by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Charles and I had enough time together last night for me to run him a movie, the 1932 Wheeler and Woolsey comedy Hold ’Em Jail, directed by Norman Taurog from a script by Walter DeLeon, S. J. Perelman (!), Eddie Welch and an uncredited Mark Sandrich, on his way up at RKO from writer to shorts director to maker of Wheeler and Woolsey comedies himself as well as Melody Cruise and, ultimately, five of RKO’s nine Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals. Wheeler and Woolsey play Curly Harris and “Spider” Robbins, respectively, novelty salesman who end up in prison as part of a plot by Bidemore State Penitentiary to recruit top-notch football players so their team can beat their historic rivals, Lynwood, in the big annual prison-against-prison football game.
The whole absurdity of this ridiculous premise promised a considerably funnier movie than this one, but this is still pretty good, essentially moving the template of the Marx Brothers’ film Horse Feathers (made just a few months before Hold ’Em Jail, and on which Perelman was also one of the screenwriters) from a college to a prison and thereby more or less cross-breeding it with Laurel and Hardy’s Pardon Us. It helps that the warden is Edgar Kennedy, and that he lives on-site at the prison along with his sister (the marvelous dry-wit comedienne Edna May Oliver) and his daughter (played by a young woman who would later grow up to be Betty Grable — she’s only faintly recognizable in the severe bobbed hair that was at the tail end of fashion in 1932, and she doesn’t get either to show her legs or to sing and dance — in fact there aren’t any musical numbers in this film, and it could have used some; even Laurel and Hardy found excuses to sing and dance beautifully in Pardon Us!) — and the romantic complications, with Wheeler pairing off with Grable and Woolsey with Oliver, lead to some of the funniest gags in the film.
The best one is when Wheeler arranges to meet Grable “in the courtyard at 9 o’clock” and the other cons, overhearing it, think it’s the signal for when and where to begin their escape attempt — they tell each other in a man-to-man daisy chain and eventually one of them tells Woolsey, who tells the warden, who of course orders the guard around the wall doubled, with the result that poor Wheeler gets fired upon when he’s just out there to get a bouquet to Betty Grable. Many of the gags come from the guilelessness of the Wheeler and Woolsey characters — time and time again they either foil an escape attempt by innocently notifying the authorities (and, of course, earning the enmity of the other prisoners they’re snitching on, though the writing committee could have made more of that than they did!) or blow the football game by … well, there’s one scene in which Wheeler seems headed for a touchdown when a member of the other team politely asks him for the ball, and he gives it to him!
While hardly in the same league as either Pardon Us (or its even funnier Spanish-language version, De Bote En Bote) or Horse Feathers — as usual, Wheeler and Woolsey’s football game is an amusing comedy routine while the Marxes’ is a comedic holocaust — this is still a clever and funny film, though frankly the wise-cracking Woolsey is consistently more amusing than the rather whiny milquetoast Wheeler and it’s a real pity Woolsey died of kidney failure in 1938, ending one of RKO’s more reliable bread-and-butter film series (though the American Film Insitute Catalog records that Hold ’Em Jail actually lost $55,000 on its initial release and RKO shipped them to Columbia for their next film, So This Is Africa, which featured two women who also made films with the Marx Brothers, Raquel Torres and Esther Muir).