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The Nitwits

The Nitwits(1935)

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teaser The Nitwits (1935)

All but forgotten today, the comic team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey saved RKO Radio Pictures from bankruptcy in the early 1930s. The manic duo's sixteenth feature went into production as Murder in Tin Pan Alley, with Wheeler and Woolsey playing music industry underlings who unmask an extortionist and murderer known as The Black Widow. A title change to Mellodicks displeased producer Lee Marcus, who offered a fifty dollar reward to the RKO employee who could dream up something catchier. Rejected titles included Death Strikes a Chord, The Dead Soprano, and Murder in 3/4 Time while the studio ultimately settled on The Nitwits (1935). With regular Wheeler and Woolsey director Mark Sandrich promoted to Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals, former Hal Roach cameraman George Stevens stepped in. (Stevens' last minute script doctoring delayed the start of principal photography, costing the film the presence of Lionel Atwill, who was replaced by Fred Keating; Atwill later played the villain in the 1946 remake, Genius at Work.) The result was one of the comic team's biggest hits and its success promoted George Stevens to the A-list adventure Gunga Din (1939) and Oscar glory with A Place in the Sun (1951) and Giant (1956). Fourth-billed Betty Grable had to wait a bit longer for her own star to shine but was within a decade Hollywood's highest-paid actress.

By Richard Harland Smith

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