It’s time for the Important Cinema team to tackle the most important question of our time: Who was the funniest comedy team of 1933? Will and Justin discuss the topic heatedly as they tackle Marx Brothers masterwork DUCK SOUP and the Wheeler and Woolsey comedy DIPOLOMANIACS – both films deal with politics, both were released in 1933, but only one can be the best of the best. Along the way they talk about the appeal of the Marx Brothers, the reason Wheeler and Woolsey have been lost to the sands of time, and why The Three Stooges are still the best.
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When the tiny nation of Freedonia goes bankrupt, its wealthy benefactor, Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), insists that the wacky Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) become the country’s president. Sensing a weakness in leadership, the bordering nation of Sylvania sends in the spies Pinky (Harpo Marx) and Chicolini (Chico Marx) to set the stage for a revolution. As Firefly clashes with the Sylvanian ambassador (Louis Calhern), plenty of mayhem ensues, and the countries verge on all-out war.
Diplomaniacs is a 1933 American pre-Code film starring Wheeler and Woolsey. The film in noted for its absurdist political satire, somewhat in the manner of Million Dollar Legs or Duck Soup, both of which were released within a year of Diplomaniacs. The film concerns itself with the adventures of two men who have set up a failing business as barbers on an Indian reservation. When they are sent by the tribe as representatives to a peace conference in Europe, unbeknownst to them they face constant threats from other attendees. In particular, a group of armaments manufacturers want to ensure that the peace conference is a failure, and do everything they can to sabotage it.
Hey, guys. There are definitely W & W fans out there. In fact there’s a whole Facebook group with 540 members and if you want by all means join. For what it’s worth Diplomaniacs made a $65,000 profit in 1933 (this courtesy of Ed Watz’s book as well as The RKO Story). I can’t find any exact box office figures on Duck Soup, but there’s actually a revisionist take that it was NOT this huge flop, just a semi disappointing film that was the end of the Marx Bros. at Paramount. In 1933 these two teams were pretty equally popular actually. On Quigley’s box office stars list the Marxes were #13, W & W were #15 (in 1932 they both tied at #11). Diplomaniacs came out in May 1933, while Duck Soup was November.
W & W got into all sorts of trouble with the Production Code and once it was strictly enforced in late 1934 it slowly but surely hurt them. George Stevens did direct 2 of their movies (Kentucky Kernels and The Nitwits, both worth seeing) and moved up to bigger “A” productions. W & W had a series of great directors and then finally that talent dried up and they were left with the dubious Fred Guiol and lower budgets. But yeah, the directors previously were guys like Eddie Cline (who also directed a bunch of Fields movies), William Seiter (who went on to direct stuff like Roberta and some later Astaire stuff), and Mark Sandrich (who directly nearly all of the RKO Astaire/Rogers movies).
I would recommend watching any of the 1929-35 era W & W stuff. They really didn’t have many clunkers during that peak era. I’d definitely recommend stuff like Peach-O-Reno (perhaps my favorite), Hips, Hips, Hooray, Cockeyed Cavaliers, Hold Em Jail, etc.
As far as Diplomaniacs goes, I can guarantee you that there’s no way you got all the jokes. I’m not sure I get every joke in it and I’ve seen it a million times. The title alone is a random play on “Dipsomaniac” which is an uncontrollable alcoholic (and they DO get drunk here). The whole “woman turned into gorilla” bit seems like a Freaks reference, but I’m not sure.
W & W did another political satire 2 years earlier, Cracked Nuts. It’s possibly weirder than this movie and I think may well have been the dawn of stoner humor. Diplomaniacs is probably the better made film, but Cracked Nuts has always been a favorite of mine.
I have to mention the discussion of “Are there comics like this now?” I think that is one reason I gravitate towards W & W. Let’s be honest. There’s nobody in a film that would have a painted mustache, honk a horn, or fake being a goofy Italian. If we’re to bring other teams in here I think modern viewers would largely reject the L & H style of comedy as well, finding them dumb beyond words. Much like you guys I enjoy some A & C stuff but I have to admit if you threw that character relationship out there in a modern film people would find Abbott’s constant abuse of Costello mean spirited and unpleasant. W & W however? I think their stuff could be remade today and be as fresh as ever. A movie like Wedding Crashers seems like a modern update of something like Peach-O-Reno where they are divorce lawyers.
I think W & W’s act is a bit hard to explain to people, which might account for their cult status instead of icon status. Woolsey is obvious to anyone. We can get his wisecracking stereotypical 30s comedian shtick. But Wheeler? Some movies he seems almost the straight man. Some movies he dresses up in drag. Some movies he sings and dances and does physical humor. He’s a hard guy to pin down. Diplomaniacs is really not a typical W & W movie in a lot of ways, so it’s odd that someone would start with it. Anyway if you want to talk more W & W, I’m certainly open to it.