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|Index||12 reviews in total|
If you only know the little bruiser Spanky McFarland from his Litlte
Rascals, this movie casts some light on why he was considered one of
the best child actors of his generation. As an adorable little tyke
with a penchant for breaking glass, he drives the movie's Kentucky feud
storyline. He even signs a love song "One Little Kiss," to his best pal
-- a cute dog, and one of the male leads sings a few lines to a donkey
(It's that kind of movie).
Kentucky Kernels is notable for showing what was considered funny -- and in some cases, socially acceptable -- in 1934. An actor credited as "Sleep n Eat" (actually Willie Best) shuffles his way through the film as a stereotypical wide-eyed, scared-of-his-shadow servant. And a gay subtext between the two male leads is watered down by some forced and unconvincing romance with a typical blonde Southern belle, but lots of the movie's humor is derived from the male/male "romance." In their first scene, for example, Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey are the picture of domestic bliss -- bickering as one sits at the dinner table while the other does dishes and complains about his dishpan hands. Though they mince their ways through the rest of the movie, even holding hands at times, the characters are presented as heterosexual. At another point, they're shown sleeping in the same bed -- in a plantation mansion that surely had plenty of bedrooms.
The plot, with the boys finding themselves in the middle of a Hatfileds and McCoys-style Kentucy feud, is a bit contrived. Lines like "You dance exactly like a heifer -- I mean a zephyr!" seem lifted from the Marx Brothers, and in fact one of the supporting players is best known for her appearances as the straight woman in some Marx classics. Margaret Dumont plays the manager of an adoption agency that places young Spanky, indirectly, in the care of the vaudeville performers played by Wheeler and Woolsey. It's a shame Dumont wasn't given a more substantial part; she would have been terrific as a befuddled Southern matriarch later in the film.
The paper-thin plot won't really hold your attention, but viewed as a "film history" lesson, it's worth watching. Director George Stevens went on to much bigger and better things (including the enormous classic, Giant, also set in the South), so it's interesting to see how he handled this dull script.
A zany Vaudeville magician & his assistant become KENTUCKY
KERNELS when they try to return a small boy to his rightful
inheritance down in Plantation Country. What they don't
is that they're walking right into the hottest feud in
Wheeler & Woolsey are in top form in this funny comedy (Bert Wheeler is the short guy with curly hair; Robert Woolsey is the fellow with the spectacles & cigar.) Although largely forgotten today, they were often hilarious and always fun to watch. This time they are given powerful support from little Spanky McFarland, of the OUR GANG series, one of the greatest of all child stars. Spanky, with his penchant for glass breaking, fits right in with the goofiness that abounds in all W & W films.
What there is of the plot is simply meant to move the gags along, although opening with an attempted suicide is a bit heavy. The romantics this time - between Wheeler & Mary Carlisle - is particularly thin. Others in the cast are basso villain Noah Beery; elderly Lucille La Verne (memorable a few years later as the voice of the Witch Queen in Disney's SNOW WHITE); and always funny Willie Best, here acting under his nickname of Sleep n' Eat. The monumental Margaret Dumont is given little to do in her few scenes; one longs to see her cast as Woolsey's foil.
The Boys - all of them - sing `One Little Kiss'.
Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey were one of many comedy teams to make
it big during the early sound era. But unlike Laurel and Hardy or the
Marx Brothers, their fame has not endured and their movies are not
widely available today. Kentucky Kernels is a rare chance to see them
at their prime.
The story and screenplay are by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, the same duo who wrote many of the Marx Brothers' early hits, including Animal Crackers and Duck Soup. The fact that Kentucky Kernels features a slightly more conventional brand of humour shows how much of an influence the Marx Brothers had over their appearances. The early Marx Brothers comedies barely had any kind of story at all, because Groucho et al had such wild personalities they overshadowed the logic of plotting. By contrast Wheeler and Woolsey have slightly less exuberant comic personas and are able to work inside someone else's story. This is not a condemnation of the pair, simply an explanation of their difference in style.
Comparisons can be drawn however with other comedians of the era. Robert Woolsey has a little of Groucho in his wisecracking delivery, but also a touch of dour character actor Ned Sparks. Woolsey makes much play of his spectacles and his ever-present cigar, working these props into his aloof, confident comedy creation. Wheeler is more of the straight man, with some of the incompetent and effeminate qualities of Stan Laurel. However he is outwardly normal enough to take the part of a romantic lead in Kentucky Kernels. They are not a bad pairing, although they don't have quite the same dynamic as many of the more famous double acts.
