Dueling Divas: Double Trouble Down in Dixie
January 31, 2015
This piece is my contribution to the 4th Annual Dueling Divas Blogathon hosted by Lara at Backlots. Please visit her site to read more of the fantastic entries.
*I'm also bending the boundaries on this one. Instead of Dueling Divas, the below is more like Dualing Dudes.
Rags Ragland certainly had his hands full filming Whistling in Dixie (1942). After getting a taste of bad boy Sylvester in 1941's Whistling in the Dark, Ragland took on double duty in the sequel, playing Sylvester and his twin, Chester. Since Ragland tackled both characters, the brothers of course look identical, but they also happen to share one other similarity: a dangerous streak which has put both behind bars before. To make matters more confusing, Ragland proclaims early on, in the role of Chester, that as children the boys were mistaken for each other, so he replies to Sylvester and Sylvester answers to Chester.
Sounds simple enough to keep straight, no?
The middle child of MGM’s Whistling series (1941-1943), Whistling in Dixie takes eternally petrified crime-solving radio host Wally "The Fox" Benton (Red Skelton) down to the deep South. The trip isn't exactly a willing one, of course, but rather prompted by Wally's co-star/forever fiancé Carol Lambert (Ann Rutherford). Carol receives an SOS in the mail from one of her sorority sisters - in bug form, no less - and hears that there’s been a murder, so the couple head down to Dixie to investigate. While they're at it, they figure they’ll get hitched too; after all, Wally needs a vacation and Carol is dying to get that marriage license signed.
Being a Red Skelton comedy, it won’t be as easy as all that. First of all, Georgia has a five day waiting period for marriages, so…they’ll be there for a little bit. Luckily, they'll find that there's plenty to keep them busy while they're down south.
Priorities. Welcome to Dixie, Wally and Carol.
Wally and Carol are greeted by Judge George Lee (Guy Kibbee), his daughter Hattie Lee (Celia Travers), and Carol's friend Ellamae Downs (Diana Lewis), the Judge's niece. Both women proclaim their love for one Martin Gordon (Mark Daniels), who was apparently murdered...but then his body disappeared, so no one is really sure what's going on.
While investigating this suspicious sounding 'murder,' the couple just so happen to uncover a hunt for hidden treasure in the form of 19th century English gold coins stashed beneath useless Confederate money. Apparently, Martin knew where the dough was hidden, which is why the attempt was made on his life. While trying to retrieve the gold and solve the puzzle of the missing Martin, Wally stumbles upon a variety of duplicitous relationships; those on the hunt for the treasure range from shady Sheriff Claude Stagg (George Bancroft) to law man Frank Bailie (Peter Whitney) to perhaps even the Judge himself. Plus, what's a mystery without the hero overcoming a few dangerous stakes and odds? To that end, Wally and his crew find themselves trapped in a flooded concrete room with the water level steadily rising. Will they find a way out in time to catch the perpetrator AND save their own lives?
Well, in hindsight, we know there’s a third movie, so there’s your answer to the second part of that question.
The Dual Role
Even in a film filled with Red Skelton's clown-like antics, one of the biggest sight gags in Whistling in Dixie is the dual role played by Rags Ragland. Ragland counted stints as a boxer, burlesque comedian, and Broadway actor before he ventured into the film industry, working mainly for MGM beginning in 1941, and traits from each of those professions are certainly evident in his characterizations of Chester and Sylvester.
Early on, Wally recognizes his old acquaintance from 1941's Whistling in the Dark, Sylvester (Rags Ragland #1), now working as a chauffeur for the Judge. He does a double take when he catches his picture in the paper: Sylvester was just sentenced to 13 years in prison!
He looks kind of familiar, doesn't he, Wally?
Yes, yes he does! But that's his brother, Chester (Rags Ragland), at the wheel with Carol (Ann Rutherford) by his side. In the back: Hattie (Celia Travers), Wally (Red Skelton), and the Judge (Guy Kibbee).
No, wait a minute: that's not Sylvester, it's his twin, Chester, who's been paroled into the Judge's custody. Yes, besides identical physical features, the brothers share a relationship with the prison system, Chester explains, but he's trying to reform. It's brother Sylvester who got caught up with the mob and is serving 13 years in jail (well, that's what Chester thinks).
