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On Again--Off Again

On Again--Off Again(1937)

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teaser On Again--Off Again (1937)

The comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey never reached the Hollywood heights attained by such paradigmatic duos as Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy or Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, or even the less-inspired likes of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello or Donald O'Connor and Francis the talking mule. Wheeler and Woolsey were popular and prolific movie stars, though, appearing together in twenty-one features between 1929 and 1937 (there would have been more if Woolsey hadn't died in 1938, at age 50). On Again-Off Again was their next-to-last opus, and while it's not a comedy classic, it provides a reasonably nifty showcase for the interplay they had developed on vaudeville stages in the 1920s.

For newcomers to the act, Wheeler is the one with the curly locks and the shorter stature, and Woolsey is the one with the Harold Lloyd-style spectacles, the cigar la George Burns or Groucho Marx, and the hair that almost looks painted on his head. Instead of playing a "straight man" against a "funny man," in the manner of Martin and Lewis or Abbott and Costello, the two take turns as comic foils for each other, delivering punch lines with equal frequency and skill.

They made their first joint appearance in a 1927 Broadway musical called Rio Rita, repeated those roles in a nearly identical RKO movie version two years later, and remained with that studio for almost all of their subsequent pictures. They worked with such gifted comedy directors as George Stevens and Mark Sandrich, and they had many collaborations with Edward Cline, William A. Seiter, and lesser lights. Cline had directed numerous Buster Keaton and Jackie Coogan pictures before joining the duo for Hook Line and Sinker in 1930, and soon afterward he made a string of major W.C. Fields vehicles. On Again-Off Again was his fourth outing with Wheeler and Woolsey.

On Again-Off Again takes its title from the exceedingly dysfunctional relationship of William Hobbs (Wheeler) and Claude Horton (Woolsey), the proprietors of Horton and Hobbs' Pink Pills, which can generously be called a pharmaceutical firm. Every time they have a quarrel - and they have lots of them -they order the company lawyer, George Dilwig (Russell Hicks), to draw up dissolution papers; but when a lucrative deal or promising client comes along, they make up and call George off. And so it goes: off, on, off, get the picture.

Driven to distraction by the paperwork these switcheroos entail, George cooks up a way to settle his employers down. They'll have a private wrestling match, and the winner will control the company for a year. The loser will become the winner's servant during the period, obeying every order and paying a hundred-dollar fine whenever he falls down on the job or lets out with an insult. The wrestling match begins immediately, right there in the office, and both men are such bumblers that a winner emerges entirely by accident. The victor is Horton, so Hobbs puts on livery, assumes an arms-akimbo pose that reminds me of C3PO in Star Wars, and starts catering to Horton's every whim. He also runs up quite a bill for hundred-dollar penalties, since insults slip from his lips almost every time they open.

Things grow more tangled when women enter the fray, and more tangled when the men try to use the ladies in efforts to nullify the arrangement, which everyone finds inconvenient in one way or another. Nettie Horton (Esther Muir) is happy to be waited on by her husband's new valet, but not so happy when suspicions arise about his intentions toward her. Hobbs keeps his servitude a secret from his fiance, Florence Cole (Marjorie Lord), by sending her on a Florida vacation, but Horton brings her back as part of a scheme to make Hobbs violate their contract. Gertie Green (Patricia Wilder) is a second-rate flirt who occasionally helps the company land a deal, and soon she's slinking around the Horton house at Hobbs's behest, with a group of seedy associates at her side. And all the while a pair of crooked capitalists, Tony Toler (George Meeker) and Mr. Applegate (Paul Harvey), are plotting to trick the pink-pill tycoons into merging with a bankrupt company.

Sounds complicated? It is, but the story matters less than the briskly spoken dialogue and silly sight gags. The screenplay, by comedy specialists Nat Perrin and Benny Rubin, is an uncredited adaptation of Edward Peple's 1914 play A Pair of Sixes, which had been filmed under that title by Essanay in 1918 and as Queen High by Paramount in 1930, retaining the somewhat different premise of the stage version, wherein feuding garter manufacturers arrange their master-and-servant relationship by playing a hand of poker. Changing the card game to a wrestling bout provides On Again-Off Again with a built-in opportunity for slapstick, while the change from ladies' undergarments to little pink pills is a typical effect of Production Code censorship, which kicked in after the earlier pictures were made.

Censors frowned on the kind of irreverent humor that Wheeler and Woolsey had embraced in vaudeville shows and pre-1934 movies, and this helps explain the decline in their appeal even before Woolsey's illness and death. Rambunctious but squeaky-clean comedies like On Again-Off Again, Kentucky Kernels (Stevens, 1934), and The Rainmakers (Fred Guiol, 1935) are tame compared with a romp like their crazily disreputable Diplomaniacs, directed by Seiter in 1933. Although they had a faithful following until the end, disappointment with the duo was growing, as the New York Times review of On Again-Off Again shows. Wheeler and Woolsey "have traveled a long way - in the wrong direction - since their screen debut as a comedy team...some eight years back," critic Frank S. Nugent opined. "And they are still on the wrong track."

On Again-Off Again is better and brighter than that suggests. Woolsey's kidney disease was reportedly giving him a good deal of pain when the picture was shot, but you'd never guess it from his snappy comic timing and perky delivery, and Wheeler does a superb reprise of a routine from vaudeville days, simultaneously eating a sandwich, sobbing with sorrow, and singing a sentimental song! While the picture as a whole doesn't live up to that scene, its time-tested shtick still has a modicum of off-again, on-again charm.

Director: Edward Cline
Producer: Lee Marcus
Screenplay: Nat Perrin and Benny Rubin
Cinematographer: Jack MacKenzie
Film Editing: John Lockert
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Roy Webb; songs by Dave Dreyer and Herman Ruby
With: Bert Wheeler (William Hobbs), Robert Woolsey (Claude Horton), Marjorie Lord (Florence Cole), Patricia Wilder (Gertie Green), Esther Muir (Nettie Horton), Paul Harvey (Mr. Applegate), Russell Hicks (George Dilwig), George Meeker (Tony), Maxine Jennings (Miss Meeker), Kitty McHugh (Miss Parker), Hal K. Dawson (Sanford), Alec Harford (Slip Grogan), Pat Flaherty (Mr. Green)

by David Sterritt

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