The Bootleg Files: Should Wives Work?

BOOTLEG FILES 834: “Should Wives Work?” (1937 Oscar-nominated comedy short starring Leon Errol).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It fell through the cracks.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Maybe as part of an anthology of comedy shorts.

Unless you are too-serious student of film comedy, there is a good chance that you either never heard of Leon Errol or you may only know of him through a few supporting performances in other comics’ movies. But during the 1930s Errol became a prominent as the star in a series of comedy shorts made at RKO. These films are mostly forgotten today, although one of them – the 1937 “Should Wives Work?” – secured a niche in movie history through its Academy Award nomination for Best Short Subject (Two-Reel).

But if anyone is discovering the Australian-born Leon Errol by way of “Should Wives Work?”, it is safe to say that film is the wrong point of entry. Errol was an inventive and funny man but this film is anything but inventive and funny.

In his RKO shorts, the bald and diminutive Errol played a dyspeptic man who is always at odds with his domineering wife and a hostile world that has little patience for his bumbling. In “Should Wives Work?”, Errol gets into a spat with his wife (played by Vivien Oakland) – he is angry that her hat boxes are cluttering up the hallway closet and she is angry that he won’t give her money for either another hat or a new dress. She recalls having more pocket money when she was working during her pre-marriage days and declares she is getting a job in order to buy the things she wants.

Errol is a salesman in a company with a curious rule – a married man and his wife cannot work together for the firm. When a rule breaker is fired, Errol takes his job – but discovers to his horror that his wife landed a job as his boss’ secretary, albeit using her maiden name. Errol’s boss invites him and his new secretary to his home in order to go over a sales campaign – but the boss then insists that Errol bring his wife. Errol arranges for his colleague Carson to have his wife pretend to be Mrs. Errol – but things get complicated when Carson also gets invited.

The second part of “Should Wives Work?” involves frantic attempts by Errol, Carson and their respective wives to maintain this ridiculous charade while Errol’s boss deals with the badgering from his wife. When everyone is invited to spend the night at the boss’ home, there is an endless skein of mistaken identities and labored excuses regarding why Errol and his alleged wife are trying to avoid each other during the night.

“Should Wives Work?” has the feel of a pre-Code comedy with a plot that wades through the waters of perceived adultery, but the film bogs down into a slamming door farce as Errol, Carson and their respective spouses vainly try to maintain the deception of a puritanical boss who doesn’t understand why the men continuously attempt to avoid their supposed wives.

As the center of the farce, Errol is a strangely unlikeable character. He is immediately identified at the start of the film as cheap and disorganized, and as the film progresses he is increasingly annoying in his vain attempts to rein in his wife while spinning countless lies to his boss regarding his supposed domestic bliss. As stated earlier, anyone coming to Errol for the first time will do better in his work playing the dual roles of the affable Uncle Matt and the foggy Lord Epping opposite Lupe Velez in the lighthearted “Mexican Spitfire” series or as boxer’s manager Knobby Walsh in the “Joe Palooka” series.

“Should Wives Work?” should have been a springboard for Leslie Goodwins, the film’s director. This was the second Oscar-nominated short that he created for RKO, following the 1936 “Dummy Ache.” But RKO didn’t see his potential behind the camera and he never rose to A-list titles. Still, he had an active career, directing Errol in the “Mexican Spitfire” films and helming a roster of B-level features before finding a lucrative career directing for television.

The Errol shorts for RKO were syndicated for television during the medium’s early years, but they’ve been mostly out of sight for the longest time. A bootleg of “Should Wives Work?” can be found on YouTube, but to date there has been no great push to restore and re-release the funnyman’s films for home entertainment.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to Phil Hall’s award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud and his radio show “Nutmeg Chatter” on WAPJ-FM in Torrington, Connecticut, with a new episode every Sunday. His new book “100 Years of Wall Street Crooks” is now in release through Bicep Books.