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Too Many Cooks

Too Many Cooks(1931)

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teaser Too Many Cooks (1931)

Today, their names only resonate with aficionados of vintage film comedy, but over the span of the 1930s, the team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey were RKO's go-to performers, whose popular and profitable farces may have been the largest contributor to the studio's solvency in its formative years. From 1929 through 1937, the diminutive, baby-faced, perpetual juvenile Wheeler and the bespectacled, basset-countenanced, cigar-chomping wiseguy Woolsey knocked out more than twenty vehicles for RKO, a run that may have well continued but for Woolsey's untimely death in 1938.

In 1931, however, the RKO bean counters reasoned (with logic seemingly peculiar to Hollywood alone) that solo projects for the boys would equate to double the profits. Woolsey was saddled with Everything's Rosie (1931), a barely disguised rehash of W.C. Fields' Sally of the Sawdust (1925). Bert and frequent W&W leading lady Dorothy Lee were given a popular Broadway property in RKO's possession, and it is their charming chemistry that sustains the domestic farce Too Many Cooks (1931).

The drawing-room farce had starred its author, Frank Craven, in its original stage run in the teens; Douglas MacLean, the star of a 1920 silent version, served as associate producer on the remake. Most of the action is set around the recently-laid foundation of the rural New York dream home that Albert Bennett (Wheeler) has envisioned for his fiance Alice Cook (Lee). Their loving debate over how the spare room-to-be gets utilized slowly turns testy; the debate gets compounded when Alice's parents (Florence Roberts, Clifford Dempsey) show up with roughly a dozen relations in tow, all with their own bright ideas about the property.

As if this wasn't enough, Albert's Uncle George (Robert McWade)--who also happens to be his boss--shows up, declares himself weary of his bachelor existence, and states that he'll be moving into the spare room. The ensuing brouhaha leads to a broken engagement and Albert's firing, but the young man is determined to see the construction through, and you know there's going to be reconciliation and rehiring before the fade-out.

The dynamic and sassy Lee had been a teenage singer and dancer with Fred Waring's orchestra when Wheeler hand-picked her for the team's first RKO project, Rio Rita (1929). She would go on to make an additional dozen W&W comedies, and she remained close to Wheeler until his death in 1968. In her foreword to Edward Watz's comprehensive Wheeler and Woolsey: The Vaudeville Comics and Their Films, 1929-1937, she declared that "[t]here wasn't anyone in show business who was kinder or more generous than Bert Wheeler, but he had no luck in marriage and gave all his money away, often to people who didn't deserve it."

Lee's recollections for Watz of Too Many Cooks' month-long shoot were less fond. "Every day I'd ask Bert, 'Why are we shooting this?' He'd shrug, smile at me and say, 'Yeah, it stinks, but they gotta pay us for doing something.'" Still, the duo did put in a yeoman effort, and their work is pleasing. The project was the first assignment at RKO for director William A. Seiter, a onetime Keystone Kop who got his first experiences behind the camera with Sennett, and whose prolific, genre-spanning career would last into the mid-'50s. He seemed to have an affinity for comedy teams and helmed some of the better Wheeler-Woolsey films (Peach-O-Reno (1931); Girl Crazy (1932); Diplomaniacs (1933)), Laurel and Hardy (Sons of the Desert (1933)), the Marx Brothers (Room Service (1938)) and Abbott and Costello (Little Giant (1946)).

Hollywood history, of course, shows that Wheeler and Woolsey weathered the commercial and critical indifference that greeted both Too Many Cooks and Everything's Rosie. According to Watz in his biography on the duo, Bert and Robert enjoyed needling one another over the projects. "'Whenever I'm feeling low,' Bob cracked, 'I just look over those reviews of Bert's picture--they're like a tonic!'"

Producer: William LeBaron
Director: William A. Seiter
Screenplay: Jane Murfin, based on the play by Frank Craven
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Production Designer: Max Ree
Film Editing: Arthur Roberts
Cast: Bert Wheeler (Albert 'Al' Bennett), Dorothy Lee (Alice Cook), Roscoe Ates (Mr. Wilson), Robert McWade (Uncle George Bennett), Sharon Lynn (Ella Mayer), Hallam Cooley (Frank Andrews), Florence Roberts (Mrs. Cook).

by Jay S. Steinberg

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