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Cockeyed Cavaliers

Cockeyed Cavaliers(1934)

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teaser Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934)

Largely forgotten today and eclipsed by Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello, the team of Wheeler and Woolsey was immensely popular in the 1930s. Their hit movies helped establish RKO as a major studio which gave early career starts to such later greats as actress Betty Grable, director George Stevens and producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Most of their pictures aren't thought of as major comedy classics, but at least a handful in the early part of the decade, including Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934), are considered unjustly neglected gems with an offbeat, even at times risqu, appeal. In fact, many fans judge this to be their best, largely because of Mark Sandrich's swift direction, which makes great use of the duo's wordplay, slapstick and dancing, and the script's deft integration of the jokes into the plot, rather than the story being a mere excuse for set routines.

The comic duo plays a couple of 16th century ne'er-do-wells who keep landing in prison and the stocks because of Wheeler's kleptomania (it's so bad that he even finds himself having to deny the crime when he hears a gossip say a woman's face has been lifted). The two find themselves posing as the king's physicians and insinuating themselves into a story involving a runaway bride-to-be disguised as a boy. The film is notable for a scene spoofing the Greta Garbo cross-dressing classic Queen Christina (1933) and the riotous boar hunt, a sequence achieved through some masterful trick photography.

The alluring screen comic Thelma Todd, here making her second picture with the duo as the sassy and philandering Lady Genevieve, would probably be nearly forgotten today if not for her mysterious and untimely death (ruled a suicide but suspected by many to have been murder). Her career lasted only two more years, but her popularity was such that she managed to appear in nearly 20 more films in that short time.

Todd's husband, the pompously brutish Baron, is played by Noah Beery, brother of Academy Award® winner Wallace Beery, and father of character actor Noah Beery, Jr., who appeared in a number of well-known films and as James Garner's father on the TV series The Rockford Files.

The other lead female, Dorothy Lee, practically built her career on Wheeler and Woolsey movies. She made her second picture with the team in their screen debut, Rio Rita (1929), a part she was awarded after Wheeler spotted her in her first film Syncopation (1929). She appeared with them 15 more times, usually as Wheeler's sweet but spunky love interest, before retiring from acting in the early 1940s. In an interview late in her life, Lee said Cockeyed Cavaliers was her favorite picture with the duo, along with Hips, Hips, Hooray! (1934), which also starred Thelma Todd. She also said she got along well with the rather happy-go-lucky Wheeler but found Woolsey to be a bit domineering and insistent on having things done his way.

Mark Sandrich went on to direct five Astaire-Rogers musicals and the multiple Oscar®-nominated women-at-war drama So Proudly We Hail! (1943). He died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 44 while directing his last picture Blue Skies (1946).

Although some viewers assume Wheeler and Woolsey were a longstanding vaudeville team, the two were actually teamed for the first time in the stage production of Rio Rita. They quickly moved to motion pictures and worked together until Woolsey's early death of kidney failure at the age of 50 in 1938. Prior to shooting Cockeyed Cavaliers, the team was scheduled to make a college spoof entitled Frat Heads, but because of the success of Laurel and Hardy's 18th century comedy The Devil's Brother (1933) and Eddie Cantor's Roman Scandals (1933), set in ancient Rome, RKO decided on a costume period comedy. A few publicity stills are all that remain of Frat Heads.

Director: Mark Sandrich
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay: Grant Garett, Ben Holmes, Edward Kaufman, Ralph Spence
Cinematography: David Abel
Editing: Jack Kitchin
Art Direction: Carroll Clark, Van Nest Polglase
Original Music: Roy Webb, songs by Val Burton and Will Jason
Cast: Bert Wheeler (Bert), Robert Woolsey (Bob), Thelma Todd (Lady Genevieve), Dorothy Lee (Mary Ann), Noah Beery (The Baron), Robert Greig (The Duke).
BW-73m.

by Rob Nixon

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