Abbott & Costello – The Complete
Universal Pictures Collection
Starring Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff
Directed by Arthur Lubin, Erle C. Kenton, Charles Barton
Two footloose Jersey boys with no particular place to go, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello finally found themselves – literally and figuratively – on the burlesque stage. Their act, equal parts smart talk and ancient slapstick, was honed alongside curvy chorus girls and tassel-twirlers but it took a lady of a decidedly different stature to make them superstars. On March 24, 1938, Kate Smith, “The First Lady of Radio”, invited them to perform “Who’s On First”, a routine delivered with such hairpin curve precision it left listeners breathless. That appearance fast-tracked the duo to their own radio series and a contract with Universal Pictures.
They made their big screen debut in 1940’s One Night in the Tropics, a low budget musical about high society that would have vanished down the memory hole were it not for the third and fourth billed vaudevillians. Tellingly, the duo is introduced not on camera but by the sound of their voices – once they barreled into frame it was love at first sight. Director A. Edward Sutherland parceled out showcases for them throughout the 82 minute movie (they do an abbreviated version of “Who’s On First” and Costello reminds his fans that he’s “a baaaad boy”.) One thing was clear, each time they popped up, the energy level did too. The studio felt comfortable enough to set them up with their own vehicle later that year and rushed it out in January of 1941. A scattershot spoof of army life called Buck Privates, it starred Bud and Lou as reluctant grunts in a bit of cheerful propaganda meant to uplift soldiers overseas while enlisting new recruits at home.
42 year old Arthur Lubin was attached to direct – with his portfolio of low budget comedies, musicals and thrillers it was presumed the young journeyman could juggle any genre (he went on to prove it with 1943’s Phantom of the Opera and 1961’s The Thief of Baghdad). The fact that Lubin was unfamiliar with Abbott and Costello’s act (he thought they were a dance team) didn’t prevent him from expanding on their raucous appeal – the show is an 84 minute salute to home front chutzpah featuring the Andrews Sisters, all-you-can-eat pratfalls and non-stop flag-waving.
Lubin made four more films with Bud and Lou over the next two years – In the Navy, Hold That Ghost, Keep ‘Em Flying and Ride ‘Em Cowboy – each based on the Buck Privates template – fast-talk and broad gags interrupted by forgettable tunes and romantic entanglements. This steady torrent of product – the films invariably opened while the duo’s previous hit was still selling tickets down the block – coasted on the team’s endless vitality and gentle satirical jabs at their respective genres. Ghost is notable as their first flirtation with scare-comedies while offering a window into the pitfalls of their meteoric rise; an already thin-skinned Costello was cowed by co-star Joan Davis’s scene-stealing antics and a weary Lubin spied the onset of complacency tinged with hubris – “They came on the set late, they didn’t know their lines, and I think they were beginning to get tired of one another.”
The public couldn’t get enough of them. Universal loaned Bud and Lou to MGM for 1943’s Rio Rita and hauled them back on the assembly line with 1942’s Pardon My Sarong, a Road-styled comedy directed by Erle C. Kenton, ringmaster for some of the studio’s more memorable shockers like House of Dracula and The Ghost of Frankenstein.
Universal’s front office saw no reason to slow down the merry-go-round – Pardon My Sarong was made for $400,000 and netted over 2 million – four weeks after it wrapped production, work began on Who Done It?, a murder mystery set within the Art Deco trappings of a swank broadcast studio. Tentatively titled Whodunit?, cinematographer Charles Van Enger draped the stylish sets with suitably spooky shadows and Kenton was squarely in his mysterioso element – plus he helped the duo shake up their formula, there isn’t a musical number to be found. The same couldn’t be said for their next two outings. Both easy-going time killers, It Ain’t Hay is a race track story gone to seed and Hit the Ice, a snowbound frolic with mobsters and music is blessed with the presence of quintessential wise guy Sheldon Leonard and apple-cheeked Ginny Simms.
