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:
Brian · July 29, 2012 at 1:55 pm
This is a strange W & W movie. I’m not real sure how to rate it either. I really enjoy virtually all of their stuff in the movie (aside from the Norman Taurog directed Indian scene mentioned, which was a Selznick ordered reshoot). But it doesn’t really rate as one of my faves because you can just tell this film was tampered with. Read Ed Watz’s W & W book for the full details on how Selznick screwed this one up, buried Dorothy Lee, etc.
When you mentioned W & W stage adaptations…were you including Rio Rita in this? Because the 1929 film of that is a lot better and more faithful to the stage show than this movie. Personally I would have scrapped Quillan, Judge, the NY villain guy, and possibly Mitzi Green as well and just made it a W & W movie with them tangling with the western bad man.
Danny · July 30, 2012 at 12:54 pm
Yeah, this felt like an MGM Marx Brothers film, where they had to put someone else at the forefront and relegate the comedians to the sidelines. It’s too bad because there’s some good bits in here. I’ve got to pick up that book soon, maybe after my wedding.
I tried watching Rio Rita, but couldn’t finish it once I realized it was over 2 hours long and I had other things to take care of. I’ll probably try it again at some point when I’m feeling a little more patient.
Brian · August 2, 2012 at 3:20 pm
Haha, unless you have the lost original cut of Rio Rita (135m) the current version is 103m long. The odd aspect of Girl Crazy is that all of those roles were in the stage show, so W & W were shoehorned into stage roles that weren’t written for them. Differing from the Marx MGM movies I would say Girl Crazy begins featuring Quillan, Judge, and so on but then by the end of the film they are more or less forgotten so that we can have a W & W movie.
Danny · August 4, 2012 at 1:14 pm
I rented the Warner Archive DVD, so I’m guessing I missed on out the original. I’ll give it another shot at some point, but it was a bit too much at the time.
And, yeah, Girl Crazy feels a lot like many other Pre-Code plots to start with, but then becomes about the duo undoing that. I think it works rather splendidly, I just don’t think they overcame it completely.
amoreno951 · April 16, 2013 at 6:08 pm
Ethel Merman played the Kitty Kelly role on Broadway, not Ginger Rogers.
Danny · April 16, 2013 at 8:20 pm
Okay, cool. The video I had there was dead too, so I just updated the bit. Thanks for pointing that out!
Andrew · July 22, 2013 at 12:04 am
The reason for its inconsistency is that a lot of stuff was cut out- not because of censorship, but because of David O. Selznick. He apparently was making passes at Dorothy Lee, who turned him down, and Selznick got his revenge by butchering the film and especially Dorothy’s part. Ed Watz in his book on Wheeler & Woolsey talks about this in more detail, and mentions that when he showed the film to Eddie Quillan more than 50 years later, Quillan remarked “It’s a lot different than the way we shot it.”
Danny · July 22, 2013 at 7:21 am
Geez. Like a lot of stories I hear about David O. Selznick, the only logical reaction is, “Man, what a dick.”
I didn’t pick up Watz’s book until after I wrote this review. I’m sure whenever I finish doing all the Wheeler and Woolseys (someday!), I can go back and add some tidbits to these older reviews.
Andrew · July 22, 2013 at 2:00 pm
By the way, Ed Watz is a friend of mine and he very much appreciates your plugging his book on some of your newer W&W reviews. Thought you’d like to know. 🙂
Danny · July 22, 2013 at 2:51 pm
Very cool. Thanks!
Dave C. · April 8, 2019 at 9:48 pm
So I’m zipping along with the boys, enjoying the pace and with great expectations for a Gershwin Immersion–and the first payoff was the incredibly kinetic “I’ve Got Rhythm” sequence in the nightclub, snappy and funny and promising more to follow. And then the business with the two lunks claiming ownership of the town starts and the jokes get lame, and Mitzi Green’s impressions (although the George Arliss is pretty funny) halt the proceedings entirely and the film degenerates from mad and zany to silly slapstick without wit or charm. It’s still worth watching, of course, especially as a broadway transfer. Thanks, as usual, for your insight into and enthusiasm for these vintage films.
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