Saturday, April 30, 2016
Pre-Code Parade: HOLD 'EM JAIL! (1932)
The title of Norman Taurog's comedy plays on Hold 'Em Yale, a popular play that was made into a 1928 movie. A comedy that begins with a joke few people get more than eighty years later would seem to start with a handicap. Worse, this is a film that climaxes with a comedy football game and is almost exactly contemporary with the Marx Bros.' football picture, Horse Feathers. In Spokane WA, whose newspaper ran the ad above, the films opened head-to-head and their ads ran next to each other. Horse Feathers remains beloved today, while Hold 'Em Jail! is as forgotten as its stars, Wheeler and Woolsey. It's actually one of their better comedies, at least as far as I'm concerned, taking Horse Feathers' college football parody to another level of absurdity by implanting football madness into the U.S. corrections system. Edgar Kennedy is a football-mad warden whose prison team is performing poorly in the corrections league. His convict coach appeals to the alumni -- the ex-cons of the underworld -- for help, even though he can barely pronounce "alumni." The alums share Kennedy's concern and arrange to have some new talent transferred to Kennedy's jail. They're poor judges of talent, however, for they frame Wheeler and Woolsey for a speakeasy robbery on faith, having been told by Woolsey, a party-favor salesman, that Wheeler, his partner, is an ace quarterback, on the evidence of his having ridden his horse to victory in the big race. They can hardly be worse than the in-house talent. For God's sake, stuttering Roscoe Ates is the prison's starting qua-qua-quar-qua ... signal caller. The boys don't join the team until late in the picture, once it's been further sabotaged by Ates getting a pardon. For the most part, after their arrest and before, they're interested in making trouble. There's a brazen ruthlessness to Wheeler and Woolsey that is utterly unredeemed by any likability on Woolsey's part, yet must have been admired, or at least found funny, by struggling Depression audiences. Their abusive salesmanship, visited relentlessly upon slow-burning Kennedy with apparent indifference to whether they make a sale or not, must have struck a chord with crowds newly but still uncomfortably accustomed to constantly applying for survival. W&W are definitely an acquired taste, but Hold 'Em Jail! may be their most accessible film, both because it has some of their best slapstick and sight-gag work and because it has no musical numbers. It wouldn't surprise me if it had numbers at some point and lost them, though, because there's something haphazard about it. Rosco Ates gets fairly high billing but appears in only one scene, while Robert Armstrong gets a cameo as a radio announcer broadcasting the big inter-prison game. A separate writer is credited with Armstrong's patter, which suggests to me that the future Carl Denham was a late addition to the picture. None of this bothers me, though, because I can do without Ates and I don't mind Armstrong. The main thing is that the stars are as funny as I've seen them, no doubt enhanced by Taurog's crisp comic timing, whether they're torturing Kennedy or guilelessly helping Warren Hymer by nearly crushing his foot, then nearly hacking it off, then nearly melting it, to remove a ball and chain. The football game is constantly inventive, nearly as funny as its Horse Feathers counterpart, and definitely more violent, befitting a film that's more or less the distant ancestor of The Longest Yard. I especially liked a brutal running gag that had referees getting stretchered off the filed after virtually every play, despite wearing pads like the players. Perhaps that sort of violent football humor shouldn't be funny anymore, but it would be in keeping with Pre-Code not to care what people would think eighty years afterward.