Hold Em Jail (1933)

Danny Like BannerThe Particulars of the Picture

HoldEmJail Cast Bert Wheeler HoldEmJail Cast Robert Woolsey HoldEmJail Cast Edna Mae Oliver
Curly …
Bert Wheeler
Spider …
Robert Woolsey
Violet …
Edna Mae Oliver
HoldEmJail Edgar Kennedy HoldEmJail Cast Betty Grable HoldEmJail Cast Robert Armstrong
Norton …
Edgar Kennedy
Barbara …
Betty Grable
The Announcer …
Robert Armstrong

Hold ‘Em Jail: The Big House Meets The Big Game

“If you were a kangaroo, I’d go around in your pouch.”

The typical comedy team of the early 1930s existed as simple agents of manic chaos. While there were layers to how connected to reality these teams could get– the Marx Brothers strove for surrealism, Laurel and Hardy for simple slapstick– but few traversed these different levels with as much ease as Burt Wheeler and Robert Woolsey.

With Cracked Nuts a few days ago the men played word games and bits of inspired silent comedy. Now we have Hold ‘Em Jail which parodies the emergent prison genre that emerged in 1930 with the release of MGM’s The Big House. There’s hard time, prison breaks, illicit romance, and a big football game.

Okay, that last one is a bit incongruous, but considering how often this film trades in on pure unbridled nuttiness, a bit incongruous sounds about right.

They're no match for him! Er, I mean they have no match for him.

They’re no match for him! Er, I mean they have no match for him.

Wheeler and Woolsey are Curly and Spider, a pair of novelty salesmen who are framed and sent to prison. This is a result of their supposed football prowess, as the warden needs a few good men so that he can win in a match with another prison, saving both his pride and his hide.

Curly and Spider don’t exactly acclimate, demanding that they be woken up for tea– or lemon and cream, since the tea is the least important part– and complaining of having a drafty jail cell. After they help one hapless man rid himself of a leg iron (Woolsey turning down Wheeler’s suggestion to just cut the leg off), they prevent a prison breakout before Curly accidentally soaks the warden with a hose.

The two men still have a fun as they fall for Violet and Barbara, the warden’s sister and daughter respectively. Violet and Spider trade barbs, play chopsticks, and take turns dancing one another into walls. Curly risks life and limb to give Barbara flowers one night, and, as he’s being followed by a spotlight, stops to make shadow animals.

And he is appropriately punished.

And he is appropriately punished.

Wheeler and Woolsey are at their best at the film’s climactic football game, though, as they get a chance to shine as a pair of physical comedians in one of the silliest games put on the screen. After helping their rivals up their score, the two realize that they must both win and extract a confession from one of the opposing players in order to get the happy ending they so richly think they deserve.

Both men are wonderful here, and play off each other with their usual good humor. What helps is that Hold ‘Em Jail stacks the deck in terms of comedic performers. Edna Mae Oliver, who spent most of Cracked Nuts as a nag, is allowed to let loose as Woolsey’s bemused romantic interest. Rather than being the man-hungry type you usually see in these pictures, she comes across as a mixture between Margaret Dumont from the Marx Brothers pictures and playful comedienne Thelma Todd. She has a wonderfully droll sense of humor that clashes perfectly with Woolsey’s bombast.

The other ringer is Edgar Kennedy as the prison’s warden. The man is a ham, pure and simple, but absolutely brilliant at expressing frustration on a wide scale. Few actors tear into their few remaining hairs or can managed quite a slow of a burn as Kennedy has here, relentlessly surrounded by insanity on all sides.

The movie also has a criminally young Betty Grable as Bert’s romantic interest. She’d go on to be one of the pinup queens of the second World War and featured in many Technicolor musicals on her own, making this an interesting pit stop. She’s lovely and fun here, ably selling her own rather odd romance.

"Come now, my man, come now!"

“Come now, my good man, come now!”

Whether you find this funnier or prefer the Marx Brothers in their football movie, Horse Feathers, probably comes down to your preference in comedy team, though the mix of prison accoutrements to the football formula gives Hold Em’ a little more oomph.

