Chris Hicks: Wheeler and Woolsey and Charley Chase come to DVD this week

Published: Friday, March 29 2013 5:00 p.m. MDT

Vintage lobby card depicts the vaudeville comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey in "The Nitwits," one of nine films in the new DVD set, "Wheeler & Woolsey: RKO Comedy Classics Collection."

Warner Archive

Nine Wheeler and Woolsey movies and nine Charley Chase shorts arrive on DVD this week, along with three Clark Gable pictures and a variety of other vintage flicks. (All of these titles are available at www.warnerarchive.com.)

“Wheeler & Woolsey: RKO Comedy Classics Collection” (Warner Archive, 1930-37, b/w, four disc, $34.95, nine movies). Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey began developing their act as a comedy team on the vaudeville stage in the 1920s and then made more than 20 feature films for RKO, some of them with surprisingly racy double-entendres before the Production Code went into effect in 1934.

Today the duo is something of an acquired taste with their very old-fashioned hokey jokey style, but their best films still offer some genuine laughs and they were very popular during the 1930s until Woolsey’s untimely death in 1938 at age 50.

The best in this collection are “Hips, Hips, Hooray” and “The Nitwits,” and some of the others are funny too: “Half Shot at Sunrise,” “Hook, Line and Sinker,” “Cracked Nuts,” “Caught Plastered,” “Hold ’Em Jail,” “Mummy’s Boys,” and “High Flyers.”

“Charley Chase Shorts, Volume 1” (Sony Choice Collection, 1937-40, b/w, $17.95, nine films). Charley Chase was a dapper, mustachioed writer, director and comedian whose silent and early sound films for Hal Roach were a bit subtler than many of his contemporaries, emphasizing his everyman character.

But after moving to Columbia in 1937, Chase’s shorts, while still amusing, became broader, leaning more toward slapstick. He also directed short films for other comics, including the Three Stooges. Included here are eight of Chase’s starring shorts from the tail end of his career (he died at the age of 46 in 1940), and one that he directed for the vaudeville team of Smith and Dale.

“Anatomy of a Murder” (Sony Choice Collection, 1959, b/w, $17.95). This tough look at the judicial system (liberally laced with comic relief) is among the best courtroom dramas ever made, with James Stewart as the prototypical country lawyer who is smarter than the opposition thinks, defending a soldier accused of killing his wife’s alleged rapist. Great cast includes George C. Scott, Lee Remick, Ben Gazarra, Eve Arden and Arthur O’Connell.

“The Hireling” (Sony Choice Collection, 1973, PG, $17.95). The setting is post-World War I England as a driver (Robert Shaw) is hired for a grieving young widow (Sarah Miles) whom he begins to have feelings for. Given the English class system this can’t end well, but the journey, with two stellar performances at its center, make it worthwhile, despite a less-than-subtle denouement.

“Polly of the Circus” (Warner Archive, 1932, $18.95). Four years before they re-teamed for the better remembered “Cain and Mabel,” Clark Gable and Marion Davies starred in this overheated melodrama about a minister who marries a circus aerialist, leading to his being shunned by his congregation.

“Key to the City” (Warner Archive, 1950, b/w, $18.95, trailer). Gable and Loretta Young co-starred in this pleasant romantic comedy 15 years after their hit “Call of the Wild,” both playing mayors at a San Francisco convention where rough-and-tumble Gable (a former longshoreman) repeatedly embarrasses prim and proper Young. Misadventures, and, of course, love, will follow.

“Never Let Me Go” (Warner Archive, 1953, b/w, $18.95, trailer). Gable is paired with Gene Tierney in this soapy yarn set in Cold War Russia. An American foreign correspondent marries a Moscow ballerina but they are separated as tensions strain the two countries. The stars work hard but the plot machinations and especially the ending stretch plausibility.

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