Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934) Review, with Wheeler & Woolsey

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Bert
Bert Wheeler
Lady Genevieve
Thelma Todd 
Bob
Robert Woolsey
Released by RKO | Directed by Mark Sandrich
Run time: 72 minutes

Proof That It’s a Pre-Code Film

  • “I like ’em young!”
  • “Behead us? Can she do that?”
    “Sure, she can be-head.”
    (It sounds like ‘be had’. Look, it’s funny in the movie.)
  • “I was the happy the day I was married but I haven’t been since.”
  • “What’s the matter, Romeo? Couldn’t you ‘climb up onto the balcony’?”
  • Dorothy Lee cross dresses most of the film. Bert assures her, “Clothes don’t make the man.” And she retorts, “That’s what you think!”
  • Woolsey gets handsy with Thelma Todd. Besides trying to listen to her heartbeat, he offers to help her with her powderpuff, which she stores in her decolletage.
  • Bert apparently tells Dottie about “the interent trader and the peasant’s daughter”
  • “I’ll be waiting with bells on!”
    “Never mind the bells!”

Cockeyed Cavaliers: Charging Cheerily

“Oh, doctor, can’t you prescribe something for this dreadful heat?”

“No. I can make ’em warm, but, I can’t cool ’em off.”

A verifiably silly confection, Wheeler & Woolsey’s Cockeyed Cavaliers is the duo at the peak of their game. As a pair of traveling incompetents in some era with frilly wigs and lace shirts, they’re often in trouble and rarely without a risque comment to keep things moving.

The plot is fairly witty. Wheeler keeps zoning out and stealing stuff; Woolsey impersonates the king’s doctor and soon finds himself canoodling with a baron’s wife. A ‘black devil’ boar is terrorizing the countryside, and it keeps outwitting Beery’s onerous Baron. You can surmise what happens to the boar, especially when a reward is put on its head. Most of the details are focused on the romantic pairings with Woolsey romancing the married Thelma Todd while Wheeler canoodles, once again with Dorothy Lee.

One of the hallmarks of Wheeler & Woolsey’s comedy is crossdressing, often with Bert taking the femme route while Woolsey becomes the furtive father figure. Cockeyed goes about things a little differently, making Bert’s love interest, Dorothy Lee, crossdress for most of the film. When she gets excited late in the film and kisses Bert, he freaks out, thinking it’s a boy and begins to push her indignantly before the truth is revealed. What’s more amusing is Woolsey’s entrance onto the scene, where he sees the two (presumably) men kissing, shouts in surprise before nodding and smiling.

The strength of this one, owing decently to the fluid direction of Astaire/Rogers regular Mark Sandrich, has to be ludicrousness of the much of the material. It’s dealt with lightly, and the wordplay comes fast and frequently. And, of course, Thelma Todd makes every comedy she’s in better.

The musical numbers are, sadly, not among the team’s best, lacking much in the way of humor, but still serving as once again a handy notice for the time to take for a bathroom break. And while the film moves, it gets up to ‘madcap’ and not quite ‘anarchic’, if that makes a lick of sense. But, hey, Dorothy Lee, beats the crap out of some dude randomly.

Cockeyed Cavaliers is a treat, a fun madcap kinda comedy that shows the team at its best. If you want to know where to start, this is a good entry to their maniacal charms.

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Other Reviews, Trivia, and Links

  • Originally, Wheeler & Woolsey were set to star in a college-bound film called Frat Heads that would end in a climactic football match. However, due to the fact that the writers couldn’t figure out a way to make it much different from Horse Feathers or the duo’s effort Hold-Em-Jail. Tipping their hat to the popularity of costume comedies of the time like Roman Scandals and The Devil’s Brother, they went in this direction instead.
  • TCMDB chats about the duo and their history. Here’s a good bit about Dorothy Lee’s career:

The other lead female, Dorothy Lee, practically built her career on Wheeler and Woolsey movies. She made her second picture with the team in their screen debut, Rio Rita (1929), a part she was awarded after Wheeler spotted her in her first film Syncopation (1929). She appeared with them 15 more times, usually as Wheeler’s sweet but spunky love interest, before retiring from acting in the early 1940s. In an interview late in her life, Lee said Cockeyed Cavaliers was her favorite picture with the duo, along with Hips, Hips, Hooray! (1934), which also starred Thelma Todd. She also said she got along well with the rather happy-go-lucky Wheeler but found Woolsey to be a bit domineering and insistent on having things done his way.

  • Ed Watz’s fantastic Wheeler & Woolsey book adores this one, calling their “greatest comedy” and “a latter-day adaptation of the English Restoration farce.” He also notes that the movie had disappointing box office returns, so their next film, the decidedly post-Code enforcement Kentucky Kernels, was fashioned for the “audience out in the sticks.”

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