Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Incredible and Incredibly Funny Wiere Brothers

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Harry, Herbert, and Sylvester Wiere

When I want to sound old, I like to tell the youngins about how it wasn't always quite so easy to study the work of the classic physical comedians. I'm talkin' back in the day, before YouTube, before the internet, before DVDs and CD-ROMs, yes even before our obscure heroes showed up on VHS. Yep, in the 1970s, we'd have to wait for one of the movie revival houses in Manhattan to run an annual festival of the works of Keaton or Lloyd or Chaplin. We'd go to the Elgin (now the Joyce) and study Keaton's shorts like the Holy Grail. And when I say we, I mean it seemed like half the clowns in NYC were in the audience, worshipping and taking notes.

Nowadays so much of our great tradition is at our fingertips, although a lot of young performers remain inexplicably, almost willfully, ignorant of most of it. But the best thing is that there are constant discoveries of great work from the vaudeville stage, silent film, the circus ring, and early television. Film footage sits in archives and private collections unnoticed, only to resurface decades or even a century later. It's almost as if we're living in 1917 and experiencing the original release of these works.

Which brings me to a new find, not quite so ancient, but decidedly vintage. And brilliant. Wolfe Browart turned me onto the Wiere Brothers, thank you very much, and I liked them so much I had to do me some more snooping. They were Harry Vetter (1906–1992), Herbert Vetter (1908-1999), and Sylvester Vetter (1909–1970). Growing up in a  show business family in Central Europe, they first performed together in the 1920s and became a big success on the variety stage. In 1937 they moved to the U.S. to escape the deteriorating situation in Europe, and it was thanks to their appearance here in a handful of movies and tv variety shows that we can still enjoy their work. Before I retrace their career for you, here's part of a performance from 1951 to get you started.

As you can see, we might label them "eccentric comedians." They are certainly part of the semi-absurdist "crazy comedy" tradition most often identified with the Marx Brothers, but well represented as well by the Ritz Brothers, the Slate Brothers, the Runaway Four, Olsen & Johnson (Helzapoppin'), and the British Crazy Gang, with a thru-line from there to the Goon Show, the Benny Hill Show, and Monty Python (minus a lot of the physicality, alas).

This combination of dry wit, eccentric dance, and hat manipulation can be seen in everything they did, but as you will see they grew as comedians over the decades without losing any of their physical chops. Most of the clips I've gathered repeat many of the same bits, but there are enough new wrinkles to warrant this little retrospective.

The earliest clip I have of the brothers is from July, 1931, a time when British Pathé was producing a series of film shorts, including documenting variety acts—thank you very much!— by filming them in their studio. There was no audience for these shoots, which makes any comedy act kind of strange, but at least we have the footage.

Also from Pathé, here they are two years later as "The Treble Tappers."

After coming to the U.S. in 1937, they were seen in two films that year, Variety Hour and Vogues of 1938 (later re-released as All This and Glamour Too!), but I haven't been able to find copies of either. But four years later they appear in The Great American Broadcast as one of the "specialties" alongside the equally amazing (but better known) Nicholas Brothers and the Four Ink Spots. The two Wiere Brothers numbers in the movie show just how far they had evolved as comedians. Here they are as "The Stradivarians."

And from the same movie, a very clever musical spoof of a cheese commercial. It being a radio commercial didn't stop them from doing a couple of visual gags!

These guys are funny, right?

Others may have noticed as well, which would be why they were cast in actual roles in Road to Rio (1947) as musical sidekicks to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. I admit to not yet  having watched every minute of the movie, but Hope and Crosby are stranded in Rio and are desperate to sell their "American" musical group to the local night club, even if they have to pretend that the Wiere Brothers are American. The brothers were actually born in Berlin (Harry), Vienna (Herbert), and Prague (Sylvester), but here they are Spanish-speaking musicians  —I guess this was before Brazilians started speaking Portuguese— who don't speak English but are supposed to.  The hiring scene:

The whole language thing doesn't go too well:
And now my favorite scene! Bob, Bing, and the boys are unceremoniously booted out, which leads to this wonderful hat scene that deftly showcases the comedic talents of all the performers, (Play all the way to end!)

Throughout these years, the brothers were headlining at night clubs across the land, but their next recorded performance looks to be this one on the Ford Festival television program in 1951. The finale of their act is what I showed you in the clip at the top of this post (the one-minute waltz), but here's the whole appearance:

The fifties and sixties saw appearances by the brothers in a variety of tv variety shows, including Colgate Comedy Hour, Ed Sullivan (twice), Perry Como, Dinah Shore, Gary Moore, Hollywood Palace, and Laugh-In, as well as in an Elvis Presley movie. Here they are with Jerry Lewis, reprising many of their old bits.

 Intriguingly, in 1960 they were given their own tv show. Only thirteen episodes were filmed, and these weren't broadcast until 1962. Other than this opening-credit clip, I haven't found any trace of this, not even at the Paley Center (museum of broadcasting). Unfortunately, it is likely that any kinescopes have long since been discarded or copied over.

The act broke up after Sylvester died in 1970 —after nearly a half-century in show business—but Harry and Herbert lived into the 1990s.

If I (or you!) ever find anything more worth sharing, there'll be another post!


DAI said...

Great stuff!!thanks, John for all the research. You are so right--it seems like 'in the day' we had to turn the world upside down to find sources for fizcom that wasn't in easy-to-find movies or already on tv. My favorite of all these--and I watched them all--is the "minute waltz" bit--its goofy quotient is really high! Will share it with my students next week........THANKS!

jt said...

I like all the dance formations, several of the hat tricks, and the hats with Hope & Crosby.