Happy Patriots Day: Abbott & Costello in THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES (Universal 1946)

Good morning! While most of you in America are fretting over Tax Day, here in Massachusetts we’re celebrating Patriots Day, commemorating the 1775 Battles of Lexington and Concord that kicked off the American Revolution. It’s a state holiday, and the Boston Marathon is held every year on this date, with the Red Sox playing their traditional 11:00am game. It’s been a tradition on this blog (well, since last year, anyway ) to feature Revolutionary War-themed films, and today we’ll take a look at THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES, an Abbott & Costello comedy that’s one of the duo’s best.

THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES differs from the usual A&C formula, with Bud and Lou playing separate characters rather than working as a team. The film begins in 1780, as Costello’s Horatio Prim, tinker by trade and true patriot, rides to visit his lady-love Nora. In his possession is a letter of recommendation from George Washington himself, but Abbott’s Cuthbert Greenway, jealous of Nora’s affection for Horatio, locks him in a trunk. Meanwhile, the lady of the house, Melody Allen, discovers her man Thomas Danbury is a traitor to the cause. Helping Horatio escape, the two are mistaken for British sympathizers, shot, and tossed down a well as the rebels ransack Danbury Manor and burn it to the ground. The rebel leader curses Horatio and Melody to spend eternity on the grounds unless it’s proven they weren’t traitors after all.

Fast forward 166 years and, as the ghosts of Horatio and Melody are still trapped on Earth, Danbury Manor is restored to its former glory by Sheldon Gage, planning to turn it into a tourist attraction. He brings along his fiancé June, her Aunt Millie, and his pal Dr. Ralph Greenway, a descendant of Cuthbert. There’s also servant Emily, said to possess psychic powers, as well as the power to creep people out (June  to Emily: “Didn’t I see you in REBECCA?”).

Our disembodied duo decide to haunt the joint in hopes of finding Washington’s letter and free their earthbound souls, and that’s when the fun really begins in this excellent fantasy-comedy directed by Charles Barton, who went on to make nine more movies with the team. Bud Abbott gets a chance to stop playing straight man and takes the brunt of the comic mayhem, as the ghostly Horatio mistakes him for Cuthbert (Bud plays both parts). But it’s Lou Costello who truly shines as Horatio, combining his farcical facial expressions and high-pitched vocal squeals with moments of pathos. Audiences weren’t used to seeing Bud and Lou as separate entities (though they also went this route in their previous film LITTLE GIANT), and they returned to  their tried-and-true routines with their next, BUCK PRIVATES COME HOME.

Marjorie Reynolds , fondly remembered for the Christmas classic HOLIDAY INN, makes a good foil for Lou as the ghostly Melody. Academy Award winner Gale Sondergaard didn’t play much comedy in her career, but she’s perfect as the weirdo Emily (and no, she wasn’t in REBECCA ; that was Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers). Binnie Barnes gets off some snappy one-liners as Aunt Millie (Bud during the séance scene: “We’ve all got to make our minds completely blank” Binnie: “Well, that should be easy for you!”). John Shelton and Lynn Baggett are bland as Sheldon and June, but veteran Donald MacBride livens things up as a cop towards the conclusion.

There’s plenty of spooky shenanigans to be had, as Horatio and Melody encounter modern (well, 1946 modern) technology, the séance sequence manages to be both funny and eerie, and the special effects hold up well for the most part. To cap it all off, there’s a hilarious final sight gag that’ll leave you laughing. Even non-A&C fans will enjoy THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES, a scare comedy that’s as patriotic as George Washington! With that, let’s all celebrate Patriots Day:

(Hey, I told you it’s a Massachusetts thing!)

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Familiar Faces #7: Gordon Jones, Working Class Hero

Brawny actor Gordon Jones (1911-1963) was never a big star, but an actor the big  stars could depend on to give a good performance. Stars like John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and Abbott & Costello knew Gordon could deliver the goods in support, and he spent over thirty years as a working class actor. Not bad for a small town kid from Alden, Iowa!

Gordon as The Green Hornet with Keye Luke as Kato

Jones originally came to California on a football scholarship, playing guard for UCLA. Like his fellow Iowan John Wayne , Gordon began his film career in uncredited parts, and soon moved up in casts lists with films like RED SALUTE (1935), STRIKE ME PINK (1936), and THERE GOES MY GIRL (1937). Gordon’s big lug persona made him ideal for second leads as the hero’s pal, though he did get some leading roles in Poverty Row vehicles like THE LONG SHOT (1938), opposite Marsha Hunt. His big break came in the title role of THE GREEN HORNET, a 1940 serial based on the popular radio program, with Charlie Chan’s #1 Son Keye Luke playing his aide Kato.

