If you are not familiar with the comedy duo of Wheeler and Woolsey, you are probably not alone. The pair were a vaudeville act turned film comedy duo for about a ten year span in the 1920s and 1930s. During that time, their films (which were mostly musicals) were a big hit for home studio RKO, but Woolsey’s death in 1938 halted the works and Wheeler could never achieve the same level of popularity without his partner and foil. Though they were certainly popular during that time period, their names and films would not make the lasting impression that other comedy duos (Laurel & Hardy, Abbot & Costello, Hope & Crosby), would.
So if you’ve never heard of Bert Wheeler and Robert “Bob” Woolsey, it’s almost a given that you have not heard of their right hand gal, Dorothy Lee. I know I hadn’t.
When I came across this biography, Dorothy Lee: The Life and Films of the Wheeler and Woolsey Girl by Jamie Brotherton and Ted Okuda, I could not tell a Wheeler from a Woolsey and had never heard of Dorothy Lee. I was, however, very into collecting biographies about film stars who I had never heard of in order to learn about them so this one found its way into my Amazon cart.
Since that time I have read and re-read it to the point where my copy could only be marked as “used” if I ever planned to sell it (I don’t).
The authors Brotherton and Okuda were inspired to write this biography because they had gotten to know Lee in her later years and had formed a friendship with her. Their insight into her character and life adds an extra layer of depth while never appearing gushy or fawning. Because the authors knew Dorothy, the book is loaded with quotes and memories from the lady herself.
Dorothy Lee was a petite, blond dynamo whose singing and dancing abilities caught the eye of Bert Wheeler who thought she would make a suitable love interest for his character in Wheeler and Woolsey’s film Rio Rita. From there, a lifelong friendship and film trio gold was born. Dorothy Lee appeared in the majority of the 21 films Wheeler and Woolsey made together, more so than any other actor or actress, earning her the moniker of the “Wheeler and Woolsey girl.” Though their films were plot-predictable with cute, effervescent Lee almost always appearing as the love interest of bumbling, wide-eyed Wheeler while calculating, bespectacled Woolsey wisecracked while chomping on a cigar, they still drew crowds with laughs and fun musical numbers.
The book goes into great detail of both her private life (her 6 marriages, her toy dog collection, her thoughts on friend Thelma Todd’s death, etc.) and the behind the scenes aspects of her films, including Dorothy’s role in choreographing some of the truly brilliant comedic dance numbers. She was quite athletic and took great pride in creating cute, fun, and physical routines (usually with Wheeler) full of stunts.
The book is chock full of photos (it passed my litmus test; there is a photo on nearly every other page) in a well balanced mix of subject matter, on set and off.
Since reading this book, and thanks to it, I have watched several Wheeler and Woolsey films (my husband got me the compilation for Mother’s Day because he’s the best and appreciates a goofy dance number when he sees one) and can’t help but laugh through each one. Nearly 100 years later, Wheeler and Woolsey’s brand of comedy and their girl Friday, Dorothy Lee, still hold up and I can thank this book for introducing me to them.