Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- A non sequitur: “And there she was, coming down the stairs in her new cellophane underwear…”
- Checking in at a hotel, with a clerk addressing a couple:“Are you Mr. Smith and wife?”
“Ah, no. Those were the happy days. No, we’re actually married now.”
- We get some crossdressing in again as Robert Woolsey disguises himself as a squaw to escape being killed. Woolsey also tries to dump his wife for a sexy senorita several times.
- A group of women and our lead man Eddie Quillan:
“Remember that time in Atlantic City?”
“Oh yeah, happy days.”
“And happy nights!”
- Woolsey and a nicely dressed senorita:
“Do you understand English?”
“Good. This is one time I won’t get my face slapped!”
The Most Dangerous Dude Ranch
“James, my lad, what do you know about politics?”
“Nothing, I come from an honest family.”
We continue our trek into the wheelhouse of comedians Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey this week with their 1932 comedy, Girl Crazy. There are some changes to formula of their usual buddy comedies, as this one is based of a stage musical from George and Ira Gershwin. Eddie Quillan plays ‘The Hero’, as the credits refer to him, though he spends most of the proceedings in the background.
He does kick things off, though. A big city flirt, his rich father ships him off to a remote town in Arizona, hoping the rough and tumble world will teach him a lesson. That isn’t what happens, since the guy decides instead to open a dude ranch full of pretty dancers and gambling. I can only imagine that this used to be much easier to do in any regard.
He sends for his friends, gambler Slick (Woolsey) and his wife, singer Kate (Kitty Kelly). Since they’re in Chicago and don’t have the money for a train ticket, they decide to get hapless taxi driver Jimmy (Wheeler) to give them a lift across the country. Jimmy’s happy to drive since that means he’ll get away from his pestering sister, Tessie (Mitzi Green).
Once arriving in Arizona, Slick and Kate undertake a couple of attempts to get Jimmy killed so they can get out of the taxi fare. Worse, Tessie has stowed away with a bus of dancers, and stalks Jimmy just to make his life a little more miserable. Wheeler, who usually seems kind of like a reasonable character, plays dumb really well here, as he ends up elected sheriff in the small town much to the chagrin of the guy who keeps killing sheriffs every time they pop up.
It comes to a head when Slick decides to use his ‘hypnotism trick’ to stop the killers (who’ve decided that he needs killing too) and a massive chase through a casino ensues. Things work out in the end, thanks to some quick thinking and big damn vases.
How the West Was Made Fun Of
The most interesting thing about Girl Crazy is how much of the film is a brazen rebuke to the ideas of the figurative ‘The West’. Despite the motion picture medium still only circling its third decade of prominence, the Western genre was already a tired staple in films. I’ve even touched on a few from the Pre-Code era, and will eventually hit on Cimarron, 1931’s winner of the Best Picture Oscar.
I don’t entirely buy it as a coincidence that Girl Crazy came out the very next year, as it dresses down the conventions of the Western with a nasty glee. As soon as Quillan steps off the bus and finds the west, practically empty of women and full of a bunch of lazy eyed cowboys, he dresses it down as a gyp.
This incites the wrath of the cowboys; upon any mention of the West, everyone is forced to take off their hats and wax poetically about ‘The West’. This breaks with what they actually do in the west, which is laze around and murder each other without regrets. By having Quillin come in, he puts the final nail in the coffin of ‘The West’, turning a sad joke into a full blown parody as truckloads of dancing starlets come to turn the West into a dreaded tourist trap.
Some of the heavies try and resist, but by the end of the movie they’re the only cowboys who haven’t sold out, making this thematically somewhat akin to Once Upon a Time in the West.
This gives Girl Crazy a weird undercurrent where it’s main narrative thrust is about big city glamor triumphing over the hollow promise of the frontier, which is an interesting thing to roll around in your head, I think.
“A massacre! A massacre! Indians 11, Yankees nothing!”
A few weeks ago I was discussing my discomfort with Wheeler and Woolsey’s Diplomaniacs because of a great deal of racial humor. This film, made a year before that one, probably lends credence to the fact that much of the stuff in Diplomaniacs was intended as satire, since the duo take on stereotyped Indians in this film.
How they do that, naturally, is in a scene where they disguise themselves as Indians (leading to the seemingly inevitable cross dressing). They enter a bar containing the heavy and find him talking to an ‘actual’ Indian. The duo’s silly costumes and sprouting of nonsense are played in contrast to the fully assimilated Eagle Rock (High Eagle).
“What’s your tribe?”
“I’m Appolis Indian.”
“Yes. From Indianappolis.”
Eagle Rock decides to play along with them momentarily by speaking Pig Latin to them, which the duo misinterprets as him not being an Indian, and that allows the trio to laugh about it and dance out of the bar. It’s a telling scene that reflects on a certain level of self awareness that’s lacking in a lot of the racial humor you see coming out of the early 30’s.
As for the rest of the film, it suffers from being inconsistent. Some great parts– Kitty Kelly’s dance that rocks the cactuses, Woolsey’s repeated attempts to hypnotize that just go badly, etc– are spaced out with a lot of other numbers and bits. Young Mitzi Green as Wheeler’s sister is adorable and a damn fine caricaturist (doing a mean Bing Crosby), but her parts stop the film in a standstill.
If you’re following along, it’s still in the middle of the road of the Wheeler and Woolsey pictures, and certainly the best stage adaptation they’ve done so far. But they’ve also done much better.
Trivia & Links
- This movie was remade in 1943 with a very different pair of screen comedians, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.
- Mordaunt Hall at the Times really gets a kick out of this one (“Fun of the boisterous kind!”). Meanwhile, Mitch Lovell over at the Video Vacuum pretty much agrees with me in saying it’s good in doses.
- The Gershwin play originated on Broadway with Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers. The play contained the famous song “I’ve Got Rythm.” Here’s Dorothy Dandridge’s version of the song: