Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 31, 2020)
Some comedy duos endure in the public mind. Laurel and Hardy. Hope and Crosby. Lewis and Martin. Abbott and Costello.
Wheeler and Woolsey? Not so much, but they become the leads of 1934’s Kentucky Kernels.
Magician duo Willie Doyle (Bert Wheeler) and Elmer Dugan (Robert Woolsey) deal with Jerry Bronson (Paul Page), a man who becomes heartbroken and suicidal when his girlfriend Joan leaves him. To placate their new pal, they help him adopt little Spanky Milford (“Spanky” McFarland).
However, Jerry soon reunites – and elopes – with Joan, so Willie and Elmer wind up stuck with the youngster. This seems like a financial boon when Spanky inherits a farm in Kentucky, but matters take a contentious turn when our heroes find themselves stuck in the middle of a feud between two clans.
As I researched the team, I discovered that Woolsey died in 1938, a factor that may contribute to their status as a forgotten comedy team. However, it appears their career started to run out of commercial steam before Woolsey’s untimely passing, so I suspect they would’ve departed the collective memory anyway.
Based on the evidence found in Kernels, I can’t claim that Wheeler and Woolsey represent unfortunately neglected comedic greats. Indeed, if this film gives us a view of their typical work, I feel astonished they found any audience at all.
Not that the leads display no talent, as they manifest minor charms. However, these prove insufficient to maintain interest.
Woolsey comes across as little more than a cheap mix of Groucho Marx and George Burns, while Wheeler fails to muster any personality at all beyond “oddly neutered semi-leading man”. When we first meet Willie and Elmer, they resemble nothing more than an old married couple.
Indeed, Kernels goes out of its way to attempt comedy based on gender issues, as it depicts Willie as a neglected wife. This theme evaporates after a while, but later in the film, Willie gets forced to dress in drag, another attempt at sexual confusion.
All of this would make more sense if Kernels didn’t also want Willie to act as the romantic lead. We see his dalliance with Gloria Wakefield (Mary Carlisle), as the film intends to paint Wheeler as handsome and charming.
This might work without those earlier attempts to castrate the character. Those render him an improbable romantic lead, and Wheeler’s limp performance doesn’t help.
Not that one should expect consistency or logic anywhere else in Kernels, as the movie presents a loose framework around which it builds stabs at slapstick. In the right hands, this wouldn’t matter. After all, those great Marx Brothers films came with only the vaguest storylines, but the performers made them enjoyable.
Unfortunately, Woolsey and Wheeler lack the talent to elevate the poor material. We find one tedious gag after another, punctuated by Wheeler’s ineffective attempts at wisecracks.
Kernels really does come across as idiotic much of the time. Jerry tries to commit suicide but the adoption agency thinks he’d make a great father?
How does Spanky get hammers and other objects he uses to break glass so easily? The theme of Spanky’s destructive bent exists solely for “laughs” anyway, but the movie stretches it far beyond the point of believability.
Again, I can suspend logic for a movie like this – if it brings the funny. Because Kernels lacks more than one or two chuckles, it flops in that regard. The persistent stupidity on display can’t become redeemed by clever jokes.
It doesn’t help that Kernels comes with racism sadly typical of its era. In 2000’s Bamboozled, we get an intentionally stereotypical character named “Sleep ‘n’ Eat”, but that wasn’t a Spike Lee invention, as poor Willie Best adopted that moniker as an actor.
You can find more offensive Hollywood portrayals of Blacks from this era – indeed, this disc’s bonus cartoons offer more overt racism – but Best’s “Buckshot” never gets to be more than a sad caricature. Kernels comes with plenty of other problems, but Best’s role makes it tough to watch for reasons other than its basic lack of entertainment value.
Even at a mere 75 minutes, Kernels wears out its welcome well before it ends. Director George Stevens would later become a legendary filmmaker, but you’ll find few hints of that talent in this tedious stinker.