Pretty Polygraph

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Wheeler and Woolsey electrocute Betty Grable in THE NITWITS. Actually, the sparks are from a home-made invention which forces the victim to tell the truth.

An interesting thing about the real life lie detector — it incorporates something called the systolic blood pressure test, invented by William Moulton Marston. This blood pressure measurement helps determine whether or not the testee is telling pork pies. Marston, in addition to being a psychologist and intrepid troilist, was also the creator of Wonder Woman, who has a lie detector of her own, her lassoo which forces snagged perpetrators to confess their sins. It’s not often that parallel careers and interests (Marston’s kinky side emerges vividly in his comic book writing) influence each other so clearly.

But never mind that. THE NITWITS is an RKO Wheeler & Woolsey comedy from 1935, directed by George Stevens. Although W&W betray more of a Marx Bros influence (while looking forward to Abbot & Costello), Stevens’ handling of the mock-thriller storyline often recalls his experience as a cinematographer on Laurel & Hardy shorts. But then he pulls out a lot of suave proto- noir effects for the last act.

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Whodunnit? Fred Keating is such an interesting performer one figures it must be him, but the movie also features Erik Rhodes, so it keeps you guessing.

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The wisecracks are pretty basic stuff (including one Groucho swipe) but the visual comedy is often excellent, with the boys visiting Grable at the prison wearing stilts so they can speak to her at a high window (they end up serenading a hoosegow full of felons, who join in as chorus) and a hectic climax with Willie Best and his stereotyped friends fleeing a fake spook, and some fairly inventive slapstick. Searching the list of credited and uncredited writers, I find the name of Al Boasberg, “the funniest guy in Hollywood,” who wrote gags for Keaton on THE GENERAL — I think he’s likely the fellow responsible for the best business in this one.

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This was Stevens’ last silly comedy vehicle — evidently somebody noticed it was better than it needed to be.

2 Responses to “Pretty Polygraph”

  1. Wheeler and Woolsey are an exceedingly Guilty Pleasure of mine. I saw The Nitwits on TV as a child and adored it. I’ve seen their others since and find myself alternately laughing and cringing (WHOA-OH!) I heartily recommend their Diplomaniacs whose script is credited to

    (wait for it)

    Herman J. Mankiewicz

  2. Mank did quite a bit of goofy comedy writing, didn’t he?

    That one’s next on my list.

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