Cast & Crew
After he jumps into some fishing nets during a suicide attempt, Jerry Bronson is rescued by has-been vaudevillians Willie Doyle and "The Great Elmer" Dugan and is convinced by them to adopt a child as a way to forget his romantic troubles. At the orphanage, Elmer and Willie adopt a little boy named Spanky, whose passion is breaking glass, but soon discover that Jerry has eloped with his girl friend. Although broke, Elmer and Willie care for Spanky in their dockside dive until two lawyers inform them that Spanky is an heir to a Kentucky fortune. Anxious to be rid of their responsibilities, the lawyers suggest that Willie and Elmer take Spanky to his new home, and unaware that Spanky's new family, the Milfords, have been involved in a protracted, murderous feud, the duo agrees. As soon as they arrive in Kentucky, Willie, Elmer and Spanky are confronted by their "enemies," the Wakefield family, which is headed by the crusty Colonel Wakefield. Determined to end the feud, Elmer and Willie, who is interested in the colonel's daughter Gloria, invite the Wakefields and the Milfords to a party at Spanky's mansion. There, the rival families put aside their hostilities until Spanky pops a champagne cork that the guests mistake for a gun shot. After the ensuing shootout, the colonel, who has loved Spanky's aunt Hannah for years, swears revenge on the Milfords and prepares to confront them with his sons. When the colonel catches Elmer in Gloria's bedroom, however, he insists that she marry him and sends for a minister. Willie then enters disguised as a minister, but is caught in the act and, with Elmer, must make a hasty escape. The next morning, Gloria informs Willie and Elmer that her family is planning a raid on Spanky's house, but before the duo flees with Spanky, Spanky sneaks out of the buggy. After a prolonged gun battle between the Wakefield clan and Spanky, Willie and Elmer, the Milfords finally arrive to defend their honor. Before any shots are exchanged, however, the Wakefields discover that Spanky has tied together their rifles. Elmer then shows the colonel a telegram that states that Spanky is not the true Milford heir, and satisfied that Willie is not a Milford, the colonel blesses his union with Gloria.
Sleep 'n' Eat
Frank Mcglynn Jr.
P. J. Faulkner Jr.
Van Nest Polglase
H. N. Swanson
First paired as a comedy duo in the 1927 stage musical Rio Rita (produced by legendary Broadway showman Florenz Ziegfeld), Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey were perennial vaudeville favorites who brought their snappy dialogue-driven act to Hollywood. Wheeler is the wavy-haired, good-natured, always-smiling half of the duo, while Woolsey is a cross between Groucho Marx and George Burns, a bespectacled cynic who is almost always toying with an enormous cigar. Ironically, Woolsey was supposedly a non-smoker, off-screen at least. Picturegoer magazine reported this fact in 1936, while noting that, "during the past six years he has smoked 20,000 cigars for screen and publicity work."
In 1934's Kentucky Kernels, Woolsey is The Great Elmer, a down-on-his-luck magician, while Wheeler is Willie Doyle, his affable sidekick. Together they inhabit a shanty beneath a big-city bridge. When a troubled man (Paul Page) attempts suicide, he lands in the duo's fishing net and becomes their project for rehabilitation. They encourage him to heal his emotional wounds by adopting a child, but as soon as they bring home a mischievous lad from the orphanage, the would-be father disappears, leaving Spanky (Spanky McFarland) in Willie and Elmer's care. Spanky, however, is no ordinary child. For starters he has an irresistible compulsion to smash glass. To better complicate the comedy, it is revealed that Spanky is heir to a Southern fortune, so the odd threesome head south to claim the estate. But Spanky has inherited not only a large mansion, but a long-running feud, and Willie and Elmer find themselves caught in the crossfire of a deadly clan war. Romantic entanglements ensue and a pair of bubbly songs by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby help ease tensions between the warring Wakefields and Milfords.
For the role of the juvenile heir, the filmmakers turned to the Hal Roach Studios, where the industry's best underage comedians were under contract for the "Our Gang" comedies (later renamed the Little Rascals for television syndication). McFarland had joined the troupe in 1931 and quickly established "Spanky" as one of the more prominent characters. Born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1928, George McFarland's earliest professional work was as an advertising model for a local bakery. His aunt sent a photo to the Hal Roach Studios (where the "Our Gang" comedies were already a sensation) and the McFarland family soon thereafter traveled to Hollywood for a screen test that resulted in a four-year contract. According to fellow child actor (and "Our Gang" veteran) Dickie Moore, "He stayed at Roach longer than any other child...and appeared in 95 Our Gang comedies." The secret of McFarland's child star longevity? "He stayed short," answers Matthew "Stymie" Beard.
A cinematographer during the silent era, George Stevens was at the forefront of madcap comedy directors when he made Kentucky Kernels. Within a year, he would change his focus to more series films (such as Alice Adams  and Annie Oakley ), and would later become one of Hollywood's most celebrated directors of "important" films such as A Place in the Sun (1951), Giant (1956) and The Diary of Anne Frank (1959).
Wheeler and Woolsey's films were quite popular in their day, and the duo might have eventually become household names were it not for Woolsey's untimely death of kidney disease in 1938. Wheeler made only a few solo film appearances afterward, choosing instead to return to the stage (in a series of Broadway musical revues) and later become a character actor on television (he appeared in the short-lived TV series Brave Eagle [1955-56]).
Wheeler and Woolsey aren't the only outmoded stars of Kentucky Kernels. The supporting cast includes the young African-American actor Willie Best, who appeared in numerous films under the derisive name "Sleep 'n' Eat," portraying a series of sleepy-eyed, molasses-paced slaves and servants. The role of Buckshot is the kind of negative stereotype gratefully absent from the modern screen, but exists as a reminder of the varied, potentially offensive forms of comedy popular in a bygone era.
Director: George Stevens
Producer: H.N. Swanson, Lee S. Marcus
Screenplay: Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby and Fred Guiol, based on a story by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby
Cinematography: Edward Cronjager
Production Design: Van Nest Polglase and Perry Ferguson
Music (songs): Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby Cast: Bert Wheeler (Willie), Robert Woolsey (The Great Elmer), Spanky McFarland (Spanky), Mary Carlisle (Gloria), Noah Beery (Col. Wakefield), Willie Best (Buckshot), Paul Page (Jerry Bronson).
by Bret Wood
RKO borrowed Spanky McFarland from Hal Roach Studios for this production, which was producer Lee Marcus' first feature assignment.