Chester is quick to defend himself against Wally when the radio sleuth does a double take after seeing Sylvester's picture in the paper, but everyone else in the car causally acknowledges that Chester's a criminal (they aren’t aware of his more dangerous twin). Still, Wally's not convinced, so he tries to trick Chester and ends up even more confused:
Wally: Well, get in the car Sylvester.
Wally: Ah, so you admit your name is Sylvester!
Chester: I don't admit it - I just answer to it!
Wally: I don't get it.
Chester: Well look, originally I was Sylvester and Sylvester was Chester. The hospital got mixed up. Chester became Sylvester and I became Chester. People still call Sylvester Chester and me Sylvester. So to save trouble, I answer to the name Sylvester and Sylvester answers to the name Chester. You understand?
They do look a bit alike...
Ragland's performance of each character emphasizes their dissimilar nature: in the guise of Sylvester, Ragland sneaks around, stealing clothes to pass as Chester to intentionally hide his real identity. Sylvester doesn't think twice about using violence if it means getting his hands on that dough. On the other hand, Ragland's portrayal of Chester exaggerates the character's attempt to rehabilitate his image. This tendency is most obvious during the finale, as Wally continually punches Chester as retribution for Sylvester's treatment of him. Chester's response each time (in some variation): "I was only trying to be friendly!"
Given that Chester and Sylvester don't represent the main characters of the story, the brothers aren't very well developed beyond their respective good and evil traits. Thankfully, they don't really need to be, because their main objective in the story is to screw with Wally's head. In that mission, I must say Ragland was quite successful. In fact, two of the film’s zaniest sequences center around the Chester/Sylvester mix-up and how it hilariously messes with Wally. The first scene features superbly framed action set up around the fact that Sylvester has now entered the picture. After escaping jail and asking a child where the Judge's house is, (Sylvester: "I can't seem to find Judge Lee's house tonight. Do you know where it is? Boy: "Did they done moved it?" ), Sylvester heads for the mansion.
Sylvester slips into the kitchen just as Wally, Carol, and Chester rush to the adjacent dining room to find Ellamae and Hattie fighting over a gun. Wally attempts to break up the fight, but Ellamae goes down. Carol swoops in to take over brawling duties as Wally props Ellamae up on a chair and asks Chester to grab some brandy for her while he takes care of the girls.
Love this shot: Wally, Chester, a passed out Ellmae (Diana Lewis), and a brawling Carol and Hattie. Nothing to see here.
This request triggers a comical merry-go-round between Wally, Chester, and Sylvester that is frequently interrupted by the girls. Wally starts it off: he's hit while trying to part the ladies, and he staggers into the kitchen, stunned. There, he spots a surprised Sylvester changing his outfit through an open doorway. Wally: "It's a fine time to be changing clothes! Hey, never mind that brandy, get me an ice bag!" Sylvester, confused at first, recognizes Wally from their previous meeting (in Whistling in Dixie) and assumes the role of Chester. Wally stumbles back into the dining room, where the real Chester cheerfully meets him with brandy. Wally: "You certainly get around, don't you?...I told you to get me an ice bag!" After a quick back and forth, Chester agrees to change the request. Wally throws the bottle into passed out Ellamae's lap ("Hold this, will you, while I take care of these Amazons"), and he attempts to part Carol and Hattie a second time. Once again, he's on the receiving end of a punch and wobbles into the kitchen, hitting the hidden Sylvester. Dazed, Sylvester staggers out, prompting Wally to remark: "How'd you get drunk so quick? Come on, snap out of it and get me that ice bag!"
Sylvester wasn't expecting a knock on the head, and Wally wasn't expecting to see that face again so soon.
Wally turns on his heel and walks out - right in to Chester, who can't find the ice bag! Now he's thoroughly confused: "You...you...you're in there!" Meanwhile, Carol and Hattie, still doggedly going after each other for that gun, barrel through them. Chester: "Don't you think we ought to do something about those dames?" Wally: "No, later. They can take care of themselves for a while." Clearly, they're doing just fine. Wally swings open the kitchen door again to double check his eyesight - and his sanity - once again, hitting the hiding Sylvester a second time. Of course, he doesn't see anyone and turns back to face Chester. Wally: "Look, if you're not in there... I must be crazy! I don't get it." And then a beat: "Girls, that's enough!" It certainly is, as the gun goes off at that very moment, finally parting the girls and ending the sequence.
