I have this fantasy in which I imagine that a scout from RKO Radio Pictures early in 1931 is told to go see Girl Crazy on Broadway and to report back about its potential as a movie. In his report, does he say, “The score is amazing; George and Ira Gershwin have written some songs that will be sung as long as singers sing”? Or “This Ethel Merman is dynamite; she electrifies an audience and she can put a song over like an artillery barrage”? Or “Ginger Rogers is a real charmer who has already shown that she photographs well; with care she could be groomed into a major star”? Does he say any of this? He does not. Instead, this brilliant showbiz oracle tells the front office, “This might make a good vehicle for Wheeler and Woolsey.”
Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey — unlike, say, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, or the Marx Brothers — are largely forgotten today, but they still have their fans among film buffs even now. So perhaps I should let you know right up front that Wheeler and Woolsey are my personal nominees for the worst comedy team in movie history. But no matter what I think, they were hugely popular in the 1930s. Their output alone shows that audiences could hardly get enough. The Marx Brothers, for example, made 13 pictures in their entire career, from 1929 to ’49. Wheeler and Woolsey made 22 features — plus one short of their own and guest appearances in five others — just between 1929 and ’37. And they only stopped then because of Woolsey’s failing health (he died of kidney failure at 50 in 1938).
Wheeler and Woolsey were never a team in the standard showbiz sense of the day, as Woolsey was careful to point out when the two split up (briefly) after the release of Girl Crazy: “I wish it understood that Wheeler and I never really formed a team at any time. He had his manager and attorney and I had mine.” Wheeler had started in vaudeville with an act that, in retrospect, sounds like a forerunner of Andy Kaufman’s schtick: he would come out on stage with a joke book and announce that he was going to read some jokes from it, then proceed to read one corny joke after another, in such a manner that the audience would wind up roaring with laughter. Woolsey, who stood just under five foot six, had started out as a jockey and exercise boy, but when he broke his leg in a fall from a horse his racing career was over. The horse, Pink Star, went on to win the Kentucky Derby in 1907; Woolsey went into show business.
Bringing the two together was Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.’s idea; he cast them as comic supports to Ethelind Terry and J. Harold Murray in his 1927 musical extravaganza Rio Rita. When RKO bought the movie rights to Rita, they replaced the stars with John Boles and Bebe Daniels, but they brought Wheeler and Woolsey west to recreate their stage roles. Already the team dynamic was in place, and it would vary little in their following match-ups: wide-eyed naif Wheeler is bamboozled and manipulated by the fast-talking, cigar-chomping Woolsey. The two made such a hit in Rita that RKO teamed them up again (The Cuckoos) and again (Dixiana), over and over — a new picture, on average, every three months. (“They were pretty bad,” Wheeler later recalled, “but they all made money.”) Girl Crazy was their tenth, in two-and-a-half years.
As it happened, the final cut wasn’t final after all. Girl Crazy had begun under the regime of RKO studio chief William LeBaron; by the time it finished shooting, LeBaron was gone (though he retained screen credit), replaced by David O. Selznick. The picture’s first preview in Glendale was not well received, and Selznick ordered retakes — enough to add another $200,000 to the $300,000 already spent. Exactly what was reshot isn’t clear, but the figures alone suggest a full two-thirds of the picture as it stood. In any case, director William A. Seiter wasn’t available, so the retakes were directed (without credit) by Norman Taurog.
And this is where we run into the mystery of the “I Got Rhythm” number. Selznick may have ordered the reshooting of the song, in whole or in part (the paper trail isn’t clear), and the sequence may have been staged and directed by Busby Berkeley, who was already at RKO to stage the native dances for Bird of Paradise. Berkeley himself never said anything about it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything — after all, Dorothy Lee didn’t like to talk about Girl Crazy either, and she’s on screen. On the strength of what we can see, my own opinion is that “I Got Rhythm” is Busby Berkeley’s work lock, stock and barrel. Later, after Berkeley had made his name over at Warner Bros., dance directors at other studios would prove that Berkeley’s style was easier to recognize than to imitate, and “I Got Rhythm” is his style to a “T”; there are images and motifs that would reappear in some of his most famous routines at Warners. Besides, this number is by far the most elaborate and complex sequence in the entire picture, and could easily account for much of that extra 200 grand. Until someone shows me conclusive evidence to the contrary, I’ll continue to believe that “I Got Rhythm” is Busby Berkeley at work. Whatever the case, Berkeley, like Taurog, got no screen credit for the retakes Selznick had ordered.
The retakes didn’t help, and may have hurt; Girl Crazy failed to turn a profit. After Selznick’s tinkering, it had cost nearly twice as much as the typical Wheeler and Woolsey picture (and almost as much as King Kong); it never had a chance. It probably never had an artistic chance either; coming at exactly the moment when even mentioning a musical around Hollywood was in bad taste, Girl Crazy was a movie that couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. It waffled a little, then came down on what looked like the safe side as a straight cornball comedy. RKO decided to play up the one feature of the show (the book) that Broadway audiences had tolerated only for the sake of what came with it, leaving just a skeleton crew of songs that were either inconsequential, mishandled, or too little too late.
The following year would come the game-changer: Warner Bros. (and Busby Berkeley) with the spectacular hat trick of 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade to put musicals back in vogue again, where they would remain for decades — even Poverty Row studios like Republic, Monogram and PRC would regularly try their hands at them. But all that came too late to help RKO’s Girl Crazy. It was born before its time; the studio didn’t appreciate the property it had, and didn’t have the wit, confidence or foresight to do what should have been done with it.
All was not lost, however. Better times were coming for Girl Crazy, though it would take another 11 years. Oddly enough, Norman Taurog and Busby Berkeley would be back. And this time they’d get screen credit.