Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Cuspidor of Greatness: DIPLOMANIACS (1933)

The red man was the big man
and then came the great big white man 
a white man? / that's the right man.
The whites got the reds and the reds got the blues, 
and the red white and blue was born. 

The above is a snatch of song sung by Wheeler and Woolsey, with dancing Native American maids all in rows, and while sardonic as fuckall it's rather callous, as if casting a bloody stain on America's conscience is the same as patriotism, and no one really seems to care, because now Native Americans have oil wells and gambling and educated spokespersons. But where exactly do Wheeler and Woolsey fit in? In DIPLOMANIACS (1933),  Woolsey can best be imagined by picturing a lipless George Burns aiming for Groucho Marx's arrogance and way with a cigar; Wheeler is like Nathan Lane pureed together with Frank McHugh, and slid under Charlie Chaplin hair oil. Always, always there's the sense that these guys are really stage show vaudevillians more than film stars.

Some great comics like W.C. Fields, Mae West (pre-code) and the Marx Brothers (at least pre-DAY AT THE RACES) have stood the test of time. They are eternal. Others, popular in the early dirty turn-of-sound 30s---Eddie Cantor, Jolson, Wheeler and Woolsey--have not been so lucky. They have faded into niches were only freaks like me do scrounge. But thanks to the Warner Bro. Archives, a horde of their surreal pre-codes are finally available on DVD, and man you can learn a lot about the era's social stigmas and stigmatisms and all the things the code would wipe away. I've already written about one such eye-opener, WONDER BAR (1934). Why? How do I know? I follow my bliss, and online reviews: my hunger for pre-code surrealism is, however, always accompanied by my liberal PC brainwash afterburn.

Open the closet door!
DIPLOMANIACS (1933) came out the same year as, and is very similar to, the Marx Brothers' DUCK SOUP, and was co-written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who wrote W.C. Fields' MILLION DOLLAR LEGS the year before, and that it can be compared to them is an honor, for Wheeler and Woolsey have not aged as well as Fields or the Marxes. Unless you like both the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy you might find yourself put off by the freaky squareness of these boys, even if only in some uncanny way you can't explain. Me, I don't care for the grotesque infantile tantrums of Laurel and Hardy. Something about them creeps me out. And there's something similarly sticky about Wheeler and Woolsey, some uncanny quality that makes their resemblance to other comedians of the day most disturbing.

And man do they love to play dress up. Wheeler and Woolsey share the same sense of infantile queerness as Laurel and Hardy --is that why they creep me out? They lack the amok heterosexuality of the Marxes, or the singleminded pursuit of oblivion that elevates Fields. Woolsey does get drunk in one scene but he's really more interested in..... ugh.... soup. By the second time he asks for more soup in the first class dining room I'm feeling the polar opposite of watching Fields grab all the table service bottles on his way off the roof of INTERNATIONAL HOUSE (1933). Booze = funny. Soup= yuck! Why? Because food, like life, is gross. Drunkenness, divine. And as someone with near fifteen years sobriety, I should know!

That said, if DIPLOMANIACS landed on the college revival circuit the way the Marx Bros. and Fields films did back in the late 60s-80s, it too might have garnered a hipster cult. The pair do, after all, go for the weird with unhesitating brio, as in the still above where they're sent aloft by being tossed up in a Native American blanket (from here on in I'm switching to 'Indian' for reasons that will be made clear) en route to the Lausanne peace conference or when they battle a tribble-like crawling scalp. Fans of Broadway shows like THE PRODUCERS, or revivals like ANYTHING GOES (which I saw in London in 04) will probably feel themselves on very familiar ground here. Some of the numbers have a lived-in, well-rehearsed feel, especially the big shipboard number where Wheeler tries to shake a lovestruck vamp named Dolores (Marjorie White).  A definite scene stealer, she arrives in villain Louis Calhern's stateroom wrapped in plastic after the following bizarre and racist exchange between him and Hugh Herbert as Calhern's Fu Manchu sidekick, trying to pass Yiddish off as Chinese:

Calhern: I need a vamp
Herbert: What kind?
Calhern: ...a female vamp!
Herbert: What color?
Calhern: A white one.
Herbert: White ones get dirty much too quickly
Calhern: Well, for this job she'll have to get dirty.