Wally, this time with Chester. You can tell by Wally's face that things are getting a little screwy.
The second sequence unfolds in a similar ring-around-the-rosey madcap fashion, though this one is more action packed, as it coincides with the film’s finale. Wally, Carol, and Sylvester (who switched places with Chester after the group was freed from the flooded room) have found where the bad guy stashed the money and his hostage, the still-alive Martin: a dilapidated barn-like loft space. After a lengthy and comical brawl between Sylvester, Carol, Wally, and the perpetrator, only Carol and Wally remain standing.
As Carol continues to rough up the bad guy, Wally remarks: "I can see who's gonna be the boss in our family!" Damn straight, Wally.
After Sylvester comes to, Wally tasks him with babysitter duties while he and Carol race up the loft ladder to rescue Martin. As soon as they take off, Sylvester immediately pounces on his charge, demanding to know where the money is. Just so happens that's upstairs too! Sylvester runs up the ladder to find Wally and Carol untying Martin. Wally: "Hey Chester, one of us has got to stay downstairs!" Sylvester: "Well, it might as well be you!" Wally's stunned by a punch from Sylvester, which sends him flying backwards down the stairs. And who walks in to pluck Wally from the ground at that very moment? Chester, of course. Chester: "What happened?" Wally: "Oh nothing...this is the way it happened!" Cue punch. Wally, 1. Chester, 0.
Chester: Gee, Mr. Benton. I'm just trying to be helpful!
Wally: Well, you're trying a little too hard.
Back upstairs, Sylvester carries a kicking and screaming Carol to a nearby closet to lock her inside so he can continue stealing the loot. Downstairs, Wally tells Chester to stay put while he returns to rescue Martin and free Carol from the closet. Sylvester enters the room again right when Wally releases Carol, and Carol, pissed that Sylvester locked her in the closet, attacks him. Wally: "Hey, let him alone, he's just trying to be helpful." He sure is! Sylvester takes the opportunity to punch Wally again, kick-starting a pattern of Wally getting knocked down the stairs-Chester helping Wally up-Wally punching Chester-Sylvester locking Carol in the closet -Wally rescuing Carol (Wally: "If you don't like it in there, why do you keep going in?").
Sylvester sneaking back in to steal the money. Don't even try to explain it, Carol.
After Wally is punched by Sylvester upstairs during the final round, he returns the favor, knocking Sylvester out of the open wall area down to the first level of the barn. Sylvester grabs onto a nearby rope as he falls, which is actually a pulley that Chester accidently gets hooked to on the ground. As Sylvester falls, Chester is propelled up to the opening on the loft level, where he is delivered right into Wally's waiting fist (Wally: "I just hit you!"...What is this guy, a yo-yo?"). The scene continues in true yo-yo fashion as both brothers take turns getting socked by Wally, who miraculously still doesn't know there are two of them!
Chester and Sylvester are hooked on opposite ends of the rope. Wally just punches whoever lands on the loft.
Eventually, both men end up in the loft, and for the first time, Wally gets a look at the brothers. Still dazed, Carol coolly explains it to him: "There's two of them. That's Chester, and Sylvester is stealing the money!" Sylvester takes off, but before Wally goes after him, he steals a smudge of Carol's lipstick to make a mark on Chester's head: "I can't go through this again!" Good thinking Wally, but that plan is destined to get messed up, and it does: Chester throws himself on top of Sylvester and butts heads with him, transferring part of the mark to his face.
Now who's who, Wally?!
Though the dual characters don't play a starring role in Whistling in Dixie, Sylvester and Chester certainly provide most of the entertainment, particularly during the above two scenes. Fun fact: Ragland played a part in each of the three Whistling movies, but it's only in the Dixie edition that he took on dual roles. He portrayed each character separately in the other two films: Sylvester in Whistling in the Dark and Chester in 1943's Whistling in Brooklyn.
I promise this has a happy ending.
Whistling in Dixie is part of the 3 disc Whistling Collection DVD set from Warner Archive.