Thursday, March 25, 2004

“I’m a baaaaaaaad boy…”

Last night, I decide to temporarily abandon old-time radio for a brief respite and kick back with some movies on the DVD player. (My night off from work, you see.) Some time ago, I purchased a copy of The Best of Abbott and Costello Volume 1, an outstanding 2-DVD set from Universal that contains the first eight Bud & Lou feature films: One Night in the Tropics, Buck Privates, In the Navy, Hold That Ghost, Keep ‘Em Flying, Ride ‘Em Cowboy, Pardon My Sarong and Who Done It? I commend the folks at Universal for finally releasing these classic comedies to DVD, and in a package that’s easy on the wallet. Of course, when you slim down the collection to two DVDs, you’re naturally going to lose a lot of the fancy-shmancy extras—but I’m not the kind of DVD buyer who buys discs just to hear some director who’s in love with the sound of his own voice describe what lens he used during the making of a film. (As my friend Leslie Talbot of Singular Existence would say: “John Frankenheimer, I’m talking to you!” Of course, I have to talk a little louder than normal—since he’s since shuffled off this mortal coil.)

I first treated myself to Hold That Ghost (1941), which has always been in a tight-race with Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) as my all-time favorite Bud & Lou romp. (The rest of the top five: Who Done It? (1942), The Time of Their Lives (1946) and Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951).) It’s really difficult to choose sometimes; A&C Meet Frankenstein is a true classic of horror and comedy, and so is Hold That Ghost—but Ghost was made early on in the team’s career, and there’s a verve and refreshing energy to their performances in this movie and others that unfortunately began to dissipate with each successive film, once the two comics became genuinely bored with the filmmaking process. The plot is pretty thin: Bud and Lou inherit a roadhouse from a deceased gambler and are forced to spend the night in the ramshackle joint along with Richard Carlson, Evelyn Ankers and Joan Davis—unbeknownst to them, some no-good bad guys are attempting to scare them away.

There are so many wonderful bits in this movie, but of course the classic is the “Moving Candle” gag, in which Lou becomes paralyzed with fright when he sees a candle moving on its own power (“Oh Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Chuck!!!”). This routine generated so much laughter among audiences that each successive A&C film always made sure to include a scene in which Costello was scared out of his wits. There’s also a classic “ballet” with Lou and Joan Davis (I think this is one of Davis’ finest hours, and it’s a pity that she didn’t appear in more A&C films—she would have been ideal in the Mary Wickes role in Who Done It?, for example) and a rib-tickling sequence (also repeated in the many movies to follow) in which Costello’s bedroom keeps transforming into a gambling den but when he goes to get Bud to show him, the room has changed back.

Many of the Abbott & Costello films suffer from a lot of unnecessary musical number padding—but the songs in Hold That Ghost (from Ted Lewis—“Is everybody happy?”—and the Andrews Sisters) blend in pretty well. (The Andrews Sisters’ numbers were, however, grafted onto the movie as a result of their popular appearances in the A&C films Buck Privates and In the Navy.) Add a terrific cast of great supporting players: Mischa Auer, Marc Lawrence, Shemp Howard (as a soda jerk), Russell Hicks and Thurston Hall; and a great comic script from Robert Rees, Fred Rinaldo and longtime A&C jokemeister John Grant, and I think you’ll see why Hold That Ghost is a real winner.

After Ghost, I decided to watch Keep ‘Em Flying (1941)—a comedy that I hadn’t seen in a long while, and…well, the bloom is sort of off the rose on this one. I think Bud & Lou’s best military vehicle is their first, Buck Privates (1941), and anything after that great film kind of pales in comparison. (I also don’t care for In the Navy that much, either.) There are some good moments in Flying, though—Martha Raye has a lot of the best scenes playing twins, and she’s involved in a really funny gag in which she kisses Lou while he’s holding a sandwich, turning to bread to toast. There’s a sequence in an amusement park haunted fun house that, as I stated earlier, was put there just to let Costello do his scared shtick, but it does produce a laugh-out-loud dialogue exchange (Bud: “Remember, every time you enter a saloon—the Devil goes with you.” Lou: “Well, if he does—he buys his own drinks.”). Keep 'Em Flying does benefit from a good supporting cast, including Dick Foran (in his second of three A&C vehicles), Carol Bruce and William Gargan (star of radio’s Barry Craig, Confidential Investigator).

I finished up the A&C marathon with Ride ‘Em Cowboy (1942), which is to me one of their more underrated pictures. Bud and Lou are two peanut vendors who go West along with Foran, he plays a Western pulp writer named “Bronco Bob” Mitchell who’s actually never been west of the Hudson River. There are some extremely funny gags in this one, including one of their classic burlesque bits, “Crazy House” plus a great chase sequence and a sprightly supporting cast—Anne Gwynne, Johnny Mack Brown (!), Ella Fitzgerald (who sings her big hit “A Tisket, A Tasket”), the Merry Macs and Douglass Dumbrille (as an Indian chief who demands that Lou marry his daughter). My only gripe with this film is that this would have been a great vehicle for the Andrews Sisters as well—it’s a shame they weren’t invited to be in it.

Universal will be releasing a second 2-DVD set of Abbott & Costello films on May 4 of this year—which will include Hit the Ice, In Society, Here Come the Co-Eds, The Naughty Nineties, Little Giant—and three of my very favorites: The Time of Their Lives, Buck Privates Come Home and the woefully underrated The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap. Included in this collection is the television special Abbott and Costello Meet Jerry Seinfeld.

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