While Horse Feathers rightly lambasts college for being an institution where students go to sleep and cheer sports, Hold ‘Em takes it a step further by comparing penitentiaries with higher ed. The mob is the vaulted alumni of the institution, and the best players risk getting pardoned. This equation, making the prison the lower class equivalent of college, is both enlightening and one of those points you could only really make in a comedy.

Hold ‘Em Jail is one of the better comedies the duo have starred in, as it utilizes their skills as both screwball and verbal virtuosos. For a good taste of good Pre-Code comedy, this is a good start. Good.

A face that says, "Play chopsticks louder as to drown out my voice."

A face that says, “Play chopsticks louder as to drown out my voice.”

Proof That It’s Pre-Code

  • This is actually one of the least risque of the comedic duo’s output. Here’s one line that goes a bit far:

“Put them in the bridal chamber and have them cool off.”
“The bridal chamber is no place to cool off!”

  • And another:

Violet: “That’s funny – I can’t seem to hit that top note.”
Spider: “Perhaps it’s just as well. Where did you learn to sing, anyway?”
“I spent four years in Paris. Of course, I’m not a virtuoso.”
“Not after four years in Paris, no.”
“I trust we’re both talking about the same thing?”

Trivia & Links

  • Edward Watz in his Wheeler and Woolsey companion calls Hold ‘Em Jail “an achingly funny distillation [of prison dramas]”. Likening it to more of a Three Stooges vehicle than the Marx Brothers film it often gets compared to, Watz also points out that Producer David O. Selznick added in Robert Armstrong’s football game commentary after shooting had wrapped. He also notes that Burt’s plot line is parodying another Pre-Code movie, The Criminal Code (1930).
  • PrisonMovies.Net rates this at just a star and a half, but that’s simply because the prison part of the film isn’t very prison-y. They do call it a gem, though.
Escape attempts work better when you don't alert the guards to them.

Escape attempts work better when you don’t alert the guards to them.

  • Stuart Galbraith looks at this (and the rest of the Wheeler and Woolsey set) at DVD Talk. He’s not enthused about the picture, feeling that it’s copious physical slapstick is too much a departure from the team’s wordplay, and that the film is too derivative for its own good.
  • The title is a parody of 1928’s Hold ‘Em Yale, a silent film that I can’t even find a plot description of. I presume it’s a football movie, or at the very least an expose on the grabbing epidemic at Ivy League colleges.
  • If you watched The Big House and wondered why the locations look familiar, Hold ‘Em Jail was actually filmed on the same sets over on the MGM lot!
Not that you can tell from this shot.

Not that you can tell from this shot.

  • Woolsey at one point intones, as he’s dancing with Oliver, “Hips, hips, hooray!” This would be the title of one of the duo’s 1934 pictures.

Awards, Accolades & Availability

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Danny is a writer who lives with his lovely wife, adorable children, and geriatric yet yappy dog. He blogs at pre-code.com, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934, and can be found on Twitter @PreCodeDotCom.


brianpaige · June 21, 2013 at 7:23 am

When I got the W & W set I had a couple of friends over and we watched Hold Em Jail. It’s always been a fun one to me, albeit maybe in W & W’s slightly 2nd tier due to no Dorothy Lee and a lack of music. But whoa….this flick absolutely tore the house down! I was actually shocked at how much uproarious laughter it got, especially the scene where the duo try to break Steele’s ball and chain. I think it got a better overall response than Hips, Hips, Hooray did.

I guess one problem I’ve always had is some continuity aspects of the game itself. It seems like they score, then they get the ball right back…and it happens a few times. It’s weird and doesn’t jibe with basic football rules.

As far as a pre-code element, how about the goofy gun scene at the beginning: Bert aims his gun at a woman’s butt while Bob says “Don’t shoot, wait until we see the whites of their eyes.” Oh and there are women fainting there as well, but then we see one rather effeminate man faint.

