Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges (well, the ones with Curly, although I prefer Shemp), Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, and Mae West are among the few comedians of yesteryear who have withstood the test of time. There are far more who haven’t. Examples of this are Martin and Lewis (who never made a good film), Abbott & Costello (who perhaps made two good, but not great films) and … Wheeler and Woolsey. Who? See what I mean? Briefly, they were the hottest pair since peanut butter and jelly. For the most part, they deserve to be forgotten… with few exceptions, one being the pre-code comedy Diplomaniacs (1933, directed by William A. Seiter), which is one of the most jaw-dropping films of the 1930s. Possibly the most racist movie since D.W Griffith set the world on fire, it’s also about as straight as a flaming bunny and, in spite of itself, funny and weird as hell. Apart from one element, it could also serve as a banner film for MAGA fans.
Although Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey made a few films apart, it was only their work together (21 films in 8 years) that was successful. The teaming only ended with Woolsey’s premature death in 1938 from kidney failure. Their last film was 1937’s High Flyers, but with their risqué humor, the spot-on consensus is that their pre-code films are superior. Unlike other comedy teams, their films were not revived on television, which undoubtedly has contributed to their being largely forgotten. Still, it’s easy to see why their appeal hasn’t lasted. Their routines are stage-bound, both having come from vaudeville. Physically, Woolsey reminds one of George Burns. Wheeler is the skinny curly-haired boy.
Diplomaniacs came out the same year as Duck Soup and bears a similar, surreal anti-war message. The difference is in the latent homosexuality of their characters, which is a far cry from the raging hetero libidos of the Marx boys (that’s the one element MAGA boys have to get past, but they should, because there is plenty here for them).
Wheeler and Woolsey are barbers on the Adoop reservation, which doesn’t make for good business since red man can’t grow beard. Yup, every blatant stereotype about “Injuns” is intact. Naturally, the Native Americans are WASPS in face paint. The college educated chief can help the boys out financially with a commission to represent his tribe in the Geneva Peace conference.
Time for a song: “The red man was the big man and then came the great big white man and the white man is the right man. The whites got the red and the reds got the blues and the red, white, and blue was born.” Naturally, it’s got dancing native girls (well, painted white girls) in bathing suits, celebrating their kind being wiped out, and it ends with a Busby Berkeley kaleidoscope and the boys flying into outer space.
The next color demographic to get walloped is the yellow man, played sleazily by Hugh Herbert in a Fu Manchu mustache. “What kind of vamp you want?” he asks his white boss man. “A female vamp.” “What color? Red? Yellow? Black?” “How about white?” “But white ones get dirty.” “I want a white girl. She’ll have to get dirty to stop this peace movement.”
Herbert brings in Marjorie White (through a chute), wrapped in plastic. Yup, this is the misogyny portion of the program. “Open her up.”
Marjorie doesn’t mind. She steals every scene she’s in as the dumb blonde, but her work is cut out for her. Butch John Wheeler (with a phallic cigar) and Woolsey (in a feathered nightgown and cap) sleep in the same bed together, do a bit of snuggling, slap each other on the ass, break into song and dance (during which they declare they’re not interested in marriage and, to prove it, don’t even blink at a bevy of dancing buxom blondes) and start their mornings with a pedicure ordered by a man who makes Liberace look straight.
Marjorie tries to woo Woolsey. “Sing to me.” “My pants are too tight.” Of course, she fails. Girls do not interest him. A second vamp arrives in the form of Phyllis Barry, who literally kills with a smoking kiss (the curse of Eve). She’s just as unlucky; and even though the dual vamps are supposed to be stopping the boy from delivering peace, she’s got other things on mind (as she swings in a tree). “This is no time for sex.” “That’s what you say.” Poor Phyllis tries her smoking lips on Wheeler, but he one ups Bill Clinton by killing her with a cigar to the mouth.
After political intrigue, illegal Chinese immigrants, failed assassinations, efforts to stop peace, and guardian Injuns around every corner, the boys end with an extended blackface musical number that’s so over the top, it makes Al Jolson look progressive.
Although Wheeler and Woolsey lack the idiosyncratic personalities of the Marx Brothers, and their jokes often fall flat, pound-for pound, Diplomaniacs may be even more surreal than Duck Soup and is recommended… with the right crowd.
The Bitter Tea of General Yen is, for Frank Capra, surprisingly saccharine free. In addition to being an interracial love story, it’s equally seditious in calling out the avarice and hypocrisy of Christian evangelization. Miscegenation was still against the law in 1934 and the result was a box office failure (Barbara Stanwyck, who was very proud of the film, blamed its failure on the backlash of bigots. Today, the pissed off racists would be bombing Rotten Tomatoes with accusations of SJW propaganda). Just like today, audiences did not want a mirror held up to the hypocrisy in their social and religious status quo. That Bitter Tea was also sexually frank was a kiss of death. Capra learned his lesson, and went straight back to making populist WASP fodder.
Although it does have Nils Asther in Oriental makeup, he generally avoids stereotypes and invests the general with refreshing complexity. Stanwyck plays the missionary Megan who is at first saved by Yen, finds him revolting, and then is paradoxically aroused by him. A dream sequence in which Megan sees Yen as a devilish caricature, followed by revealing him as an Asian Valentino, is pre-code film at its most artistically sensual, lustrously lensed (by Joseph Walker) and impeccable in its art direction. Despite her Wonder Bread religiosity and the fact that she’s already engaged to a white man, Megan is increasingly attracted to the warlord. With atypical complexity, Capra confronts social mores, and ends the film with poetic devastation. Bitter Tea is far preferable to Capra’s later output, and deserves rediscovery.
Next week, I’ll break from pre-code film and look at a King and a Pope in 2018, with a guarantee of offending everyone.
3 thoughts on “PRE-CODE HEAVEN: DIPLOMANIACS (1933) AND THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (1933)”
The Native Americans are the most sensible characters in the whole movie, even if they do make the mistake of hiring W&W.
The lyrics, BTW, are a bit off. Here’s how they actually go:
“This once was the country of the red man,
when the red man was the head man.
And then came the great big white man – ”
“Paul Whiteman?” – “That’s right, man!
But the paleface crept where the warrior slept,
and stepped on the Indian corn.” – “Ouch!”
“Then the whites got the red
and the reds got the blues,
and the red, white, and blue was born.”
Casting British actor Edward Cooper as the chief is, I’d say, quite obviously a joke in itself – as is the casting of Hugh Herbert…. and his pseudo-Charlie Chan inanities (“It is written that it is written that it is written”). Just for fun, imagine, for a second, that the part had been played by an Asian actor. How demeaning for him to have to spout those lines!
Yep, Marjorie White comes in her original packaging (“One-a vamp on-a rye, coming up!”). Surreal humor or not, that might well be misogyny. But please note that it is the VILLAINS who treat her as an object. Both White and Phyllis Barry prove to be more resourceful than the boys, and they assert themselves pretty well (sing to me, indeed).
And yep, there is a blackface number. If there’s any doubt about it’s intent, note how Wheeler’s black glass frames turn white during this scene. …
Diplomaniacs shows on TCM 7/12 in the early hours – so set those DVRs if you’re interested in checking this out.
Anyone who thinks Diplomaniacs is a film for the Trump MAGA crowd clearly misunderstood the entire film. The blackface number at the end is kind of a pseudo protest song done in the name of world peace.
Oh and who is John Wheeler? Bert Wheeler is in the movie, and he’s not the “butch one with the cigar.” That’s Woolsey.