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High Flyers

High Flyers(1937)

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teaser High Flyers (1937)

During the 1930's, the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey was as famous, and as popular, as Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers. Like the latter, Wheeler and Woolsey came to films from Broadway at the dawn of the sound era, and their humor was a fast-paced combination of verbal zingers and vaudeville physical shtick. Wheeler and Woolsey made over 20 films together between 1929 and 1937. High Flyers (1937) was the last one. When they made it, Woolsey was already sick with the kidney disease that would take his life 14 months later, at the age of 49.

In High Flyers, Wheeler and Woolsey are "pilots" on a midway carnival ride who have never actually been in the air. Hired by crook Jack Carson for a seemingly innocuous errand, they crash-land on the estate of a millionaire who's the target of Carson's planned jewel heist. The cast of characters includes Latin bombshell Lupe Velez as a sassy servant girl; frequent Marx Brothers foil Margaret Dumont as the lady of the house, obsessed with foreseeing the future in a crystal ball; and annoying ingenue Marjorie Lord, twenty years before she played Danny Thomas' sitcom wife on television.

Wheeler, the baby-faced, curly-haired one of the team, spent more than a decade in vaudeville before being signed for the Ziegfeld Follies. Woolsey, the cigar-chomping one with the round glasses, started out to be a jockey, but his career ended when he was thrown by a horse. He made his way into show business, and, eventually the Follies. In 1928, Ziegfeld teamed the two men in the show Rio Rita, and when the show was made into a film in 1929, Wheeler and Woolsey went along as comedy relief. Their manic, wisecracking humor was a natural for talking films, and RKO signed them to a contract.

During the early thirties, Wheeler and Woolsey were the studio's most popular stars. In those anything-goes pre-Production Code days, the duo's films were filled with double entendres and provocative situations. The coming of the Code managed to muzzle them somewhat, but their comedy was so fast-paced that they usually managed to slip a few things past the censors. Early in High Flyers, for example, they inadvertently get high on what is presumably cocaine.

Like many comics who honed their skills in vaudeville, Wheeler and Woolsey knew their way around a musical number, and the highlights of High Flyers come when they get to show them off. Woolsey performs an energetic "gaucho" comic song and dance with Lupe Velez. Wheeler does a spot-on Chaplin imitation, and dances a la Bill Bojangles Robinson. Lupe Velez's attempt to show her versatility - impressions of Dolores Del Rio, Simone Simon, and Shirley Temple - is also funny in an unintentional way. However, she redeems herself when she wraps up the performance by singing a lusty song, "I Always Get My Man" in her own voice.

Velez had made her film debut in a Laurel and Hardy silent short, Sailors Beware! (1927), then went on to appear in a string of dramas. But her flair for comedy soon became evident, and by the time she appeared in High Flyers, she was well established as a comic actress. By 1940, she had embarked on a comedy series of her own, the Mexican Spitfire films, co-starring Leon Errol. But her private life was less successful. A failed marriage to actor-athlete Johnny Weissmuller was followed by a string of tempestuous relationships, and in 1944 she committed suicide.

For Margaret Dumont, playing a society matron in High Flyers was no stretch. For one thing, that's exactly what she was. Her husband was a millionaire industrialist. And she had been playing the dignified foil to the Marx Brothers on stage and screen since 1929. The surprise in High Flyers, though, is seeing her play a somewhat daffy matron, more Billie Burke than typical Margaret Dumont. As the lady who's into crystal gazing and dotes on her kleptomaniac bull terrier, she brings a discreetly screwball touch to the proceedings.

Shortly after completing High Flyers, Robert Woolsey was bedridden in August, 1937. He died in October of 1938. After Woolsey's death, Wheeler continued acting in films, theater, and television as a single, but he was never able to equal the success he had as part of the team. By the time he died in 1968, the team of Wheeler and Woolsey had been all but forgotten by movie audiences.

Director: Edward F. Cline
Producer: Lee S. Marcus
Screenplay: Bert Granet, Byron Morgan, Benny Rubin, based on the play The Kangaroos, by Victor Mapes
Cinematography: Jack MacKenzie
Editor: John Lockert
Costume Design: Renie
Music: Roy Webb, Dave Dreyer, Herman Ruby
Cast: Bert Wheeler (Jerry Lane), Robert Woolsey (Pierre Potkin), Lupe Velez (Juanita Morales), Marjorie Lord (Arlene Arlington), Margaret Dumont (Martha Arlington), Jack Carson (Dave Hanlon), Paul Harvey (Horace Arlington).

by Margarita Landazuri

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