It's funny thanks to Calhern's robust delivery of the phrase "have to get dirty." But of course they make a mistake in presuming the boys are straight rather than ensconced in an infantile, closeted misogyny, which renders any vamp's come-ones powerless to sway them. They have the closeted queer's malice towards straight sex, presuming brusque burlesques of hetero courtship will satisfy doubters as to their manliness. The boys sleep in the same bed, and Woosley is clearly the top, you can tell by his big erect cigar and Wheeler's BIRDCAGE-y nightgown (below). And then rather than getting their morning drink on like real men they're more concerned with mani-pedis. "If we can get away with wearing these pants we can get away with anything," notes Woolsey, and when someone overhears him whispering that something's a secret, he asks "What's a secret?" and he replies "A secret is something you tell everybody, confidentially," you know he means the celluloid closet! (1)

Working in the film's favor is the feeling that the filmmakers just saw the amazing LOVE ME TONIGHT (1932) and presume the audience has too. The song sung during the boys' first Parisian morning clearly apes the famous opening montage of Parisian noises that ends with Chevalier saying "Pariee / you are too loud / for me," and shutting his window. Here the lyrics include, "from the taxi honks/ it might be the Bronx but no / this is Paris." (also Wheeler sings a bar of "Isn't it Romantic" while rushing through a montage of lyrics). Another favorite moment occurs after the bulk of first class passengers leave the dining room, and the captain of the Geneva-bound ocean liner gravely addresses the remaining gentlemen at his table: "As we are men of the world, let us consume alcohol." I knew that if I was seeing this with my fellow Fieldsian Max while splitting a 1.75 of Ten High, we'd have looked at each other in stunned delight, but he's married now with a kid, I'm long sober, and these guys are lightweights. Where's my Sean Regan?

That all works maybe, though, in the context of the film, which I saw by myself at three AM high only on herbal tea and cigarettes, after finishing my big previous post on isolationist themes in the films of John Monk Saunders. For if nothing else this film, like MILLION DOLLAR LEGS is really about America's post-WWI contempt for Europe, and the buffoonery of defeated nations still bristling against the post-WWI border alterations and expecting us to give a shit.

What is being satirized in short, is the world political scene immediately prior to the Nazi's re-mobilization, a build-up contingent on that very same weary unwillingness of the allies to step in again. So these films provide an illuminating time capsule look at something that no longer exists, a sense of out-of-touch posturing in Europe that American comics saw as a great chance for satirization, and Hitler saw as a perfect chance to defy restrictions. When a bomb goes off at the Geneva conference in DIPLOMANIACS it just turns into an excuse for a crazy blackface musical number, one of the reasons maybe this doesn't get screened very often, and an insight into the idea of 'deathlessness' in comedy, ala Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges, wherein explosions and accidents that would kill or cripple or kill a normal man just leave one with blackface and maybe an exploded cigar. Wishful thinking like that kept us neutral!

The second vamp is named Fifi and her kisses make men literally smoke under their collars and fall to earth a burned-out mess. We're supposed to believe that one kiss from the lipless Woolsey's makes her smoke and fall to the ground, too. More believable is the concept that a mincing French attendant is considered too oafish when the boys get their hair and nails done in Paris, and overall there hangs some horror movie oddness to the caricatures, reminding us that an element of the grotesque was alaways assumed in pre-code comics. For an example just dig the monstrousness of below poster, the eyes of all of them bugged maniacally or shadowed with lewd conspiracy. DUCK SOUP also satirized war, but it bombed; by then, apparently, the ominous tom-tom of a second world war wasn't comical.

Then there are the other odd reminders of the pre-WWII sense of anything goes, As Dreamland Cafe (from where I lifted these images) points out:
"One of the unnerving aspects of the film for a modern viewer is that there are several swastikas in the Indian costumes. Apparently swastikas were actually common in Southwest Indian design work until WWII. The Nazis had come to power in Germany by 1933, but it doesn’t appear that the film-makers were associating swastikas with them, even if the threat to world peace was on everybody’s mind."
World peace was on everyone's mind, and it's important to note that swastikas weren't just Native American (and Buddhist) symbols, but universal good luck charms (in 1931 Joan Blondell sells swastika key chains in BLONDE CRAZY).