The director for Kentucky Kernels was George Stevens, a graduate from the Hal Roach studios who would later make some very fine pictures. From the rather arty opening shots, it's clear Sevens had a burning desire to be a dramatic director. Stevens, a former cinematographer, had also worked informally as gag-man for Roach and there's no doubt he was a very funny man, but he was never actually that great a comedy director. As he always would, he doesn't stick to wide shots where you can see everything going on, and works a lot in close-up. It's a style that would work very well for him later on, but it doesn't lend itself very well to movies of this sort, as the comedy business becomes too disjointed.
The reason for Wheeler and Woolsey's lack of contemporary fame has been blamed on a number of things, a commonly cited example being their pictures not being reprised on TV in the 50s. However, it seems they weren't exactly phenomenally popular in the first place. Pictures like Kentucky Kernels would do a healthy trade, but they wouldn't get queues round the block. But all comparisons aside, this is still a fairly funny little movie. Our Gang member "Spanky" MacFarland pulls a number of cute and amusing poses. Noah Beery, a hammy version of his brother Wallace, is great fun here. Whether it comes from the writers Ruby and Kalmar, the ideas of cast members or the director, there is a cartoonishness to the humour that keeps things suitably silly. And, even though they may have been a somewhat second-rate pairing, Wheeler and Woolsey are able to provide us with a good many laughs.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It's 1934, and the Breen Office is beginning to strictly enforce the Hays Code. Originally put in place in 1930, the Code was ignored for years by Hollywood producers, who plied their audiences with immorality and vice. The audiences loved it, of course, but America's bluenoses had had it with drug use, adultery, and hints of homosexuality, and Breen began to crack down. What does this have to with Kentucky Kernels? Well, gone are Wheeler and Woolsey's nudge nudge wink wink repartee, to be replaced by broad slapstick and agonizing racial humor. The result is an unsatisfying mess, with the boys saddled with cute lil' Spanky McFarland for good measure in this tale of fussin' and feudin' in the old Confederacy. The film just doesn't have the saucy joie de vivre of the pre-Code Wheeler and Woolseys, and the presence of poor old Willie Best (here in his Sleep 'n' Eat persona) guarantees 99% of the modern day audience will find offense with this film. There are a few laughs, but you're best advised to stick with the comedy team's earlier output.
Kentucky Kernels is another Wheeler/Woolsey comedy, where they decide to adopt Spanky (the same Spanky McFarland from the "Our Gang" show.) They go down south to visit the Colonel (Noah Beery) and Aunt Hannah ( Lucille LaVerne ) and meet up with the lovely Gloria Wakefield (Mary Carlisle) and the feuding Milfords. The plot is kind of all over the place, but we do get a good dose of Wheeler and Woolsey's standup comedy act along the way. Cast includes Willie Best ( Sleep N Eat ) as Buckshot; Director George Stevens sure did some of the great ones (A Place in the Sun, Diary of Anne Frank, Gunga Din). Some other interesting film connections - Viewers will spot Margaret Dumont (as Mrs. Baxter, head of the Children Welfare League), who made all those movies with the Marx Brothers. Writers Kalmar and Ruby had also written material for the Marx Brothers. Also, Mary Carlisle and Noah Beery's brother Wallace were both in Grand Hotel in 1932. Fun comedy, but pretty wacky and zany. Made at the beginning cusp of the production code in 1934, there are quite a few scenes and jokes that show two men are living together, sleeping in the same bed, keeping house, and adopting a child... pretty far ahead of its time!
Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey get themselves stuck with little Spanky
McFarland. They're a couple of itinerant magicians and the last thing
they need is a kid. But this might be a pot of gold because Spanky just
could be the heir of the Milford estate in Kentucky.
But what the boys don't know is that in passing themselves off as Milfords as well, they're inheriting an old mountain feud with another clan called the Wakefields. Made even worse by the fact that poor Bert has fallen for Mary Carlisle the daughter of Wakefield family patriarch Noah Beery, Sr.
