Sunday, November 10, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: DIPLOMANIACS (1933)

Although it’s often compared to The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933), which came out the same year, Diplomaniacs (1933) proves a far more difficult picture for a modern viewer to engage, and that difficulty helps to explain why The Marx Brothers are icons while Wheeler and Woolsey have been relegated to obscurity. This wild - and wildly inappropriate - satire of international politics certainly has its funny moments, but it’s probably best appreciated by serious classic film enthusiasts who are prepared to handle a manic 62 minute musical that packs in just about every racial “face” stereotype of 1930s Hollywood. Diplomaniacs is also rife with racy pre-Code sexual energy, so put the kids to bed before you attempt to fathom the appeal of this picture and its truly nutty stars.

Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey star as Willy and Hercules, a couple of barbers who fruitlessly set up shop on an Indian reservation, where, supposedly, their services are never required. The locals hire the pair to be their representatives at a peace conference in Geneva, but a scheming ammunitions tycoon (Louis Calhern) tries to sink their efforts because his business depends on countries trying to kill each other. He unleashes a vamp, Dolores (Marjorie White), to seduce the boys, and later he also hires Fifi (Phyllis Barry) to thwart them, but the duo’s own ineptitude seems equally likely to undermine their mission.

We start the picture with white chorus girls dressed up in some very skimpy - and utterly fake - Native American costumes, along with Edward Cooper as the tribe’s Oxford-educated chief. After a series of “red man” shenanigans, the action moves to Europe, where the villain’s henchman is a Chinese pseudo-philosopher played by Hugh Herbert. He spouts plenty of fortune cookie nonsense before abandoning the plot and rowing back to China. Left in Europe, Willy and Hercules avoid the embraces of the two women but wind up part of a huge black face musical number when a bomb explodes in the peace conference. That gives us red face, yellow face, and black face all in about one hour, if you happen to be keeping count.

For casual modern viewers and youngsters, that much racial humor is probably a deal breaker already, but Diplomaniacs also revels in the kind of saucy comedy that only pre-Code pictures could get away with, at least until many decades later. The chorus girls show up again in some eye-popping French maid outfits, and the running gags involving both Dolores and Fifi reveal their one-note function as sex objects. More subversive is Wheeler’s frequent positioning as the “female” half of the comedy pair; the joke is most obvious when the two protagonists wake up in bed together and Willy promptly dons a lady’s dressing gown.

An academic viewer might well find it worthwhile to parse the meta, satiric, and even carnivalesque aspects of this picture, and experienced classic movie viewers might enjoy it for its parallels to Duck Soup and its instructive glimpse of the Wheeler and Woolsey style. For a quick tour of all the crazy things pre-Code movies could get away with, it’s certainly an effective example, but you have to be prepared for what you are going to get. Many viewers are likely to be too offended by the movie’s caricatures to enjoy its gags, and that’s a valid response, especially if you happen to belong to one of the groups being misrepresented.

Wheeler and Woolsey can also be found in Caught Plastered (1931), Hips, Hips, Hooray! (1934), and Kentucky Kernels (1934). William A. Seiter, who directed Diplomaniacs, is best remembered today for Fred Astaire films like You Were Never Lovelier (1942) and Shirley Temple vehicles like Stowaway (1936). Look for Louis Calhern in Duck Soup (1933), Notorious (1946), and The Asphalt Jungle (1950). You'll find Hugh Herbert in Dames (1934), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), and Hollywood Hotel (1937).

Diplomaniacs is one of a handful of Wheeler and Woolsey films currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.