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The third-to-last movie from the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, Mummy's Boys (1936) is usually regarded by the duo's aficionados as one of their worst outings. In his book Wheeler & Woolsey: The Vaudeville Comic Duo and Their Films, 1929-1937, Edward Watz calls it the "...weakest of the comedy duo's twenty-one feature films...an embarrassment from shaky start to forced finish." The title may bring to mind comedic encounters with the walking dead, as seen in the 1939 Three Stooges short, "We Want Our Mummy," or in Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955), but sadly, Mummy's Boys merely details an all-too-obvious whodunit and the clich of an ancient Egyptian curse.
Stanley Wright (Wheeler) and Aloysius C. Whittaker (Woolsey) are a couple of lazy ditch diggers who decide to take ditch digging to the next level, as it were, by responding to an ad for "scientific excavators." They find themselves headed to Egypt as part of an archaeological dig, headed by Phillip Browning (Frank M. Thomas) and his daughter Mary (Barbara Pepper). Browning actually plans to return artifacts uncovered during a previous trip, because many scientists involved in that dig have already died due to the tomb's "curse." Mystery men are following our heroes around in their Cairo hotel, so Browning asks Wright and Whittaker to complete the mission should something happen to him. He gives the boys instructions and a map to the infamous tomb, which turns out to be the setting for the film's predictable climax.
One of the screenwriters on Mummy's Boys was Philip G. Epstein, who would go on to co-author the script for Casablanca (1942). It is difficult to imagine any relationship existing between those two films, least of all one of the screenwriters. Mummy's Boys is burdened with one of the most awkward plot contrivances ever devised: it seems that Wheeler's character suffers from an extreme case of short-term memory - that is, he forgets everything he hears mere moments after being told, and the only way that his memory can be jogged is by taking a short nap(!) Darn little humor is wrested from this wild medical invention; on the contrary, it is only convenient for the plot of the movie. For example, Stanley receives a phone call warning him of the dangers to be found in the Mummy's tomb, but he forgets the call as soon as he hangs up!
Mummy's Boys was the third Wheeler & Woolsey comedy directed by Fred Guiol following two other weak entries, The Rainmakers (1935) and Silly Billies (1936). While the tepid response to his efforts couldn't have helped his cause, no doubt the main reason Mummy's Boys was Guiol's last RKO film was because he went over budget and over schedule. Watz quotes Gil Perkins, who was a stand-in and bit player on the movie, who said that "...poor Freddy Guiol wanted to duplicate the exciting climax we had in The Nitwits , but the camera setups were beyond his ability." The Nitwits was directed by Guiol's mentor, the much more capable George Stevens. Stevens continued to find work for Guiol after RKO let him go as a director; his name pops up in association with several major Stevens films: as a screenwriter on Gunga Din (1939) and Giant (1956), as associate producer on Penny Serenade (1941) and The Talk of the Town (1942), and even as associate director on A Place in the Sun (1951) and Shane (1953).
Wheeler & Woolsey were never very popular with the critics, but could usually be counted on at the box office. It is interesting, then, to note what an exhibitor had to say about Mummy's Boys to the trade journal Motion Picture Herald: "The poorest picture this team has turned out. I can't understand why the producers don't give this famous team some story to work on. They are just as good as they ever were if given half a chance, but this last story couldn't get a laugh in a feeble-minded institution." Biographer Watz echoes these sentiments many years later, also defending Wheeler & Woolsey themselves: "the boys are their dependable selves and they dish out their material with gusto, but in Mummy's Boys they have been scandalously let down by their writers; there is not a funny line or situation in the entire sixty-eight minutes."
Producer: Lee S. Marcus
Director: Fred Guiol
Screenplay: Philip G. Epstein, Charles Roberts
Story: Lew Lipton, Jack Townley
Cinematography: Jack MacKenzie, Vernon L. Walker
Film Editing: John Lockhart
Music: Roy Webb
Art Direction: Feild M. Gray, Van Nest Polglase
Costume Design: Edward Stevenson
Special Effects: Vernon L. Walker
Cast: Bert Wheeler (Stanley Wright), Robert Woolsey (Aloysius C. Whittaker), Barbara Pepper (Mary Browning), Moroni Olsen (Dr. Edward Sterling), Frank M. Thomas (Phillip Browning), Willie Best (Catfish), Francis McDonald (Rasheed Bey).
by John M. Miller