Most people today have never heard of the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, the pair were contemporaries of The Marx Brothers and Laurel & Hardy, reaching the peak of their success in the mid-1930s. The pair were cast as comic relief for the 1927 Broadway musical “Rio Rita” then came to Hollywood to reprise their roles for the film version. The film’s success made the two decide to partner and soon they began a successful film career, making 21 movies, most of them for RKO.
I first heard of the pair when nine of their films were released on DVD for the first time in a collection by Warner Archive. One of the films from that set, 1934’s “Kentucky Kernels” has been given the most pleasant of surprises this week, a new blu-ray release made from a 4K scan of the original nitrate negative. The film shares a little bit of DNA with The Marx Brothers in the form of two of the film’s writers being frequent Marx scribes Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. On top of that, none other than Groucho’s favorite foil, Margaret Dumont, appears in the film has the head of an adoption agency.
Wheeler and Woolsey play a pair of out-of-work stage performers looking for their next big break, with a little shack by the river where they’re also waiting for that first big fish haul so they can cash in. What they catch one day is a well off man who jumped into the river to end it all after his girlfriend turned down a marriage proposal. Hoping to cheer the man up, the two convince him to adopt the adorable child Spanky, played by none other than “Spanky” McFarland of the beloved Our Gang/Little Rascals comedies.
When the despondent man’s girl changes her mind, off he goes to elope with her, leaving our two boys in charge of the precious child, who has the interesting hobby of breaking glass. The three soon receive word that Spanky has interested a fortune in Kentucky and off they go, only to find themselves square in the middle of an old fashioned family feud. The film has a great deal of wonderful slapstick and 1930s comedy bits in it, if you like The Marx Brothers you’ll enjoy this one. There is one character in the film that is, unfortunately, an awful racial stereotype that was commonplace in films of the era.
I have to say that one of my favorite things in the movie is the adorable Spanky child’s obsession with breaking glass, which becomes something of a plot point as the film progresses over its zippy 75 minutes running time. The biggest laugh I had during the movie was the three heroes driving along while Spanky casually produces a large hammer, using it to smash the windshield of the automobile.
“Kentucky Kernels” looks absolutely incredible, the 1080p image made from that 4K scan is stunning, there’s a clarity and sharpness to the image that other blu-rays of films from the same time frame lack—thanks to the original camera negative surviving. Though not listed on the back of the box, the disc does include some bonus material in the form of three cartoons from 1934. Two Popeye cartoons and one by Warner Brothers, all three presented in 1080p and looking great.
A lot of people were pleasantly surprised when this one was announced for blu-ray. Warner Archive in many ways acts as a boutique label inside a major company. I hope we’ll see more surprises from them as we get into the last quarter of this year (c’mon blu-ray of “The Hypnotic Eye!). You can order your own copy of “Kentucky Kernels” by going to www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive. If you’re a fan of 1930s comedy teams, this one is well worth your money. See you next week.