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Before the Marx Brothers wrecked havoc in Duck Soup's (1933) Freedonia and Woody Allen turned revolutionary in Bananas' (1971) republic of San Marcos, the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey stirred up political intrigue in the fictional country of El Dorania in Cracked Nuts (1931). The trouble in Cracked Nuts begins when Wheeler's character invests in a revolution to impress a girl. At the same time, his old friend (played by Woolsey) has unwittingly won the crown of El Dorania in a craps game. It seems, that with the revolution brewing, whoever holds the crown has a tendency to be assassinated. And Wheeler is assigned the role of hit man -- to prove his loyalty to the cause by killing his newly crowned friend.
Cracked Nuts wasn't the first film to spoof revolutionary politics. There were numerous silent features on the subject - like Douglas Fairbanks' His Majesty, the American (1919) and Harold Lloyd's Why Worry? (1923). And the talkie The Love Parade (1929), directed by Ernst Lubitsch, delightfully conjured up a fictional kingdom. But Cracked Nuts was the earliest sound film to combine the revolution-meets-imaginary-country storyline. The idea, however, would soon take off. W.C. Fields made the similarly themed Million Dollar Legs in 1932. And the next year came the Marx Bros. landmark satire Duck Soup.
Plot wasn't the only similarity between Cracked Nuts and Duck Soup. The Marx Bros. working title for the film was Cracked Ice, much closer to the Wheeler-Woolsey title (the actual working title for Cracked Nuts was Assorted Nuts). The two films also shared a musical motif. The song "El Manicero" (The Peanut Vendor) plays under the opening credits in Cracked Nuts. And in Duck Soup Groucho sings a few bars of the tune. Cracked Nuts' co-writer Al Boasberg would also go on to write gags for the Marx Bros. A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937).
There are two other notable comedic comparisons to make in Cracked Nuts. First, the boys perform a "What" and "Which" routine about the town that plays like a comic precursor to Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First?" skit. Also, Wheeler's opening scene in Cracked Nuts is dialogue-free and reminiscent of a Harold Lloyd scenario. Wheeler is forced to find an alternate way into his girlfriend's apartment after he is wrongly accused of damaging an elevator door and ejected from the building. An additional note about this scene: to achieve Wheeler's slide across the floor when he's thrown out of the building, the floor was heavily polished and roller skates were sewn into his pants.
Cracked Nuts was Wheeler and Woolsey's sixth film together (all for RKO). But oddly, the team doesn't meet up until Cracked Nuts is halfway over. RKO was considering splitting up Wheeler and Woolsey for solo projects. Cracked Nuts seemed to be a test of sorts - to see if each could carry a part of the film alone. Apparently they passed. Wheeler and Woolsey each made a solo film in 1931 - Wheeler appeared in Too Many Cooks; Woolsey in Everything's Rosie. But the split was short lived. After a single solo film for each, it was back to teamwork in a string of Wheeler-Woolsey pictures in the '30s. They made over twenty films together, starting with Rio Rita in 1929 through High Flyers (1937). And no doubt, the successful pairing would have continued but unfortunately Woolsey's life was cut short. He died in 1938 at the age of 49.
While watching Cracked Nuts look for the young Boris Karloff. Though he had already appeared in dozens of films, Karloff was not yet a known name. That all changed later that year when Karloff played The Monster in Frankenstein (1931). Another interesting note - director Edward F. Cline made a second film called Cracked Nuts in 1941. It was a sci-fi robot comedy and completely unrelated to the 1931 Wheeler-Woolsey version.
Producer: William LeBaron
Director: Edward F. Cline
Screenplay: Al Boasberg, Douglas MacLean (story), Ralph Spence (story)
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Film Editing: Arthur Roberts
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Bert Wheeler (Wendell Graham), Robert Woolsey (Zander Parkhurst), Dorothy Lee (Betty Harrington), Edna May Oliver (Aunt Van Varden), Leni Stengel (Queen Carlotta), Stanley Fields (General Bogardus).
by Stephanie Thames