Then Lou got sick. A year long bout with rheumatic heart disease pushed the team’s next film to the summer of 1944. Back on his feet and seemingly no worse for the wear, Lou breezes through In Society only to stop for a remarkably committed performance of “The Susquehanna Hat Company” – a blandly titled but bruising vaudeville warhorse that calls for the fall guy to not just fall but suffer Mike Tyson-sized drubbings. They also found a new favorite director in Jean Yarbrough who helmed their next four pictures starting with Here Come the Co-Eds, a stale college spoof which spotlights “Phil Spitalny and His Hour of Charm All Girl Orchestra featuring Evelyn and Her Magic Violin” plus some of the klutziest tap-dancing this side of Ruby Keeler. The follow up, The Naughty Nineties, was even more dire, a Show Boat-inspired rip off with only a subpar rendition of “Who’s On First” to stifle yawns.
Arthur Lubin was right – Bud and Lou were growing tired of each other. By 1945 the acrimony nearly ended their partnership. That grim-faced animosity stayed behind the scenes of both of the films they made in 1946 but it had a conspicuous impact on the storylines. As an eager vacuum cleaner salesman in the surprisingly touching Little Giant, Lou goes it alone for much of the picture while Bud hugs the sidelines, albeit in a dual role. The separation works to their benefit. Costello is less cartoonish – less desperate, even – and Bud is a far more vivid presence without his loose cannon friend stealing every scene. The same applies to The Time of Their Lives – a title that contains no little irony and underlines the oddly melancholy undertow of this charming fantasy – not only do Bud and Lou share few scenes together, the “tubby little fellow” is in fact dead, the ghost of an 18th century smithy who finds romantic fulfillment in the afterlife à la the following year’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.
Whether audiences sensed the discord in the duo’s private lives or was merely tired of their schtick, Abbott and Costello went into a slump. 1947’s Buck Privates Come Home cost close to $1, 500,000 and barely managed to double it at the box office. They rebounded with Marjorie Main and the wild west antics of The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap but the uncertainty hanging over what was once a sure thing could be felt in the front office. The corporation needed to acquire more partners to turn things around. Not just any partner but a veritable wrecking crew of Universal’s most reliable heavy hitters.
The ne plus ultra of horror comedies, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein stars Bud and Lou as Chick Young and Wilbur Grey, two bumbling shipping clerks who take delivery on a pair of suspiciously oversized boxes intended for a local House of Horrors. When the contents of those crates go missing, the police, insurance detectives, mad doctors and monsters descend on the hapless duo and Wilbur in particular; his docile brain is in danger of going missing too – Dracula has plans to transfer it into the skull of Frankenstein’s creature.
The 1948 release is ostensibly the duo’s most polished film. Like Wilbur himself, the robust screenplay by Robert Lees and Frederic Rinaldo is “… round, firm and fully packed.” Van Enger’s photography is positively luminous and Frank Skinner’s tilt-a-whirl score lifts every scene (Skinner’s work was so expressive it was reused time and again for the boy’s other comic chillers). Abbott and Costello were never so agile on screen – their teamwork has a snap, crackle and pop that may be the closest thing to seeing them live in their burlesque years. Charles Barton nimbly juggles the rapid-fire action even as all hell breaks loose but much of the film’s success lies with the monsters themselves. Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney perform with a solemnity that only enhances the humor – playing their characters perfectly straight, they make the perfect straight men for Bud and Lou.
It was a triumph at the box office too – costing just over $790, 000, the movie raked in over $3 million – which made the follow-up an even bigger disappointment. Mexican Hayride is the kind of film based on a Cole Porter musical that uses none of Porter’s music. The boys pitched a fit – in unison for once – and got suspended for a week. The following year they attempted to right the ship by reviving the friendly climes of gothic-tinged comedy to mixed results.
