Thursday, November 18, 2010

Cracked Nuts (RKO, 1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

I ran the 1931 film Cracked Nuts, a Wheeler and Woolsey vehicle from RKO that is essentially their version of the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup, made two years before the Marxes had their crack at the same premise -- a comedian ends up as the absolute ruler of a small country and fends off a revolution -- whose similarity was acknowledged enough at the time that the Marx Brothers' film on that premise was shot under the working title Cracked Ice and changed only at the last minute because the two previous Marx films had been called Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, and either the Marx Brothers themselves or the "suits" at Paramount decided to continue the tradition of using a title that was a slang phrase including the name of an animal.

Cracked Nuts was written by Al Boasberg -- though Ralph Spence gets a co-credit with Boasberg for "dialogue" and supposedly the film's producer, Douglas MacLean (himself a former silent-film comedian), also contributed to the script. Still, it's a surprising credit because Boasberg was usually a writer brought in at the end of the process to liven up an already "set" script with additional gags (his most famous contribution along those lines was the stateroom scene he concocted for the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera), and assigning him to write a script from scratch was something like a baseball manager assigning a star relief pitcher to start a game.

The director was former Keystone Kop Eddie Cline, who would later make W. C. Fields' final three starring vehicles for Universal (My Little Chickadee, The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break) and here seemed strong in the outright comedy scenes but less interested in the exposition between them -- a common failing in movie comedies, actually, though one Duck Soup eliminated (when I read in Richard Barrios' book on early movie musicals that the first cut of Duck Soup came in at two hours -- the version we have is 70 minutes -- he seemed to think that was a loss, while I suspect that a two-hour Duck Soup would have been a string of great comedy scenes with a lot of boring stuff in between, while the 70-minute Duck Soup is a string of great comedy scenes with nothing in between).

Still, Cracked Nuts is a quite funny film on its own merits -- definitely one of Wheeler and Woolsey's best (though I still think Peach-o-Reno is their masterpiece) and often hilarious. It begins magnificently in a fancy hotel called the "Venus de Milo Arms" (a gag RKO would recycle six years later in the film Living on Love), in which heroine Betty Harrington (Dorothy Lee) is staying with her formidable Aunt Minnie Van Arden (Edna May Oliver, whose severe mien and flair for dry wit makes her an excellent foil for the zanier Wheeler and Woolsey antics), who's trying to break up her relationship with scapegrace rich kid Wendell Graham (Bert Wheeler), who's already burned his way through $400,000 of a $500,000 inheritance. Thrown out of the lobby by an officious elevator operator who suspects him (wrongly) of breaking off a chunk of the grillework from the elevator door, Wendell uses a long ladder to enter Betty's room and hides out in her shower, not knowing that Aunt Minnie is about to use it, and of course he gets drenched despite his use of an umbrella to ward off the shower water.

Aunt Minnie decides to get Betty out of the country in order to break her up with Wendell, so she buys them tickets for a cruise to the tiny Latin American country of El Dorania (we know it's in Latin America because the film's credits were superimposed over a picture of a peanut-roasting machine over a rendition of "The Peanut Vendor" on the soundtrack). What she doesn't know is that a couple of El Doranian con men, a general named Bogardus (Stanley Fields) and his assistant, a guy named Boris (played by an almost unrecognizable Boris Karloff, supplied with an exotic moustache and liberal doses of shoe polish in his hair to make him look Latin; Karloff made 11 films in 1931 and it's clear that after years of barely hanging on in Hollywood he was getting a reputation and would probably have had a comfortable career as a character actor if he hadn't done Frankenstein and been catapulted to stardom in horror roles; it's only a pity Karloff is playing a basically "straight" character, since he had real gifts as a comedian in horror spoofs like You'll Find Out, The Boogie Man Will Get You, the 1963 The Raven and The Comedy of Terrors), have extracted Wendell's last $100,000 by selling him a revolution in El Dorania that will supposedly make him the country's king. Wendell and Betty meet on the boat even though she can't leave her stateroom -- her aunt has a bad cold and insists on keeping her by her side -- and they can only converse through an open window.

At this point the action cuts to El Dorania, where Zander Ulysses Parkhurst (Robert Woolsey) runs a casino and wins the country's crown from reigning King Oscar (Harvey Clark) at his craps table. What he doesn't realize is that the average life expectancy of an El Doranian monarch is about that of a Spinal Tap drummer -- there've been 12 kings in the past year alone -- and Oscar, knowing what he was up against, deliberately loaded the dice so that he'd lose. He stages a fake assassination attempt against himself (the phony assassin isn't credited in the American Film Institute Catalog listing on this film but he looks so much like Mischa Auer I suspect it was he) and his "corpse" is borne out to a waiting ship that will take him out of the country (and like some real-life monarchs threatened with revolution and/or assassination he's probably stashed some money in Swiss bank accounts so he can still live like a king even when he no longer is one) -- and by putting the crown on his head "Zup," as he calls himself for short, assumes not only the El Doranian throne but all the risks to life and limb attendant thereto. He also inherits Queen Carlotta (Leni Stengel), whose fingers are full of wedding rings -- she's married all 12 of those previous kings and kept their rings after their assassinations have repeatedly widowed her.

