Saturday, November 5, 2011

Whispering Whoopee (Hal Roach, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before last Charles and I both got back so late — he from work and I from an Activist San Diego radio meeting — that instead of a feature-length film we ran a few shorts we’d just downloaded from One was Whispering Whoopee, a 1930 Hal Roach comedy directed by James W. Horne and starring Charley Chase (his real name was Charley Parrott, and when he directed himself — which he did fairly often — he took his directorial credit as Parrott and his acting credit as Chase; his brother, James Parrott, was also a Roach director) as a property owner who’s trying to unload a parcel in Rockaway, New Jersey on the city government. Figuring that the best way to get the deal done is by exploiting the weaknesses of the flesh in the men he’s dealing with, he hires three professional vamps (even in the so-called “pre-Code” era the script by H. M. “Beanie” Walker and almost certainly the usual crew of Roach gag men couldn’t come right out and say they were prostitutes, but it’s pretty apparent) to seduce them into buying his property at a good price. The vamps, interestingly, are played by three Roach contractees who use their real names for their characters: Thelma Todd, Anita Garvin (quite striking and leggy even though she was better as the vengeful virago in the Laurel and Hardy short Blotto than the good-time girl she’s playing here) and Dolores Brinkman.

Only when Chase opens the door to admit the representatives from Rockaway, he finds that the city government is ahead of him: instead of the presumably reprobate men he was expecting he finds three straight-laced, sour-faced old men (Dell Henderson, Carl Stockdale and Tenen Holtz) — also, interestingly, using their real names for their characters — and he also has to deal with his landlord, Mr. Richmond (Edward Dillon), who warns him he’s already had too many neighbors complaining about his penchant for wild parties and this is his last warning: if he throws another one, he’ll be tossed out of the building. So he tries to keep his good-time girls quiet and demure — to the point of grabbing a throw-rug and draping it over Ms. Brinkman to make her costume just a wee bit more modest — only Ricketts (Eddie Dunn), his butler, who isn’t in on the change in plans and misunderstands Chase’s hand signals, spikes the drinks to be stronger, not weaker, than usual — and the alcohol does the trick and the men start responding to the advances of the women and the overall devil-may-care atmosphere of the party that develops. Eventually the principals start an all-out war with seltzer bottles that escalates into a typical Roach tit-for-tat slapstick scene until the men suddenly remember that what they came for was to sign the agreement to buy Chase’s property — which they do, with a fountain pen, only just then a few more blasts of seltzer hit the document and wash away the signatures. The End.

Whispering Whoopee is a routine two-reeler with one absolutely inspired and anarchic moment the Marx Brothers would have been proud of — Chase leads the three Rockawayans in a wild sing-along to the “Rockaway Booster Song” (I’m not making this up, you know!) — but aside from that it’s amusing but not scream-out-loud funny, and frankly Chase was better as a harried husband in the films he made that anticipated the formulae of 1950’s TV sitcoms (though John Bunny, a heavy-set middle-aged man who made a series of silent comedy shorts for Vitagraph between 1912 and 1915, when he died, was not only the first movie comedy star but also the true founder of the sitcom series — especially since, like such legendary later sitcom couples as George and Gracie, and Lucy and Desi, he and his wife actually played husband and wife on screen) than he is as the rambunctious, unscrupulous go-getter he plays here.