The strange thing about the celluloid closet is that by hiding in plain sight and 'passing' their racist, misogynist mincing off as American straight, gay Hollywood broadened the scope of what 'straight' was. Now such business--prancing, mincing, jumping into one another's arms, avoiding women like the plague but presuming they could get one to fall for them no problem if they cared to-- seems pretty queer - when we see that behavior in contemporary film and TV (ala Sal in MAD MEN) we spot it right off and it causes a shudder of realization about the parameters of 'masculinity'. These characters/actors might be unconscious even of their own closetedness; it happens, and probably happened an awful lot back then. But there's a side effect of the recent decades of positive social change: men still afraid of seeming gay can't do half the things they used to do, like mince and sleep in a negligee in the same bed as their best buddy. They also can't be racist, sexist, or crude without catching instant PC flak. Everything is, in short, reversed. Depending on what state you're in, of course.

It's not that I'm PC myself, just trained like a bird dog to sniff and point. Thus Wheeler and Woolsey linger on the lip of the cuspidor of greatness, alongside Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, defeated in the end from draining down into the pot of cine-hipster rediscovery by their own propensity for blackface and closeted mincing.

Well, thanks probably to Mankiewicz, at least their politics are hilariously bleak, the script sharp, lyrics clever,  the men very old, the women warm, the champagne cold, but over all lingers the presumption that hetero masculinity will continue to encompass this kind of infantile feyness in the century to come instead of delineating certain attitudes and actions as either gay or straight, and either choice preferable to the double blind sneer of the unconscious closet. And so it has come to pass that what was once a good luck charm is now a symbol of racism so vile it's permanently stained the fabric of our conscience, and our PC evolution has rightly rendered blackface and 'red man' tomfoolery accessible only via Warner's DV-R archive by those brave few willing to shell out for the strange and dubious privilege. But there is justice in popularization: The Marx Brothers (2), Mae West, and Fields deservedly endure in the mass produced DVDs and if that's in part from avoiding racism, closeted queerness, fascism, and misogynist objectification through most of if not all their films, well, I'll drink to that any day... So Oooga Booga to you too, you upstart! And if there is such a thing as a tartuffle, then you are just that thing!

1. I should say at this point that I find an out gay person is a thing of joy and beauty, but a closeted 'lover' unaware of the vile misogyny underwriting his straight burlesque is most dispiriting (see also: MONTE CARLO)
2. Since posting I've been thinking about the moments of blackface in Marx Brothers films but they are brief and serve the story: in DAY AT THE RACES they cork up to hide from the cops, but it's after a big dance number that basically expands the "All God's chillun got guns" section of SOUP's "Going to War" number, where are all the black people come to the rescue of the brothers, and sing and dance wondrously and are at least legitimately black. Racist or not it gives work to a vast stock of blazingly talented and legitimately black singers and dancers and one senses throughout a kinship between the black cast and the Jewish Marxes --a well documented simpatico extending even to Al Jolson. And one need only watch the sassy black maids sashaying after Mae West as she struts around her apartment in I'M NO ANGEL, and hear her rich bluesy voice to know that in other circumstances West could be their maid, and not feel at all chagrined by the reversal. W.C. Fields splits a bottle of whiskey with an Indian, appears in blackface only to hide from a constable (in a scene edited from TV prints), and means Native Americans when he talks about carving through this wall of human flesh, carrying his canoe behind him. None of it seems 'unconsciously' racist --it is indirect, and more to paint Fields as a scalawag and mountebank full of nosegay, than as a tool for enhancing one's sense of Aryan superiority. Amen. 

ADDENDUM. Don't let this rant stop you from seeing DIPLOMANIACS! Woolsey might be a lipless freak but Manckiewicz wouldn't let you down. I'll even sell you mine! xo


  1. jervaise brooke hamster12 June, 2013

    Its scary to realise that "The Hayes Office 'so-called' Code of Conduct" was single-handedly responsible for "THE TIME OF SEXUAL REPRESSION" which is how the 20th century will always be remembered by future historians, and we`re the poor bastards who had to live through it ! ! !, and you still wonder why i`m so bitter ! ?.

  2. Wheeler and Woolsey weren't really blackface comedians, certainly nowhere near Cantor or Jolson. They did the number here, which was truly bizarre, and Wheeler did a blackface act in High Flyers as part of a medley of impersonations (he did Chaplin, then Jolson). That's like 2 scenes out of 21 movies.

  3. Good point. Thanks, Brian.

  4. nice movie i have watched it on youtube about few months ago


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