For whatever reason I’ve never thought to compare this to Horse Feathers. I guess both involve football, but that’s about it. Some might note that Horse Feathers does have a few draggy moments (Harpo’s usual harp solo, I’m looking at you), while Hold Em Jail is pure chaos from start to finish. I’ve put this more into the context of L & H’s Pardon Us, a film I find very dated and unfunny. I don’t know if Hold Em is better than Horse Feathers (close call) but I do know it’s better than Pardon Us.

    Danny · June 21, 2013 at 6:56 pm

    The game’s continuity aspects suit me fine– personally not a huge fan of football.

    As for the other films, I’m not a big fan of Laurel & Hardy, though I know I’ll be hitting them at some point. Can’t say I’m looking forward to it. And I think Horse Feathers suffered somewhere along the line from the lost ending, and it doesn’t build up speed quite as well as Duck Soup or A Night at the Opera. I’d probably put this one ahead of it too, tbh. This is one of the best Wheeler & Woolsey’s I’ve seen so far.

    Matt · December 27, 2015 at 11:33 am

    S J Perelman worked on both “Horse Feathers” and “Hold ’em Jail” so that’s the big connection.

David Wilkinson · June 21, 2013 at 8:27 am

I’ve had all those films on video (recorded from television), and they are very good. Most people are not familiar with W&W, but they are as funny as the other classic comedy teams. Hold ‘Em Jail is great!

    Danny · June 21, 2013 at 7:34 pm

    Getting into pre-Code, I’m amazed at how obscure they are. They shared a lot of gag writers with the Marxes and were certainly prolific. Most of my reading indicates they were forgotten because their risque brand of comedy couldn’t fit on television as well as their contemporaries, and I imagine Woolsey’s death early on cut into the duo’s potential quite a bit. It’s a shame, too, because a lot of their work is so great!

Patti · June 21, 2013 at 8:30 am

Hi Danny. After our Screening Room conversation yesterday, I thought it would be appropriate to pop by for a visit. I had to dig through my CMBA membership directory to figure out which blog belonged to you.

Anyhow, I have to admit, I don’t watch a lot of pre-code films. I tend to get bogged down in 40’s films. However, I’ve got some pre-code viewing looking at me, as a friend recently sent me 3 Bette Davis pre-codes and, since I love Fredric March, “The Wild Party.”

My favorite pre-code is, hands-down “The Public Enemy.” It’s one of my 10 faves of the entire 1930’s. I also love “A Farewell to Arms.”

Anyhow, perhaps regular visits to your blog will increase my appreciation for pre-codes.

    Danny · June 21, 2013 at 8:02 pm

    Thanks for coming by, Patti, I appreciate it. (I also haven’t seen any Audie Murphy, so I don’t know when I’m going to have something to comment on back on your blog, though I’m certainly enjoying learning about him!)

    And don’t worry about it if you don’t enjoy pre-Code; it’s definitely different than what Hollywood was putting out a decade later, even if some of the stars are the same. I’ve just found that that transition between silence and sound compounded by the Great Depression makes for an interesting background, and seeing how that filtered into the movies is fascinating. It’s also cool to see a lot of stars get their start and see others on the cusp of fading away.

    But that’s just me. That’s why I like CMBA– so many viewpoints! So many movies!– so if the site isn’t your cup of tea, I won’t blame you.

    And, yes, Public Enemy is fantastic. Still haven’t seen Farewell to Arms, but it’s on the list!

justjack · June 22, 2013 at 10:36 am

According to my recollection, First National was putting out a whole ton of college football-related movies around this same time. So (albeit without having yet seen this movie) I would have assumed that Hold ‘Em Jail would be a double dig at both the prison and the football flick.

    Danny · June 22, 2013 at 10:37 pm

    Oh, certainly. Like with a lot of movies at this time, football films were fair game. Combing the two is a stroke of commercial genius– something that would pop up again 40 years later with The Longest Yard.

brianpaige · June 23, 2013 at 8:14 am

I actually had a conversation a couple weeks ago with someone and discussed why I do NOT consider The Public Enemy to be a particularly great film (despite Cagney’s awesomeness), but that’s probably a discussion to be had on the Public Enemy entry here.

