(Universal Studios Home Entertainment; 2012)
When I was a kid, Friday night television was filled with THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL and the late night “chiller theater,” an old (usually black and white), cheaply produced and horribly acted horror or sci-fi movie. Saturday and Sunday afternoon television was filled with old movie series (such things would be called “franchises” today) from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s: The Bowery Boys (the third incarnation of the Leo Gorcey/Huntz Hall act, we were also gifted with earlier versions the Dead End Kids and the East Side Kids), Tarzan (of the Johnny Weissmuller variety, though we would occasionally get a Ron Ely or some other latter day Ape Man), Ma and Pa Kettle, Francis the Talking Mule and – of course – Abbott and Costello.
Recently, I’ve been revisiting my youth by procuring (and spending way too much time watching) DVD collections of some of my favorite comedies. The horror and sci-fi fix comes from two places: those DVD collections of 50 movies for super cheap prices (mostly dubious prints of even more dubious titles) and my friend, Cap’n Willard over at www.willardswormholes.com, who somehow finds (for the most part) superior prints of those same schlocky, crappy movies I loved as a kid and offers a weekly dose of “Friday Night Drive-In Movies.” Check it out… you’ll love it! Anyway, those comedies (and sometimes the Japanese monster movies) had me rolling when I was a kid and they have the same affect on me now. No vulgarities, no pretensions, no color… just good, clean yucks.
So, apparently, THE BEST OF BUD ABBOTT AND LOU COSTELLO, VOLUME 1 has actually been around for a few years, but the version I have is a reissued set. Everything is the same, movie and bonus feature-wise, but I guess the packaging is a little different and, rather than two discs with 2 movies on each side, we have four one-sided discs with 2 movies apiece.
The collection starts – as it should – at the beginning, with Bud and Lou’s first film appearance in 1940’s ON NIGHT IN THE TROPICS. The Vaudevillians are not the “stars” of this film; they are billed third, below Allen Jones and Nancy Kelly, though fourth-billed Robert Cummings actually has more screen time and is more integral to the actual story than the comedians. That story involves impending nuptials, a jealous former lover, an insurance policy and a pair of “adjusters” charged with getting the groom to the church on time. A weird premise, to be sure, but one that works in that loopy 1940s Hollywood way. I understand that some 20 minutes of the story was cut to give more onscreen time for Abbott and Costello to perform some of their more famous Vaudeville bits (including “Who’s On First”). That, obviously, leaves some gaping holes in the plot that gives the flick a disjointed, unfinished feel. My question is, “Why, for Heaven’s sake, didn’t they cut a musical number or two or that incredibly strange production number at the end of the movie instead?” Studio thinking back then was that a lighthearted comedic script, no matter how well written, couldn’t carry a feature film alone and – even with musical diversions – definitely couldn’t hold an audience’s interest for more than 90 minutes (ONE NIGHT… clocks in at a whopping 82 minutes!). Read on and you’ll find, as I did, that those annoying musical numbers were there for a reason beyond studio incompetence.
The first star vehicle for Bud and Lou came via 1941’s BUCK PRIVATES, the first of three military themed flicks by the boys. Slicker Smith (Bud) and Herbie Brown (Lou) are a couple of small-time swindlers, selling fake (or maybe stolen) silk ties on the streets. To avoid the cop who busted them, the pair duck into what they think is a line for a movie and end up enlisting in the miliary. When they get to boot camp, they meet up with the police officer again, this time as their no-nonsense drill instructor. This is a plot that worked more than once for the Three Stooges and it works just as well here. Of course, there’s still plenty of music, provided by the Andrew Sisters (the first of three appearances in Abbott and Costello features). The film may be most famous for premiering the Sisters’ biggest hit, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” Once and future Stooge Shemp Howard makes the first of several appearances with our duo, as an Army cook. The movie was the second highest grossing movie of the year (behind only SERGEANT YORK), causing Universal to stop production on the duo’s next film, HOLD THAT GHOST in favor of another military film, IN THE NAVY. Having conquered Vaudeville, Abbott and Costello had now conquered Hollywood and had become the biggest comedy stars of the day!
IN THE NAVY finds our heroes protecting the identity of America’s heartthrob crooner, Russ Raymond (Dick Powell), who just wants to be left alone for awhile. When Raymond joins the Navy to travel as far away from his fans as he can get, the boys follow. So does a journalist (played by Claire Dodd) who has promised her editor to find and photograph the singer for the tabloid she works for. Lou’s character, Pomeroy Watson, has a huge crush on Patty Andrews of the singing sister act and writes her to tell her that he’s a big shot in the Navy. With Smokey Adams’ (that’d be Bud) help, Pomeroy convinces Patty and her sisters that he is the captain of a ship heading to Hawaii and – of course – hilarity ensues. As improbable as the entire sequence appeared, the United States Navy wasn’t amused and the whole thing had to be presented as a dream after Pomeroy gives himself the mickey planned for the real captain. More songs, more dance, more Shemp (this time a Navy cook) and more bits from Bud and Lou’s Vaudeville routines, including the hilarious 7×13=28 sequence. Not the pair’s best, but still fun.