‘The Wreck’ menaces Richard Quine as Janet Blair & Rosalind Russell look on in “My Sister Eileen”

Gordon displayed a flair for comedy, and one of his best parts was in 1941’s MY SISTER EILEEN as “The Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech”, neighbor to sisters Rosalind Russell and Janet Blair. He made his first film with The Duke in 1943’s FLYING TIGERS as Alabama, a member of Wayne’s volunteer squadron fighting the Japanese in China before the onset of Pearl Harbor. Like many actors of the era, Jones served in WWII, and returned to the screen with 1947’s THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY, starring Danny Kaye as James Thurber’s notorious daydreamer.

Gordon as Mike the Cop on “The Abbott & Costello Show”

Also in 1947, Jones made his first appearance with Abbott & Costello in THE WISTFUL WIDOW OF WAGON GAP, with Marjorie Main co-starring. Gordon’s the comic villain of the piece, and his work here led to his being cast as antagonist Mike the Cop in the team’s TV series. He makes the perfect foil for Costello’s zany antics, becoming more frustrated and exasperated every time Costello does something stupid… which is always! Jones was one of two cast members retained after A&C revamped the show in its second season, along with vaudeville vet Sidney Fields, a sure sign the boys appreciated his talents.

Lobby card from 1950’s “Sunset in the West”

Along came Roy Rogers, who employed Gordon as a comic sidekick in six of his cowboy movies. Jones played the character ‘Splinters’ McGonigle in TRIGGER JR, SUNSET IN THE WEST, NORTH OF THE GREAT DIVIDE, TRAIL OF ROBIN HOOD (all from 1950), SPOILERS OF THE PLAINS, and HEART OF THE ROCKIES (1951). TRIGGER JR. is considered by many sagebrush aficionados to be Roy’s best, while TRAIL OF ROBIN HOOD is an All-Star ‘B’ Western featuring veteran cowboys Rex Allen, Ray “Crash” Corrigan, George Chesebro, William Farnum, Monte Hale, Jack Holt, Tom Keene, Kermit Maynard, and Tom Tyler all playing themselves, as Roy and Gordon help save Holt’s Christmas Tree farm from poachers!

The 1950’s found Gordon again supporting John Wayne in the anti-Communist film BIG JIM MCLAIN (1952) and William Wellman’s plane crash drama ISLAND IN THE SKY (1953), but most of his work was now on television. Besides the Abbott & Costello show, Gordon had recurring roles in three other sitcoms: MEET MR. MCNULTEY (also known as THE RAY MILLAND SHOW) cast him as a friend of Ray’s all-girls-college professor; SO THIS IS HOLLYWOOD found him as the stuntman boyfriend of Hollywood hopeful Mitzi Green; and he was one of a succession of neighbors to OZZIE AND HARRIET. Of course, there were plenty of guest shots, too: THE GENE AUTRY SHOW, MY LITTLE MARGIE, WYATT EARP, LARAMIE, HAWAIIAN EYE, SURFSIDE-6, PERRY MASON, THE RIFLEMAN, THE REAL MCCOYS, MAVERICK, etc, etc.

Gordon and Strother Martin in 1963’s “McLintock!”

Jones made his Disney debut in 1959’s THE SHAGGY DOG as a police captain, and followed it with THE ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR (1961) and it’s sequel SON OF FLUBBER (1963), playing the football coach in both. His last role was again with The Duke, as the smarmy land agent Douglas in 1963’s MCLINTOCK. This comedy Western features another All-Star cast (Maureen O’Hara, Stefanie Powers, Chill Wills, Jerry Van Dyke, Yvonne DeCarlo, Edgar Buchanan), and Gordon’s right in the thick of things. Unfortunately, Gordon Jones was felled by a heart attack five months before the film’s premiere, passing away at age 52.

Gordon Jones may not have been a big star, but his contributions to film and television did not go unnoticed: That’s right, he has his own star on the fabled Hollywood Walk of Fame! Like I said earlier, not bad for small town kid from Alden, Iowa!

80 Years of “Who’s On First”!

On March 24, 1938, Americans tuned in to THE KATE SMITH HOUR collectively convulsed with laughter as Bud Abbott and Lou Costello introduced “Who’s On First?” to a national radio audience. The hilarious routine, with baseball manager Bud trying to explain the names of his team to an escalatingly exasperated Lou, soon became an American comedy classic, one I can never get tired of no matter how many times a watch a clip of A&C performing their signature bit – they slay me every time!

Chico asking Groucho “Why A Duck?” in 1929’s THE COCOANUTS

The routine had its roots squarely in burlesque long before Bud and Lou first made that historic broadcast. Puns and word play were the coin of the realm among burlesque comics, and variations on this confusing theme abounded in the early 20th Century. Early talking pictures feature a notable pair of examples: The Marx Brothers 1929 COCOANUTS has Groucho and Chico bantering over “Why A Duck?”, while 1930’s CRACKED NUTS featured Wheeler & Woolsey doing some doubletalk concerning the towns of “Which” and “What”.

