Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Pre-Code Parade: CAUGHT PLASTERED (1931)

By 1931 the first Hollywood musical craze was dead, so RKO began putting Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey in straight comedies. Caught Plastered, directed by William Seiter, follows a template set by the team's late 1930 film Hook, Line and Sinker. It's the pattern later followed by the Marx Bros. at M-G-M, according to which the anarchic and potentially alienating clowns theoretically are made sympathetic by helping relatively normal people. In this case, our stars are out-of-work vaudevillians bumming a ride into a new town. What went wrong with their act? The theater manager told them that he doesn't tolerate profanity, Wheeler recalls. But we don't use any, Woolsey replies. No, but the audience did, Wheeler retorts. Having scored a railroad detective's badge after their latest narrow escape, Woolsey blusters his way into a free streetcar ride for himself and Wheeler by pretending to be a traction company. On board, they encounter an old woman weeping quietly. Mother Talley (Lucy Beaumont) runs a failing drug store and may have to sell out to an insistent creditor, Harry Watters (Jason Robards the elder) to afford to live in a retirement home. Inspecting the place, the ever-entrepreneurial Woolsey thinks something can be done with it, as was done with the run-down hotel in Hook Line and Sinker, while the surprisingly pragmatic Wheeler has his doubts. Somehow in these stories, whatever his past failures, the Woolsey character is shown to have a formidable gift for promotion, which in those days probably was equivalent to being a master con man. With such talent you wonder why he ever has to hide out in boxcars, but during the Depression nearly everyone, regardless or talent, was one bit of bad luck away from something like that. But perhaps the Woolsey character is better at promoting others than at promoting himself or his partner.

Whatever the reason, through aggressive sales tactics and a readiness to risk on modernization and advertising, he transforms the store into an all-purpose store with the midcentury drug store's typical food counter and soda jerky and publicizes it on a local radio program broadcast from the store, featuring the film's one musical number. Meanwhile, following the natural law, Wheeler falls in love with this film's version of Dorothy Lee, the police chief's daughter who's also desired by Harry Watters. Woolsey's business ideas are ruining the villain's plan to buy the store on the cheap and -- horror! -- convert it into a speakeasy. To sabotage Woolsey, Watters arranges to frame him by having one of his bootlegger friends sell Woolsey a supply of spiked lemon juice. While this sounds like a plan Woolsey himself would adopt as a matter of ruthless instinct, here he and Wheeler must affect outraged innocence as their clientele are, in fulfillment of the title's promise, caught plastered by the police chief. However, it's a simple matter to trick their supplier into betraying his business relationship so the drug store can be saved. If you came to know Wheeler and Woolsey from their more anarchic films from later in the Pre-Code period, Plastered will look like tame stuff, but it's not unpleasant to sit through. Films like these earned the team considerable good will that carried them through the Depression and into the Code Enforcement era until Woolsey's death in 1938 broke up the act.

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