Hold ‘Em Jail (1932, USA)

Hold 'Em Jail - Curley (Bert Wheeler) and Spider (Robert Woolsey)

Comedy duo Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey made more than 20 feature films together from 1929 to 1937. Like Laurel & Hardy and The Three Stooges (and the execrable Ernest in more recent times), it was inevitable, I suppose, that at some stage they would set one in a prison. But when one of the early critical scenes in Hold ‘Em Jail involves them being left completely alone in the Warden’s office for quite some time - until they are joined by the Warden’s daughter and sister for some serious flirting - you know that its heart is perhaps not in the prison at all.

It’s the Depression, but you wouldn’t know it. Curley Harris (Wheeler) and Spider Robbins (Woolsey) are party-goods salesmen. On a sales mission they are encouraged to hold up a swish club with their own water pistols, for a joke, but the weapons are switched for the real McCoy. They are busted, cop 5 years (principally for being unable to tell the difference between their own toy product and real firearms), and end up in the Bidemore State Penitentiary.

Before they even get to put on the prison uniform they manage to get that free time in the Warden’s office, where they create havoc and capture the hearts of the Warden’s daughter Barbara (a 15-year-old Betty Grable) and his prim, spinsterly sister Violet (Edna May Oliver). They are fish out of water, like so many newcomers before and since, but they are fish who refuse to acknowledge that they’re no longer swimming. They treat the prison as a hotel. When Spider sees the bars of his cell for the first time, he puts his hand through them. “Gonna be awful draughty in there,” he complains to the guard.

Real prison life doesn’t get much of a run. There are a couple of scenes with a dim-witted fellow prisoner intent on escaping, and a lovely little scene where Curley’s seranading of Barbara coincides with a mass escape bid, and he finishes up making shadow puppets under the glare of the prison searchlights. But these are minor interludes; the film is much more interested in the men’s relationships with the two women… and, of course, the football match.

In a plot-line which anticipates that of the two Longest Yard movies and Mean Machine, the unfancied Bidemore is about to play a match against the rival Lynwood Prison with a live radio broadcast, and the Warden has inadvisedly agreed to a $1,000 bet on the outcome. Bidemore’s star quarterback, however, is granted a pardon just days before the game is due to kick off, and Curley and Spider (who has been slightly exaggerating their prowess) get drafted into the team. Despite their patent feebleness and ineptitude being fully exposed in training runs, they are left in the team’s starting line-up - and they retain the crucial quarterback and kicking duties, too. Nothing humorous about them sitting on the bench or in the grandstand, I guess.

Of course they win. It’s not a win for the little man or the underdog, exactly. Despite being tricked into committing a crime they didn’t know they were committing, they aren’t the most pleasant or ethical of characters, are far from humble and their football victory is in part due to them cheating - by using chloroform to knock out the opposition. We want them to win anyway. The chloroform also helps them extract a ‘confession’ from a Lynwood player (under some duress, I would have thought) that they were framed, which opens the door for them to be released and romantically pursue the Warden’s family members (not that they weren’t already doing so beforehand).

It’s a bit of a gem (of the non-precious variety), holding up pretty well after three quarters of a century. There are some genuinely funny moments and you can amuse yourself picking the derivative scenes from films like Stir Crazy and even Take the Money and Run. It’s a pity it’s so escapist that it’s sometimes hard to find the prison in it.

hold-em-11 Hold 'Em Jail #3

Posted on November 28th, 2009 at 11:12 pm. Updated on December 11th, 2009 at 8:57 pm.

#237 in the Top 500

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