With Boris Karloff as their adversary, Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer held out the hope of some real creature-feature magic but Karloff seems oddly out of sorts – unlike Bela and Lon he’s a reluctant straight man. The film does score with one bit of black humor that got the movie banned in Denmark, a macabre card game in which the boys play poker with a couple of corpses. Nothing so edgy was found in Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion but the following film, Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, turned out to be one of the more inventive spoofs of their late period romps. The film is given a leg up thanks to John Fulton’s always wizardly special effects and the set-pieces, particularly a boxing match that tests the former boxer Costello’s still-impressive ring moves, are deftly staged by director Charles Lamont.
The scripts for 1951’s Comin’ Round the Mountain and 1952’s Lost In Alaska both reached for a reboot but a soul-killing grind was setting in – Abbott and Costello Meet Ennui. The team got a rocket-fueled boost from the ribald antics of Abbott and Costello go to Mars which put them back on a virtual burlesque stage to flirt with Mari Blanchard’s pin-up-ready temptress. Surrounded by a constellation of Miss Universe contestants, Blanchard’s feline come-hither made for a heavenly adversary – it was baggy-pants comedy of the lowest order but satisfyingly sexy and silly.
That already classic encounter with Dracula and the Wolf Man in 1948 had a lingering effect on their mid-50’s films and not necessarily a good one – once seen as mildly risqué comedies for adults on par with Chuck Jones’ Private Snafu cartoons, the films began to be aimed exclusively at kiddie matinees; in quick succession they met Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (with another jaundiced Karloff performance), the Keystone Kops and The Mummy. The final film under their Universal contract, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, was yet another rehash of their monster match-ups but with the welcome presence of Marie Windsor, noir vamp par excellence. It was released on the bottom half of a double bill with Disney’s Davy Crockett, the story of the frontiersman’s last stand at the Alamo. Meet the Mummy was not an entirely unhappy affair – Bud and Lou were as energetic as ever and each stale routine was delivered with the commitment of a true believer. Like Crockett, the boys went out swinging.
As Wilbur says, “I saw what I saw when I saw it.” – and there’s a lot to see. If Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is the ne plus ultra of horror comedies, Shout! Factory’s Abbott & Costello – The Complete Universal Pictures Collection is the ultimate in Blu ray collections. Each movie gets an immaculate transfer that magnifies the wonderful craftsmanship of Universal’s production crews – in particular the work of cinematographers Van Enter and George Robinson.
Shout! has included a still gallery and production notes for all of the films and commentaries for 16 of the 28 features – along with many (many) extras. Some are new, some are borrowed but all are Blu. Among the new:
Abbott and Costello: Their lives and Legacy featuring interviews with Lou’s daughter Chris Costello and A&C expert Ron Palumbo.
Abbott and Costello Film Stories with film historian James L. Neibaur.
Abbott and Costello Behind the Scenes is an intriguing look at the highs and lows of working with the boys with more insight from Mr. Palumbo on the stalwart writers and directors who managed to get the movies made come hell or high water.
And there’s the pure fun of Abbott and Costello Meet Castle Films with eight of their films getting the Cliff Notes treatment from the famed film distributors (the first home video company?)
A few supplements are re-ups from previous releases but it’s good to have them all collected in one place – Abbott and Costello Meet Jerry Seinfeld and A&C Meet the Monsters.
There are a few well-worn but welcome items like a series of A & C blooper reels that shine a light on the working conditions surrounding the notoriously nonchalant duo and the little-seen The World of Abbott and Costello, first released in previous dvd compilations and presented here in a decent looking print. Produced by legendary genre producers Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, World is an uninspired clip show with disjointed narration from “Fat” Jack E. Leonard and strictly for completists.
Wait! Here’s more bonus material – this time courtesy of Trailers From Hell! – a selection of A&C commentaries from some of TFH’s finest:
Larry Coehn on Buck Privates
Larry Cohen on Abbott and Costello In the Navy
Joe Dante on Hold That Ghost
John Landis on In Society
John Landis on Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
Joe Dante on Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy