It’s hard to say whether the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey are forgotten or willfully ignored, but from 1929 until Woolsey’s death in 1938, the boys were major RKO stars. That their films are little-known today may be because they’re more of an acquired taste than the other comics of the same era. A lot of their humor is grounded in bad puns and it can veer toward the silly (and veer may be too mild a verb). But more than that, a lot of their comedy is just…well, downright peculiar — more funny odd than outright funny. This extremely pre-code film, Diplomaniacs (1933), is generally considered to be their best — at least by those who have considered the matter at all. It’s also the strangest — and the most politically incorrect. (In fact, if you’re unable to look at a movie in terms of its era and its intentions, this is probably not for you.) The film is part of a brief-lived vogue for (usually anti-war) wild political satire — similar to Million Dollar Legs (1932) and Duck Soup (1933) — and it’s probably the wildest of the lot. It was the brainchild of Joseph L. Mankiewicz (yes, the same guy who wrote and directed All About Eve in 1950), who’d also been behind (along with his co-author here, Henry Myers) the screenplay for Million Dollar Legs.
The premise here is that Willy (Wheeler) and Hercules (Woolsey) have ill-advisedly opened a barber shop on an Indian reservation. They may have no business, but the pacificistic tribe offers to pay them handsomely if they’ll represent the tribe at the peace conference in Geneva. They get a million dollars each for expenses and the promise of a like amount if they can get the countries to pledge no more war. (If they fail, however, they’ll be turned into gorillas. Don’t ask because how is never explained.) This, of course, is a threat to the munition-makers, who put their man (Louis Calhern) on the job — and he in turn employs an improbably Chinese Hugh Herbert (who threatens, “I think I’ll go back to my wife — who I hate”) and a femme fatale (Marjorie White) to help undermine their chances of success. That’s the plot, but the plot hardly matters since it only serves to hang the comedy bits and some catchy musical numbers on. Yes, it’s also a musical — a pre-code one, meaning that the numbers are full of girls in very skimpy costumes. (You also get to see Bert sing “Annie Laurie” while eating, which is…memorable.) Of course, it’s full of a lot of blatant innuendo and an above average amount of gay humor (including Woolsey in fishnets, which ain’t pretty). It would not be out of bounds to call the whole thing surreal — it certainly has no basis in reality.
What is most problematic for modern viewers (no one seems to have thought anything of it in 1933) is the big “No More War” production number. You see, it takes place after a bomb goes off, leaving everyone in perfect blackface (and white minstrel show gloves). Personally, I find it so weird and ridiculous that I don’t think it’s offensive. I don’t even think it qualifies so much as a blackface number as a parody of one—deliberately exaggerated to poke fun at an already dated convention. It’s certainly no more offensive than Hugh Herbert as the Chinese villain or a tribe of white chorus girls and character actors made up as American Indians or the “pansy” butler. It is of its time and, at worst, is insensitive. I think it’s wrong to refuse to acknowledge the existence of things like this in popular culture, but not everyone agrees. Since the film is so short (61 minutes) it will be preceded by the Laurel and Hardy short Dirty Work (1933).
The Asheville Film Society will screen Diplomaniacs Tuesday, April 30 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.