Western Wednesdays: Silly Billies (1936)

The citizens of LittleTown are preparing to head off to California in search of gold, lead by Hank Bewley [Harry Woods]. Meanwhile, headed to LittleTown are Roy Banks [Bert Wheeler], assistant to dentist Dr. Philip “Painless” Pennington [Robert Woolsey] and school teacher Mary Blake [Dorothy Lee].

Once Pennington and crew arrive to LittleTown they meet up with crooked real estate magnate John Little [Richard Alexander] who promptly squeezes Pennington dry of five hundred dollars for one of the buildings in town. The trio engage in a drinking party to celebrate the success of the sale and Pennington and Banks proceed to get heavily plastered. At the same time, Blake is offered and accepts a proposition to teach on the trail west.

Bewley and Trigger [Ethan Laidlaw] conspire to sacrifice the citizens of LittleTown to the Native Americans, led by Chief Cyclone [Chief Thunderbird] in order to recoup the money made by the gold rush. Meanwhile, a goat appears in Pennington’s new office, however the boys are so drunk they think it is an older gentleman in dire need of an operation. As the pair proceed with the operation, it devours all of Pennington’s tools.

The next day arrives and the hungover pair get ready to conduct business in their new office, however they discover that they are the only ones remaining in the deserted town, save for Excitement [Willie Best] who himself promptly leaves at the mention of the term “ghost town.” A stray carriage arrives with a dead driver inside who carries a message of an impending Native American ambush.

The pair head west and find the citizens of LittleTown making camp to warn them of the oncoming ambush. After a lively sing along, Pennington overhears Bewley and Trigger conspiring once more, Pennington attracts Banks’ attention and relays the message to him as one of the citizens of LittleTown overhears their conversation and misinforms the camp of Pennington’s “plotting.” Blake tries to reason with the camp, but to no avail as the pair sink in to quicksand.

The camp moves along leaving the pair behind only to be taken prisoner by Natives who inform them that their chief has fallen ill and won’t recover until they burn at the stake. Pennington instead extracts the chief’s impacted wisdom tooth, leading them to be accepted in to the brotherhood. Just as that happens, Bewley enters the Native camp to conspire with the chief as the boys listen in. Pennington and Banks trick the Natives in to a footrace and the pair escape.

The boys happen upon the LittleTown camp and again attempt to warn them of the ambush, however the citizens don’t believe them. Just as the pair are to be hung, a band of Natives arrive to execute the ambush. Pennington gets an idea, he steals a slingshot from a little boy and launches sponges doused in chloroform at the Natives, putting them all to sleep instantly.

“Silly Billies” is one of the most forgotten and easily forgettable entries in the western comedy subgenre. Indeed, when I asked my friends online, whom are the most ardent cinephiles you’ll ever likely meet, to guess which western comedy I was reviewing for the column, no one said “Silly Billies.”

This is also one of the most forgettable entries in the long, illustrious careers of stage-to-screen comedians Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey and for good reason, it is simply not that funny of a film. This is one of, what I like to call Fred Guiol’s terrible trifecta, a series of three later period Wheeler and Woolsey films directed by Fred Guiol which are neither funny nor imaginative, the others being “The Rainmakers” and “Mummy’s Boys.” Fred Guiol, whom directed the outrageously hilarious silent Laurel and Hardy two-reeler “The Second Hundred Years,” had no grasp at all of Wheeler and Woolsey’s brand of ribald verbal comedy, choosing to instead place them in slapstick situations they are obviously uncomfortable with.

Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey were the second biggest comedy team of their day, just behind Laurel and Hardy and made well over 21 films between 1929 and 1937. They began as a team in the Florenz Ziegfield production of “Rio Rita” and were transposed in to the film version released by RKO Radio Pictures. This led to Wheeler and Woolsey becoming RKO’s main source of comedies in the early half of the 1930’s, with each film being more successful than the last. The team were the studio’s biggest attraction, long before Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The key to their comedy was sexual innuendo-laden gags and storylines, many of the hallmarks of their earlier films would feature scantily clad women, hints at bisexuality and Bert Wheeler performing in drag. The Wheeler and Woolsey films of the early 1930’s are easily the most salacious comedies made up to that time and are marvelously well made, hilarious and often sexy and scandalous. Their 1933 film “So This is Africa,” was one of the first United States films to be heavily censored upon release.

By the time of “Silly Billies,” all of the fun had gone from their films and it isn’t all due to the drowsy direction of Fred Guiol, it was also due to the 1934 enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, often referred to as the “Hays Code,” which severely limited what producers could inject in to their films. In the case of Wheeler and Woolsey, gone were the sexy women, the sex jokes, Wheeler in drag and the queer subtext. Wheeler and Woolsey’s comedies starting with 1934’s “Kentucky Kernels” became heavily sanitized and less interesting with each passing film. Wheeler and Woolsey went from being the hip comedy team that adults loved to a diluted double act aimed at the kiddie market. Their films also grew to be less successful at the box office and by the time “Silly Billies” was made, they were treated like “B” product. It is easy to see why after the production of films like “Silly Billies” or even worse “On Again-Off Again,” the team became forgotten and have rarely been revived except by the television network Turner Classic Movies which still regularly plays their films.

The only reason I chose to review “Silly Billies” for Cinema Crazed is because it is likely the only time I’d ever be able to express my love for the Wheeler and Woolsey comedy team, however if you are looking for a recommendation from me for the film, please look elsewhere. If you would like to see prime Wheeler and Woolsey, I heartily recommend the following four films, “Peach O’Reno” (1931), their surreal masterpiece “Diplomaniacs” (1933), the aforementioned “So This is Africa” and their titillating “Hips, Hips, Hooray!” (1934). Wheeler and Woolsey are one of my favorite comedy teams and deserved better than the material they were given in their later films. “Silly Billies” is an even graver disappointment considering the comedy material was penned by esteemed comedy writer Al Boasberg, whose work I otherwise enjoy.