The boys are pretty resourceful though and the last twenty minutes or so with them, Willie Best and Spanky holding off a horde of Wakefields is pretty funny. Sad to say though that Willie Best's portrayal of Buckshot probably keeps Kentucky Kernels from having been shown too much on television for years.
Although Kentucky Kernels is funny, I'd see Abbott&Costello's Comin' Round the Mountain. A similar story without the racism.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Spanky McFarland steals the show in this one. None of the other players can hold out against him, though Wheeler and Woolsey particularly Wheeler do have a good try. Noah Beery also makes a few intensive attempts to dominate proceedings, but when all's said and done, it's Spanky McFarland who dominates the day. Mary Carlisle is wasted in a nothing role, while Margaret Dumont fares even worse. Blink and you'll miss her! It's certainly an unusual offering from Kalmar and Ruby of Three Little Words fame and director George Stevens of A Place in the Sun. In all, given all the talent employed both in front of and back of the camera, Kentucky Kernels is somewhat disappointing. Available on a Warner Archive DVD.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
That cute little rascal (Spanky McFarland) wins his way into your heart
in this likable farce with a few songs thrown in. The beginning, which
focuses on a suicidal character that fades away early in the film, is
an unfortunate start to an amusing movie which jumps to a truly
original sequence that has Wheeler and Woolsey acting like an old
married couple, arguing over Wheeler's dishpan hands and wife-like
complaints. When they adopt Spanky from orphanage agent Margaret Dumont
(in her first of two Wheeler and Woolsey films), they find themselves
responsible for him when the suicidal man they hoped to help runs off
to reunite with his wife. They travel to backwoods Kentucky where they
find themselves in a nasty family feud. Mary Carlisle takes over as the
love interest here, while Noah Beery Sr. and Lucille LaVerne are the
heads of the two clans fighting in spite of the fact that they once
loved each other.
There's plenty of corn to be had here, as well as a cute musical number ("One Little Kiss") where Spanky sings to a pooch and Woolsey sings to a mule as the others sing to their loved ones. Willie Best ("Sleep n' Eat") plays the stereotypical black servant, but instills him with humanity. Ms. LaVerne, here seen with teeth, was well known for her French Revolutionary Hags in "Orphans of the Storm" and "A Tale of Two Cities", and would provide the voice (and face) for the wicked queen/hag in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". A funny shotgun battle and chase sequence end the film, and Spanky gets in a good gag as he convinces Woolsey to end with a prank he had been pining for ever since arriving in Kentucky.
Always enjoy Wheeler & Woolsey, even if their movie output is uneven;
some are very funny, some are not so. I thought this one was pretty
funny and that it succeeds due to the professional direction of George
It is old-fashioned in that much of the humor consists of what must be old corny vaudeville jokes, sight gags and outrageous puns, all of which might not go over with today's audiences. Speaking for myself I can appreciate such antiquated antics, and I can also put into context outdated racial humor, such as found here in Willie Best's character. He plays his usual slow-talking, pop-eyed servant ("feets, do yo' duty!") by which he became famous.
Spanky McFarland was always a cute little kid and doesn't disappoint here. And this maybe the only time Noah Beery,Sr. sings on screen, and takes a turn along with everybody else singing a Kalmar-Ruby song "One Little Kiss", a very tuneful number written for this picture. Some reviewers take issue with the inane plot, about two feuding Kentucky families, but c'mon, folks. It's just a Wheeler & Woolsey comedy; were you expecting Ingmar Bergman?
Kentucky Kernels (1934)
*** (out of 4)
George Stevens directs this Wheeler and Woolsey film where the two take an adopted boy (Spanky from Our Gang) back to his relatives in Kentucky but soon finds themselves in a feud between two families. It's been hit and miss with me and these W&W films but this one here is clearly the best I've seen. The comedy ranges towards jokes about rednecks and some rather politically incorrect stuff but the duo brings some great comic timing and the added bonus of Spanky makes this a damn good comedy. There's some wonderful gags including a horse accidentally drinking moonshine and another scene where W&W try and talk themselves out of a speeding ticket. The jokes aimed at the Southern families work very well and Spanky steals the show with each scene that he's in. The running joke is that he likes to break windows so there's plenty of that going on. There's also a large shoot out at the end, which looks to have more bullets flying than any of Warner's gangster pictures. The film borrows a lot of Keaton's Our Hospitality but works well on its own.
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