One of my first introductions to the world of classic film was through some famous comedy teams. The Three Stooges were a daily TV ritual when I was a kid. They then led me to other acts like Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers. It wasn’t until just a few years ago, though, that I’d even heard of the comedy team Wheeler and Woolsey. I’m not alone in this, though. Many of their films had been long unseen until the Warner Archive released a few boxed sets of their work a few years ago. Now, I’ve finally gotten the chance to get my first look at this forgotten comedy team with their 1930 military comedy Half Shot at Sunrise.
The film takes place in Paris during World War I and focuses on two American Doughboys. Tommy Turner (Bert Wheeler) and Gilbert Simpson (Robert Woolsey) who have gone AWOL. These two guys are hiding in plain sight, though…still sporting their uniforms and spending much of their time trying to pick up French women. This is much to the chagrin of Colonel Marshall (George MacFarlane), who has other problems to deal with, as well. Namely, the lovely Olga (Leni Stengel), who keeps sending perfume-scented notes to the Colonel’s headquarters.
The boys do their best evading the MP’s sent to bring them in. Things get more complicated though when Tommy falls for a girl named Annette (Dorothy Lee) who also happens to be the Colonel’s daughter. Various comedic hijinks ensue, and even a handful of musical numbers. In the big climax, the boys end up having to deliver some important papers to the front lines in the midst of heavy fighting.
On a whole I really enjoyed this first exposure to the Wheeler and Woolsey team. Their mixture of physical comedy and quick-paced wordplay certainly has similarities to other comedy teams, but these two still manage to create something all their own. Unlike Laurel and Hardy or Abbott Costello, neither Wheeler or Woolsey really comes across as the leader of the duo. At various times, Wheeler has the upper hand on Woolsey, and vice versa in other scenes. That was a refreshing change, since I never felt like one was the put-upon part of the team, always having to deal with the other one’s crap.
As much as I liked Wheeler and Woolsey, though, the big discovery of this film for me was the wonderful Dorothy Lee. A mere 19 years old at the time this film was released (she’s playing 16, though) she steals every scene she’s in. It struck me that she had the perfect voice, and look, to have played a live-action version of Betty Boop. This film actually debuted just a few months before Miss Boop would make her screen debut. My favorite moment with Lee is when she sings “Whistling the Blues Away” with Wheeler. It’s a strange moment because suddenly after 20 minutes the movie turns into a musical. After the initial surprise, though, I was completely wrapped up in Lee’s magnetic screen presence. It seems that the vast majority of her movie career was as leading lady to Wheeler and Woolsey, so I’m looking forward to seeing her in more of their films.
I did find the film to start to wear a little thin as we got into the third act. The whole bit with taking a secret message to the front lines ends up having a good payoff, but feels a bit like padding as it plays out. This could partially be because it follows a much stronger comedic sequence where Wheeler and Woolsey disguise themselves as waiters, making for a very unpleasant dinner for the Colonel and his wife.
Wheeler and Woolsey starred in over 20 films throughout the 1930’s, all the way up to Woolsey’s death in 1938. If Half Shot at Sunrise is any indication of the quality of the team’s other works, I”m looking very forward to seeing what else they have to offer. Hopefully they will prove to deserve a place with the other great comedy teams I grew up with.