Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey are something of an acquired taste these days, but from 1929 until Woolsey’s death in 1938 they were RKO’s reigning comedy team. And while their later films often weren’t very good — Wheeler and Woolsey suffered badly from the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934 — it’s surprising to see that there’s no evidence of the studio cutting corners in terms of production. The Asheville Film Society ran what is generally considered their best film, Diplomaniacs (1933), about two years ago. While its surreal, out-of-nowhere blackface musical number stunned the audience into silence, the audience still decided that, yes, they’d be up to seeing another. And here it is. While Half Shot at Sunrise (1930) is considerably less bizarre than Diplomaniacs, it’s still prime Wheeler and Woolsey — and it has no blackface number.
While their previous film, Dixiana (1930), had not been based on a stage show like their first two films, it almost might have been and it adhered very much to the stage formula of the star comics being subordinate to a more or less serious romantic drama. Half Shot at Sunrise has none of that. It is the first just straight-up Wheeler and Woolsey comedy. Oh, there’s a serious romance, but it barely exists, and most of what can be called romance is given over to Bert and his usual co-star Dorothy Lee, while Bob is left to romance the movie’s vamp, Olga (Leni Stengel), who at first divides her time seducing Col. Marshall (George MacFarlane), a very married (to the forbidding Edna May Oliver) man, who is also Dorothy Lee’s mother. Modern audiences may be a little startled by the fact that Dorothy Lee’s character is supposed to be 16 (something the 19-year-old Lee could pass for).
There’s less plot that there’s a situation. Bert and Bob are soldiers in France near the end of WWI. At least, they’re supposed to be soldiers. Most of the time they’re AWOL and spend the bulk of the film running wild in Paris, hitting on any available (or possibly available) women, and dodging two MPs who redefine stupidity. That’s pretty much it. They impersonate officers, they impersonate MPs, they impersonate waiters in a posh restaurant. In this last capacity they seem to go out of their way to draw attention to themselves and deliberately annoy Col. and Mrs. Marshall. When Col. Marshall asks if they have any wild duck, Bob helpfully offers, “No, but we can take a tame duck and aggravate it if you like.” That kind of explains the sort of humor in the film — and the level of their seriousness. Late in the film, it shifts gears slightly and becomes an actual war comedy — even injecting a brief moment of seriousness that turns out to be the set-up for a gag. Because this is an early talkie, Half Shot at Sunrise can be a little creaky at times and the roots of the silent film are evident in the movie’s insistence on using transitional title cards. This actually adds to its charm.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Half Shot at Sunrise Tuesday, Jan. 27, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.