“Kentucky Kernels” (1934)
by A.J. Hakari
There are few greater cinematic crapshoots than popping in a vintage comedy. I’ve seen Abbott and Costello flicks that are absolute gems, and I’ve seen ones that are like pulling teeth. Buster Keaton is a genre legend, but some of his sound era shorts are awful and embarrassing. But I haven’t met the schtick yet that I wouldn’t sit through at least once, which is where 1934’s Kentucky Kernels comes in. My pal Brian Saur recently clued me into the existence of Wheeler & Woolsey, a team of funnymen I’d actually never heard of before. Kentucky Kernels came recommended as a good introduction to their weird world of madcap antics and whatnot, and having now seen it, I can report that its appealingly cornball gags and one-liners will have you groaning out loud in a good way.
Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey play Willie and Elmer, two vaudeville magicians who’ve fallen on the hardest of times. With no demand for their act anymore, the guys try their hand at the fishing trade, where the next hour and fifteen minutes’ worth of shenanigans begins to snowball. Through a series of complicated events, Willie and Elmer end up in charge of Spanky Milford (Spanky McFarland, of Our Gang fame), a chubby little orphan with an uncanny talent for vandalism. As it turns out, Spanky is the heir to a sprawling Kentucky plantation, to which Willie and Elmer are glad to accompany him (and mooch off of, naturally). But the boys may not live to enjoy their riches, for the neighboring Wakefield family is locked in a feud against the Milfords, and a bespectacled blowhard and his wimpy sidekick aren’t about to put an end to their bloodlust anytime soon.
Kentucky Kernels came in the middle of a brief but rather busy film career for Wheeler & Woolsey, consisting of over twenty features and shorts from 1929 to 1937. Like their characters here, the pair started out on the stage, bringing with them now-classic archetypes: Wheeler as the well-meaning innocent, and Woolsey as the fast-talking, cigar-chomping shyster who regularly led them to trouble. With an act like that, you won’t have any difficulty figuring out how Kentucky Kernels will play out, but that doesn’t mean the movie is without any pluck, energy, or (most importantly) good jokes. The flick has a wonderful, carefree attitude about itself, not so much that it wholly abandons the notion of a plot but enough so that nothing’s taken that seriously. Kentucky Kernels is easygoing but on target, frivolous fun that doesn’t let the story’s busywork drown out its leads the way many Abbott and Costello outings unfortunately did.
Though there’s not much of a narrative in the first place, Kentucky Kernels has remarkably few moments where it feels hung up on having to play out a skit to kill time. Wheeler & Woolsey make fast work of supplying zinger after zinger (“If I hear one more word about your mother…” “You leave my mother out of this!” “That suits me!”); though they’re at each others’ throats, you’re always assured that they’ll be buddies at the end of the day. Not all of the humor works (Willie Best’s servant is cringingly dated), but chuckles come steady more often than, most surprisingly from pint-sized hellraiser Spanky, who’s never without a hammer or rock summoned from thin air. The finale is a veritable flood of chaos, in which Willie and Elmer get caught in the middle of a Milford/Wakefield shootout (by which Spanky couldn’t be more entertained).
There’s not much room for farces like Kentucky Kernels in today’s comedic cinema, which is mostly ruled by frat boys and bros who think cursing up a storm is all the routine they need. It’s not a genre watermark by any means, but its timing is terrific, and the rapport between its headliners is great fun to watch. Kentucky Kernels left me with a doofy smile, and when I delve into the Wheeler/Woolsey wheelhouse at a future date, getting it to reappear will be a piece of cake.