Anyway, W & W. They always had a few things going against them: 1) Yes, Woolsey died in 1938, so they were long forgotten by the time the TV age hit. 2) Wheeler did basically nothing in film after that. 3) Most critics at the time never liked them very much. 4) Wheeler and Dorothy Lee largely looked down on their films in later years, which didn’t encourage a reappraisal. 5) They didn’t get the consistent 1950s/60s era TV play that other comics did. Some of it could be the risque material, but I tend to think TV stations didn’t really care as much about that sort of thing when it would be the Hays Office slicing up films for re-release, not for TV showings (W & W along with other RKO stuff was on the C & C TV package, no idea about the market penetration though).

But think about it this way. From 1929 through 1935 I’d say W & W had maybe one movie that was a misfire (the big budget Dixiana, where they were supporting characters) and everything else was either solid, interesting, or flat out great. The only problem they have is it’s tough to pinpoint that one or two all time great films. But here’s a question to any L & H fan out there: Is Sons of the Desert REALLY so much better than a film like Hold Em Jail?

    Danny · June 23, 2013 at 7:49 pm

    Thanks for the info on Wheeler and Woolsey, that’s what I was getting from the book I picked up about them. And Dixiana is a mess (I haven’t reviewed it yet, but watched it on my own), and I do think the duo made some great stuff. I haven’t seen them all, though, so I can’t pass the same judgement as you.

    And, uh, yeah, you can comment your feelings on The Public Enemy as soon as I get around to writing that one.

JennyG · July 5, 2013 at 5:52 am

Putting aside my shock at the discovery that you don’t appreciate Laurel & Hardy (what?!?), I give you Hans J. Wollstein’s description of Hold ‘Em, Yale (’28): “Rod La Rocque stars in this silent farce about an Argentinean playboy, who in spite of being trailed by a bumbling detective (Tom Kennedy) for a crime he didn’t commit, manages to not only secure victory in the annual football game against Princeton, but also win the daughter (Jeanette Loff) of his professor (Joseph Cawthorn). The 1935 comedy of the same name was not a remake but an adaptation of a 1931 Damon Runyon short story.”

    Danny · July 7, 2013 at 6:35 pm

    Laurel and Hardy are admittedly growing on me (I watched Bonnie Scotland a few weeks ago and found it amusing, but I think outside of that I’ve only seen one short of them buying a boat on twenty separate occasions). Thanks for the plot description; I’m always stunned when I can’t find something on the internet in this day and age, and I’m glad there’s someone out there a bit more canny to help me out!

      JennyG · July 7, 2013 at 10:07 pm

      Ah, “Towed in a Hole.” I absolutely hate “The Music Box,” which everyone’s seen (piano delivery). I like Bonnie Scotland too and Way Out West, but in general I think the short is their best genre. I wish I had specific recs; it’s high time I revisited their body of work.

        Danny · July 7, 2013 at 10:19 pm

        Yeah, I’m beginning to think I owe them another shot. Since Devil’s Brother is on Warner Instant, I’ll probably get to a review of that one at some point at the very least.

JennyG · July 9, 2013 at 8:13 am

Admittedly, I didn’t really get Devil’s Brother because it’s a spoof of an opera and I hate opera. For pre-Code (and high comedy) purposes, check out “Their First Mistake,” which is on Youtube in two parts. It was excerpted in The Celluloid Closet and it’s their gayest work–even more so than “Twice Two” in which they marry each other’s sisters who are really them in drag. Hayes would’ve never greenlighted it.

    Danny · July 9, 2013 at 9:03 pm

    Oh man, okay. I’ll check those out tomorrow. Thanks!

Andrew · July 22, 2013 at 5:02 pm

You forgot one of the more unusual Pre-Code jokes:

Edna May Oliver: “From now on, you’re a houseboy. Barbara will break you in.”
Bert Wheeler: “I’m *already* housebroken!”

I don’t think that would have gotten past the censors by ’35.

Comments are closed.