Sunday, November 29, 2009

WHEELER & WOOLSEY: "We Need Each Other" (1929)

Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey with Dorothy Lee and Bebe Daniels performing a perfect example of a simple but effective "tit for tat" gag from the film version of their breakout stage hit Rio Rita.

Just as an aside, two summers ago when Mark Lohr and I were teaching Physical Comedy at Michael Rosman's Circus Camp, we taught the kids a few of the basics of slapstick and when we came to this type of stuff, rather than "tit for tat" we referred to it as "The Humor of Escalating Reciprocal Violence" rather than risk being the two big creeps who inadvertently taught the kids a dirty word.

Michael asked us after the first day to find something else to call it as the kids would never understand what "The Humor of Escalating Reciprocal Violence" meant.

He hadn't been there when we defined it for the kids.

The next morning we performed a short bit and asked the kids to tell us what foundation that bit was based on. Every kid knew it as "The Humor of Escalating Reciprocal Violence" and even the youngest ones could tell us precisely what it meant.

And that's what we've called it there ever since.

Proving that a sharp poke in the eye is always funny... and despite what your Mom and your teachers think, is an excellent educational tool as well!

From Wikipedia and IMDB...


Rio Rita is a 1929 Radio Pictures musical comedy starring Bebe Daniels and John Boles along with the comedy team of Wheeler & Woolsey. The film is based on the 1927 stage musical by Florenz Ziegfeld, which originally united Wheeler and Woolsey as a team and made them famous. The film was the biggest and most expensive production for Radio Pictures for 1929 and it proved to be a huge success and was chosen as one of the ten best films of 1929 by Film Daily. The last portion of the film was photographed in Technicolor.


Bert Wheeler plays a New York bootlegger who comes to the Mexican town of San Lucas to get a divorce so he can marry Dolly (Dorothy Lee). After the wedding, Wheeler's lawyer, Robert Woolsey, informs Wheeler the divorce was invalid, and advises Wheeler to stay away from his bride.

The Wheeler-Woolsey plot is actually a subplot of the film, which stars Bebe Daniels (in her first "talkie") as Rita Ferguson, a south-of-the-border beauty pursued by both Texas Ranger Jim Stewart (John Boles) and local warlord General Ravenoff (Georges Revenant). Ranger Jim is pursuing the notorious bandit Kinkajou along the Rio Grande, but is reluctant to openly accuse Rita's brother, Roberto (Don Alvarado), as the Kinkajou because he is in love with Rita.

Ravenoff successfully convinces Rita to spurn Ranger Jim on the pretext that Jim will arrest Roberto. Rita unhappily agrees to marry Ravenoff to prevent him from exposing Roberto as the Kinkajou. Meanwhile, Wheeler's first wife, Katie (Helen Kaiser), shows up to accuse him of bigamy, but conveniently falls in love with Woolsey.

At this point, the film switches into Technicolor. During the wedding ceremony aboard Ravenoff's private barge, Ranger Jim cuts the craft's ropes so that it drifts north of the Rio Grande. The Texas Rangers storm the barge, arrest Ravenoff as the real Kinkajou just in time to prevent the wedding, and Roberto is revealed to be a member of the Mexican Secret Service. Jim takes Rita's hand in marriage and Roberto escorts Ravenoff back to Mexico for trial.


  • Wheeler and Woolsey were the only principals from the stage version to appear in the film. Based on the success of this film, Wheeler & Woolsey were also given contracts to star in a series of comedies for Radio Pictures.
  • One of the first blockbuster hits for fledgling RKO studios.
  • The film re-launched Bebe Daniels and John Boles into stardom and both of them starred in a number of musicals in the years following. They proved to be so popular with audiences of the day that they were both hired by RCA Victor to make a number of phonograph records.
  • Bebe Daniels' first talkie.
  • The set used in the final scene is the same as that used in another film's final scene, Dixiana (1930), also with Bebe Daniels.
  • John Boles was on loan from Universal.
  • The 1929 Rio Rita is a faithful rendering of the stage version of the show. It is one of the few films personally supervised by legendary showman Florenz Ziegfeld, who also produced the musical onstage. It is very likely that the film gives an accurate impression of what a Ziegfeld stage presentation was like.
  • The 1942 Abbott & Costello "remake" has little in common with this version.
  • The stage version of "RIO RITA" was seen by famous Aviator Charles A. Lindbergh the night before his famous 1927 flight from New York to Paris.
  • Costume designer Walter Plunkett worked uncredited on this early talking film. At the time, Hollywood was going through an extremely difficult transition from silent films to talkies. An incident that occurred during the production of this film was later immortalized in Singin' in the Rain (1952). While Plunkett was designing the costumes for that film, screenwriters Adolph Green and Betty Comden drew on some of Plunkett's recollections as the source for gags about the perils of early sound filming. An example of this is the scene in Singin' in the Rain (1952) in which Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) taps Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) on the shoulder with her fan but causes a thunderous noise on the soundtrack by disturbing a microphone hidden in Lockwood's clothing. This was based on a similar incident during the production of "Rio Rita".


Five reels of the film are believed to be lost. The print currently circulating (105 minutes) is the re-release version from 1932, which was significantly cut down from the original length of fifteen reels down to only ten reels. This is the print that is currently being broadcast on cable by Turner Classic Movies, which is missing about forty minutes of footage. New York's Museum of Modern Art used to have a print of the original full-length version, but this print seems to have been lost or stolen from their archives. The entire soundtrack for the original film survives on Vitaphone disks. Both picture and sound for at least two musical numbers from the long version are also known to survive ("When You're In Love, You'll Waltz" and "The Kinkajou").

Principal Cast

  • Bebe Daniels as Rita Ferguson
  • John Boles as Capt. Jim Stewart
  • Bert Wheeler as Chick Bean
  • Robert Woolsey as Ned Lovett
  • Dorothy Lee as Dolly Bean
  • Don Alvarado as Roberto Ferguson
  • Georges Renavent as General Ravinoff
  • Helen Kaiser as Mrs. Katie Bean

1 comment:

Elmo Gibb said...

"Escalating reciprocal violence" is so much more succinct than "Tit for tat!"

Actually, as Wheeler & Woolsey demonstrate here, this is a true tit for tat exchange, as after the first round, each attack is met with a duplicate reply.