HOLD THAT GHOST (the third Abbott and Costello feature of 1941!), along with WHO DONE IT?, are my personal favorites on this collection. While the guys were making IN THE NAVY, an earlier version of this film (then called OH! CHARLIE!) was screened for test audiences. It didn’t fare too well, apparently, as most of the audience members asked, “Where are the Andrew Sisters?” Once IN THE NAVY wrapped, Abbott and Costello re-shot parts of the film and added wrap around nightclub scenes, featuring the Andrew Sisters and monotone vocalist/band leader Ted Lewis. I guess good things happen when you listen to your audience… the film just missed the top 10 that year, finishing as the 11th highest money-maker. The plot revolves around the boys’ inheritance of an old speakeasy owned by a mobster. Lou’s scenes with comedienne Joan Davis (including a dance routine to “The Blue Danube Waltz”) are great and we are introduced to Costello’s famous “Oh, Chuck!” bit. A classic, with or without the musical numbers. By the way, in case you’re curious, Shemp’s back – this time as a soda jerk.
Universal again pushed back production of another film (RIDE ‘EM COWBOY) to further capitalize on the military-themed success of BUCK PRIVATES and IN THE NAVY, opting instead to go with the weakest of Bud and Lou’s early output (again, released in 1941), KEEP ‘EM FLYING. The plot’s fairly thin and the story’s weak as the pair follow their barnstorming stunt pilot buddy into the Army Air Corps (the United States Air Force didn’t split from the Army until 1947). Both Shemp Howard and the Andrew Sisters are gone, but Martha Raye, playing twin waitresses in a USO-run diner, has several funny scenes with Costello.
With RIDE ‘EM COWBOY, the team are once again in trouble with their boss and decide to hide out at a dude ranch. Lou has a local Indian after him to marry his daughter and a scene with the Indian in the bunkhouse is pretty funny. Less music this time but, thankfully, some of that music is provided by Ella Fitzgerald, including “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” Five movies in little over a year has obviously taken a toll; while not as bad as KEEP ‘EM FLYING, this one sure ain’t no HOLD THAT GHOST!
The pair were “loaned out” to MGM Studios for their next film, RIO RITA and, since this collection comes to us from Universal Studios, it isn’t included. Their next Universal movie, PARDON MY SARONG, finds Bud and Lou as Chicago bus drivers who get in trouble when they drive a playboy yachtsman (played by Robert Paige) and his lady friends across country to an event in California. The Chicago Transit Authority don’t usually take to kindly to those sorts of things and this is no exception. A warrant is issued and Detective Kendall (William Demarest at his exasperated best) tracks the boys down. Kendall arrests the pair, which leads to a great bit on a ferry… the hilarious “Go ahead and back up” routine. Bud, Lou and the playboy (and his antagonistic love interest) end up on an island with native girls, a jealous suitor and a villainous doctor (exquisitely portrayed by Lionel Atwill). The Ink Spots appear in a nightclub scene, as do a dance troupe called Tip, Tap and Toe. The trio do a gravity defying slip and slide routine that, while it adds nothing to the story, is fun to watch. Later, on the island, the natives perform a ceremonial dance that looks (and sounds) more like a Busby Berkeley production number. Still… all in all, PARDON MY SARONG is a definite step up from the last two films.
This collection ends with WHO DONE IT?, the first Abbott and Costello movie to not feature musical numbers. The pair are wannabe mystery writers, working as soda jerks in a broadcasting company building. There’s a real murder during the broadcast of a radio show called “Murder At Midnight” and Bud and Lou set out to solve the crime, thinking that doing so will prove that they can write believable murder mysteries. Mary Wickes is funny as a secretary wooed by Costello’s character, Mervin Q Milgrim; William Gargan is a no-nonsense police detective and William Bendix plays his bumbling assistant. There are a lot of funny bits involving Lou and an elevator operator, played by Walter Tetley. The roof-top scene that ends the flick is one of the more clever wrap-ups of any of these early Abbott and Costello vehicles. WHO DONE IT? Is the duo’s best film since HOLD THAT GHOST and it is these two that get the most play around my house.
Costing somewhere between 10 and 15 dollars (depending on where and how you buy it), THE BEST OF BUD ABBOTT AND LOU COSTELLO, VOLUME 1 is well worth the investment. You can’t go wrong with these classics… especially at this price! Now, I’m off to find the second volume in this collection. (DT)