Thing I Read off the Screen in “Diplomaniacs”

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Informal trilogies are the best kinds. Here we have an informal trilogy of war-and-peace diplomatic “satires” from the pre-code era, comprising DUCK SOUP (the good one), MILLION DOLLAR LEGS (the less familiar, less good one) and DIPLOMANIACS (the not exactly good but certainly odd one).

M$L was co-written by Joseph L Mankiewicz and Henry Myers, among others. They were also responsible for this one. They ought to be ashamed.

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Fake newspapers in movies fascinate me. Sometimes the small print is made up of Latin, cut and pasted in at random. Sometimes it’s fictional stories of a vague, unconvincing sort. Sometimes it’s smaller stories related to the film’s main plot — some of these above qualify — but there are also authentically grim and real-seeming stories here, like 2 MEN SEIZED: BODY WAS PUT IN BURLAP BAG.

Low comedians Wheeler and Woolsey are sent to Geneva by the Indian Nation to sue for peace. Evil schemer Louis Calhern (Ambassador Trentino from DUCK SOUP) plots to thwart them with vamps and with fiendish Chinaman Hugh Herbert. Mr. Wu Wu, I guess you could call him — but the credits name him simply as “Chinaman”. Oddly, yellowface seems to agree with the overeager vaudevillian, forcing him to calm his schtick the fuck down, a good thing.

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The vamps are another matter. Dolores, played by half-pint Manitoban firecracker Marjorie White, is delivered down a chute wrapped in plastic like Laura Palmer. She tries to make Wheeler sing by throttling him. Englishwoman in Paris Fifi (Phyllis Barry) has a kiss which reduces men, literally, to smouldering heaps. Yet when she tries this on weedy Woolsey he blows HER fuses — it’s like Barbarella Vs. the Excessive Machine all over again. You wouldn’t think he had it in him.

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Lots of printed gags in this one, because it’s a VERY cartoony aesthetic. Also dismayingly random, which doesn’t make it good but at least makes it unpredictable. One can forgive it a lot for a scene where Wheeler sings “Annie Laurie” with his mouth fill of bread, which keeps jetting out in doughy wads — he catches it, stuffs it back in again, and carries one singing as movie tears run down his face in a gelatine torrent. Gross yet hilarious, and very strange.

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Unusually for a Hollywood movie, the boys’ mission fails and the world is plunged into war, a bitter harbinger of destiny. Fiona had been watching with eyelids slowly descending to Robert Mitchum levels of drowsiness, occasionally starting wide open at some fresh insult to the senses. At the end she declared that she was entirely uncertain how much of the film was real and how much a dream. There is no way to know — I mean, I was watching it too, but I couldn’t prove it didn’t unfold in her unconscious.

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The Peace Conference: “NO SPITTING ALLOWED UNLESS YOU’RE A DELEGATE.” Chairman: Edgar Kennedy.

9 Responses to “Thing I Read off the Screen in “Diplomaniacs””

  1. Wheeler and Woolsey comedies aren’t about plot or character. They’re filmed vaudevilles whose motor is the interaction between the boys: The Reasonably Good-looking One Who Gets Girls and The Weird skinny one with Glasses and cigar. Stereotypes abound. But don’t pretend they ever left. In the new US. TV comedy series “Dads” Asians are attacked relentlessly — though there are no Asians on the show at all. (It’s the handiwork of Seth McFarlane of “Family Guy” infamy)

    On the most recent (and notorious) U.S. edition of “Big Brother” Asians were also the target du jour with one “guest” told “Go make some rice!’ Happily the offending racists lost their out-of-house jobs during the show, their employers duly embarrassed by their behavior.

    As for fake newspaper headlines my favorite, of course is “Galleons Of Spain Off Jersey Coast!”

  2. I’ve seen enough precodes to have found that the hyper Herbert persona came about after a few years, being the shtick that stuck as far as audience favor. W&W comedies were ground out in bulk, RKO exploiting their popularity to an insane degree. In 1930 and 1931 they appeared in four features each year.

    As far as in-movie newspapers of that era, the text under the subheads very often has nothing at all to do with what’s above them. Sometimes it’s just word salad.

  3. The pause button was not invented for glimpses of nudity, it’s so we can freeze-frame newspaper montages and enjoy the subsidiary stories.

  4. Over here, between silly exchanges about Roy Rogers, some buffs track a single persistent headline from fake newspapers:

    http://s13.zetaboards.com/In_The_Balcony/topic/6861856/1/

  5. I’m very fond of Wheeler and Woolsey (though I might be alone in preferring Woolsey to Wheeler)–I particularly recommend “Peach O’Reno,” which has one of the greatest pre-code jaw-dropper punchlines. The Warner Archive deserves a medal for making so many of their films available.

  6. Peach-O-Reno next, I think! Or else Kentucky Kernels, since that one’s handy.

    I like the Chinese in trees story — that’s human interest!

  7. I’m one to favor Peach-O-Reno, just ‘cuz. Kentucky Kernels means putting up with cute. Not that I don’t like it (I do, even if some gags get a bit repetitive), but there’s Spanky and he practically twinkles with cute.

  8. I have little experience of Spanky so perhaps I don’t fear him as much as I should.

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