The comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello don’t get much love these days. They belong to another era, but there was a time that Abbott & Costello were the most popular comedy duo in the nation, consistently landing in the top ten box office rankings. They honed their snappy patter and slapstick routines in burlesque, got national attention on Kate Smith’s radio show, and made their film debut in ONE NIGHT IN THE TROPICS. Universal Studios sat up and took notice, signing the boys to a contract and starring them in BUCK PRIVATES, creating a simple formula that would serve the team well for the better part of the decade: put Bud and Lou into a situation that allows them to perform their tried-and-true routines, add a romantic subplot, surround them with solid support, toss in some popular music acts, and let ’em run wild.
Slicker (Bud) and Herbie (Lou) are street peddlers who run afoul of the law, represented by tough cop Collins. They’re chased and duck into an Army recruitment center, where they unwittingly join the service. Much to their chagrin, they wind up with Collins as their company sergeant! The subplot involves rich slacker Randolph Parker and his valet Bob Martin. Randolph wants to get out of the Army, while Bob’s eager to serve. They vie for the affections of camp hostess Judy, who Bob knew as a civilian. The Andrews Sisters are also on hand as hostesses, and get to sing four tunes, including the Oscar nominated “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B”:
The film serves as a vehicle for Abbott & Costello to engage in some of their best routines, including ‘The Dice Game’, ‘You’re Forty, She’s Ten’, and the classic ‘Drill Routine’. There’s lots of puns and rapid-fire wordplay, and of course plenty of slapstick. A highlight is Costello getting sucked into a boxing match with a big goon, which he somehow ends up winning! Between the music, the comedy, and the (then) timely subject matter of the draft, BUCK PRIVATES wound up making a ton of money, pulling Universal out of the financial doldrums, and catapulting Abbott & Costello to major movie stardom.
Nat Pendleton makes a great comic foil for the duo, forever at odds with the inept Costello. Pendleton was an ex-wrestler who served as an antagonist for the Marx Brothers (HORSE FEATHERS, AT THE CIRCUS) and the Ritz Brothers (LIFE BEGINS AT COLLEGE), and appeared again with Bud and Lou in this film’s sequel, 1947’s BUCK PRIVATES COME HOME. The romantic triangle is ably handled by Lee Bowman, Jane Frazee, and Alan Curtis. Shemp Howard adds to the fun as the camp cook in a scene where Costello and his fellow draftees sing the goofy “When Private Brown Becomes a Captain”.
Arthur Lubin handles the direction, while the screenplay is by Arthur T. Horan, with assistance from A&C’s top gag writer John Grant. Miss Frazee gets to sing “I Wish You Were Here”, and the Andrews Sisters also perform “You’re a Lucky Fellow, Mr. Smith”, “Apple Blossom Time”, and “Bounce Me Brother With a Solid Four”, with a troupe called The World’s Greatest Boogie Woogie Dancers. BUCK PRIVATES may seem dated to many of you, but Abbott & Costello are still two very funny guys, and deserve to have a revival, especially their earlier, energetic movies like this one. If you’re around my age, you probably grew up on A&C like I did, but if you’ve never tried them before, BUCK PRIVATES is a good place to start.