Thursday, 2 August 2012

Robert Woolsey: The Comedian Who Gave His Life for a Laugh

Wheeler and Woolsey Were Happy Onscreen, But Hid a Dark Secret Offscreen
The grim tale of Robert Woolsey reminds us today of a time not too far in the past when workers were expected to cover their own expenses if they were injured on the job; the employer could do something, out of the kindness of his heart, but was not required by law to contribute a single penny to the care of an employee who was injured at work.  Disability insurance and worker’s compensation were just pie-in-the-sky ideas bandied about by social theorists.

Although largely forgotten today, Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey were a stellar comedy team, first on Broadway in the 1920’s, and then becoming top-drawing clowns for RKO studies in Hollywood in the 1930’s.

They first met while working as water boys for the circus, and soon cooked up clown makeups and gags that got them invited into clown alley at smaller circuses.  In 1923 they graduated to Broadway, where they played rude bumpkins in several musical comedies staring Ethel Merman.  Their big break came in 1929, when they starred in the Broadway musical “Rio Rita”, which was one of the first Broadway shows to be filmed in sound in Hollywood, with Wheeler and Woolsey continuing in their starring roles.

By now they had refined their stage personas; Bert Wheeler was the young man always on the brink of falling in love while Robert Woolsey played a cigar-smoking wisecracker, leering at the world like Groucho Marx, behind a pair of exaggerated black horn rim glasses. 

During the filming of “Rio Rita” Robert Woolsey was required to be hoisted into the sky on a mechanical whip – a device to give the film audience the impression that the screen actor was flying, like Peter Pan.  In the hands of a competent technician, the whip was completely safe, and had been used for years both onstage and in movies.  But on the day Woolsey was to be filmed using the mechanical whip the technician in charge of it called in sick, so the director, Luther Reed, simply told one of the electrical grips to handle the sensitive mechanism for the scene.  The grip, with no training, attached the straps incorrectly, and when Woolsey was hoisted into the air he had barely reached ten feet when the straps came loose, allowing Woolsey to fall onto a wooden sawhorse.  Woolsey was rushed to the studio infirmary, where a nurse gave him a cursory going-over and proclaimed he had only minor bumps and bruises and should go home to rest and come back the next day to resume filming.

This was the start of the agonizing internal problems that Robert Woolsey suffered until the day of his death in 1938.  It did not enter his mind to seek competent medical help or get the studio to pay for x-rays.  After all, he was just a screen comedian, a lowbrow clown; there were literally dozens of them haunting Broadway and Vaudeville, waiting for a crack at a movie role.  So Woolsey did not rock the boat, but continued to work with his partner Bert Wheeler in series of scintillating musical slapstick comedies.  But Woolsey soon found he could not work for a full day without becoming physically exhausted to the point where he would pass out in the afternoon and be sent home.  Ugly rumors were spread that he was drinking and blacking out, but the truth was he had damaged his kidney in the fall from the mechanical whip; each film he made after that increased his pain, sapping him of energy and strength.  Anyone watching the Wheeler and Woolsey films in chronological order will be struck by how emaciated and stiff Robert Woolsey becomes by the end of his career; he appears to be 30 years older than his partner Wheeler (they were actually just five years apart in age).  In his last film, 1937’s “High Flyers”, Woolsey is not even introduced into the movie until the first 20 minutes have passed.  He looks, and acts, like an old man.  By then everyone at the RKO studio knew he was a dying man.  Two months after finishing the picture, Robert Woolsey entered the Santa Monica Clinic and was treated for kidney failure.  There was little the medics could do, and he passed away quietly, with his partner Bert Wheeler at his side.

After his death the Screen Actors Guild held an emergency meeting and passed two resolutions.  The first one was to award a lifelong pension to Robert Woolsey’s widow, and the second was to threaten to go on strike if Hollywood studios did not immediately institute a series of health and safety reforms, including disability insurance and worker’s compensation as required by California state law.  The studio heads muttered it was all a ‘communist plot’, but they gave in, and Hollywood actors at last were protected on the job in the land of Make Believe. 

Tim Torkildson, among many other things, spent several years as a professional circus clown, and has made a study of all the great clowns.  He is currently a free-lance corporate blogger for companies such as  

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