghosts they won't be able to see Catfish in the dark. To me it is not racist. Poor taste? Maybe. But not racist. Those are the kind of jokes though you will hear in this movie.
"Mummy's Boys" reminds me of "So This Is Africa" (1933) starring the comedy team. Both movies take the team out of the country and has them clash with different cultures, which is where the humor stems from. But, "Mummy's Boys" takes too long to get the team inside the tomb. The movie doesn't do enough to scare us. We don't feel anyone's life is in danger. Aloysius and Stanley aren't put in enough compromising situations. The movie isn't having enough fun with the horror genre.
This was the third to last movie Wheeler and Woolsey starred in together. Woolsey died in 1937 of kidney failure. After 1934 with the movie "Hips, Hips, Hooray!" the quality of their movies started to decline. Much of this was due to the declining health of Woolsey which prevented him from performing with the same high energy he normally would.
The director of the movie, Fred Guiol, directed two other movies starring the team; "The Rainmakers" (1935) and "Silly Billies" (1936). Neither one of them is any good, showing you what the team was capable of when performing at their best. The fault may not have been Guiol, who also directed a few Laurel & Hardy silent comedies, but perhaps the writers, who were trying to capitalize on the stories of a decade earlier and the discovery of King Tut and the "curse of the pharaohs".
If "Mummy's Boys" does anything it shows you how difficult comedy / horror can be. "Mummy's Boys" is not the worst Wheeler & Woolsey comedy out there but it is far from their best. This movie belongs in a class with "Zombies On Broadway" (1945) and "Ghost Catchers" (1944), which is not the kind of company you want to keep. If you are looking for a good comedy / horror movie watch "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" or "The Cat & the Canary" instead.