Though this film suffers from taking so long to bring Wheeler and Woolsey together -- we're in the 30th minute of this 65-minute movie before their characters finally meet -- there's enough inspired lunacy to make the boring exposition scenes worth the wait: once Wendell and Zup, who realize they're old friends from Brooklyn, find themselves on opposite sides of a revolution (with slimy General Bogardus manipulating both sides so he'll end up the power behind the throne no matter which one wins), they meet over a large map of the battlefield and discuss the relative merits of their armies and their positions. Bogardus points out to them two important towns, Azazaz and Eeeep, and after he leaves Wendell and Zup discover two more towns on the map, What and Which, whose names become the basis for a marvelous bit of inspired wordplay anticipating the famous Abbott and Costello "Who's on First?" routine. (Now, I joked, we finally know where Abbott and Costello's weirdly named ballplayers played.)

And the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello aren't the only famous teams whose later work is eerily anticipated in Cracked Nuts, either: in the middle of the action Wendell and Betty do a dance number on a spectacular set representing the main square of El Dorania's capital, taking turns singing a song called "Dance (And the World Dances With You)," by Harry Tierney and Raymond Egan -- and damned if it doesn't look like the beta version of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers number, two years before either Astaire or Rogers went to work for RKO. It's in an RKO movie, it's shot on a big set, Wheeler and Lee sing the song with decent if not spectacularly great voices (Lee's speaking voice tended to grate but her singing voice was considerably more tolerable) and director Cline even shoots it like an Astaire-Rogers number, keeping Wheeler's and Lee's bodies in full frame and keeping the camera on them, having it move to follow them as they dance, before it builds to a gag climax -- Wheeler does a spin out of Lee's arms and, his eyes closed, doesn't realize he's just danced into the decidedly unwelcoming arms of Edna May Oliver instead.

The film's climax is a deliciously absurd one in which, after Wheeler and Woolsey get deliriously drunk in a wine cellar (two years before the great wine-cellar scene in Laurel and Hardy's The Devil's Brother) and Bogardus confronts them just as they're insulting him in absentia, he lays down the law: Wendell must shoot his friend and rival Zup then and there. Wendell talks Bogardus into a delay and also persuades him that they should figure out a more technologically modern and impressive way of dispatching Zup than a mere gun (this begins to sound like all those James Bond movies in which, instead of doing the sensible thing and merely shooting Bond as soon as they capture him, the villains think of some really baroque and elaborate method of doing him in that only serves to allow him time to escape). Accordingly, they agree to kill Zup by dropping a bomb on him from a plane -- and the whole thing is staged like a combination of a Nuremberg rally and a football game, complete with a card section spelling out "ZUP" from the grandstand and an announcer explaining what's going on. Wendell thinks he's successfully sabotaged the assassination by removing all the blasting caps that are supposed to set off the bombs, but he doesn't realize that Bogardus's pilot, "Cross-Eyed Joe" (played -- uncredited -- by Ben Turpin, a former Sennett star whom director Cline probably knew from his days there and was helping in a brief attempt at a comeback), has replaced them all so the bombs are "live."

When he realizes what's happened, Wendell tries to get Zup to move away from the throne that has been set up in the middle of the stadium as a bull's-eye -- and Zup laughs him off until he finally catches on and moves just in time to get away as one of the bombs lands right on the throne, it explodes, opens up a hole in the ground -- and oil gushes out of it, making El Dorania and everyone in it fantastically rich. Wendell and Zup, who appear to be the only surviving officials the El Doranian government has, agree to make the country a republic and play a game to determine who'll be president; Zup wins -- he's cheated -- but Wendell doesn't care because he and Betty are finally able to get together. Cracked Nuts is a marvelously amusing film from a comedy team that, though hardly on the level of Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers, are quite reliably funny, and their films were bread-and-butter moneymakers for RKO that helped sustain the studio through the hard times of the Depression. In fact, in the early 1930's there was a well-established path to success for would-be directors at RKO: they were started on the shorts of comedians Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough, and if they did well there they graduated to Wheeler and Woolsey vehicles. If those did well, they stepped up to the ultimate directorial assignment RKO had to offer in the 1930's: a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film.

Cracked Nuts also benefits from the lavish physical production by Max Ree, the head of RKO's art department in the early years and credited in the American Film Institute Catalog not only with the impressive sets for Cracked Nuts but its costumes as well -- and the costumes, particularly the elaborate ones Zup wears as the reigning king, are so marvelously over-the-top they're funny in and of themselves. Though some of their movies (especially towards their last years as a team, 1936-37) are dull and not particularly amusing, most of Wheeler and Woolsey's films are grandly funny comedies, and the two -- Wheeler anticipating Bob Hope in his milquetoast nerd roles and Woolsey evoking comparisons to both Groucho Marx (the waving cigar and the glasses) and W. C. Fields (the grandiloquent wisecracks and the frequent involvement with games at least theoretically based on chance -- Woolsey was in the supporting cast of Fields' breakthrough Broadway hit, Poppy, in 1924, and he clearly learned a great deal from watching the Master up close) -- work surprisingly well as a team: it's no wonder that after Woolsey's death in 1938 Wheeler's screen career took a nose-dive and he spent most of the rest of his life as a stage comedian instead.