Abbott & Costello in 1945’s THE NAUGHTY NINETIES

A baseball version had been used on the burlesque curcuit, but it was Abbott & Costello who honed it to perfection, with an assist from their long-time gag writer John Grant. Bud and Lou never did the routine the same way twice, changing things to try and trip the other up, riffing like a couple of jazz musicians improvising on a familiar theme, keeping the bit (and themselves) sharp. Their Kate Smith performance earned them a contract with Universal, and the duo did an abridged version in their film debut, 1940’s ONE NIGHT IN THE TROPICS. They would revive the routine in 1945’s THE NAUGHTY NINETIES, and time and again on their own radio program. When the team produced their 1952-54 TV show, they did “Who’s On First” in the episode “The Actor’s Home”, which many aficionados consider the definitive version:

“Who’s On First?” was enshrined in Cooperstown, NY’s Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956, where it still endlessly greets new arrivals to the venerable baseball shrine. In 2007, Dodgers rookie shortstop Chin-Lung Hu got his first hit, a single, causing veteran announcer Vin Scully to quip, “I can finally say, ‘Hu is on first'”!

 

 

Familiar Faces #5: The Law and Mr. Hinds

I first became aware of actor Samuel S. Hinds watching those old Universal pictures that played frequently on my local channels. What I didn’t know about the stately, distinguished thespian is he had a secret past: Hinds was a successful, practicing attorney for over 30 years before the stock market crash of 1929 wiped him out, and he decided at age 54 to pursue his second love, acting. Hinds, born in Brooklyn in 1875, was a Harvard educated lawyer who had a long interest in amateur acting. When he made the decision to turn pro, he wrangled film parts large and small, credited and uncredited. His first talking picture was 1932’s all-star comedy drama IF I HAD A MILLION, in which he played…. you guessed it, a lawyer! (Hinds previously had a small role in the silent 1926 THE AMATEUR GENTLEMAN starring Richard Barthelmess).

Hinds had a small role as a dinner guest in 1933’s MURDERS IN THE ZOO, a Pre-Code horror starring Lionel Atwill , but it wasn’t until 1935 he came into his own in scary movies. THE RAVEN cast him as Judge Thatcher, father of beautiful Jean (Irene Ware), with Bela Lugosi’s mad, Poe obsessed Dr. Richard Vollin determined to posses her – or else! Vollin, driven insane by Jean’s rejection, straps the Judge to a slab and lowers a PIT AND THE PENDULUM-inspired blade designed to slice the jurist in two! Boris Karloff lends strong support as Bela’s reluctant henchman Bateman in one of the Demonic Duo’s best efforts, and Hinds adds a touch of sanity to the demented proceedings.

Sam returned to horror with 1941’s MAN MADE MONSTER, which introduced Lon Chaney Jr. to genre fans. Hinds is well cast as kindly Dr. Lawrence, whose attempt to help Chaney’s ‘Dynamo’ Dan McCormick is thwarted by his evil assistant Dr. Rigas (Atwill again). THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. RX (1942)  typecast him as a lawyer in a spooky murder mystery with Atwill a red herring. Hinds and Chaney reteamed for Robert Siodmak’s SON OF DRACULA (1943), with Lon as the undead Count and Sam in the small role as yet another judge. Hinds closed out his Universal Monster career with a bit as a coroner in 1944’s JUNGLE WOMAN, the second entry in the Paula Dupree/Ape Woman series.

Hinds was also kept busy on the Universal lot supporting the studio’s comedy kings Abbott & Costello. The team scored big with 1941’s BUCK PRIVATES , and Sam was right in the thick of things as the base commander. RIDE EM COWBOY (1942), one of my favorite A&C flicks, has him as the owner of a dude ranch, and father of lovely Anne Gwynne. PARDON MY SARONG (1942) has the dignified actor as a native chieftain on a South Seas island, once again encountering Lionel Atwill. 1943’s IT AIN’T HAY, his last with the comedians, finds him as owner of champion race horse Tea Biscuit.

The actor appeared in his share of classics, as well. The screwball YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938) saw Sam as Jean Arthur’s dad. 1939’s DESTRY RIDES AGAIN cast him as the crooked mayor of wild west town Bottleneck. Both films starred James Stewart, who figured prominently in what’s perhaps Hinds’ best known role: Pa Bailey in the 1947 Christmas classic IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Hinds is also known for playing Lew Ayres’ dad in six of the Doctor Kildare films.

From film noir ( SCARLET STREET, CALL NORTHSIDE 777) to Westerns (SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS, BADLANDS OF DAKOTA) to comedies (HELLZAPOPPIN’, THE EGG AND I), Samuel S. Hinds lent his easy-going, dignified presence to over 200 movies of the 30’s and 40’s. His last, 1949’s THE BRIBE , was released posthumously; the actor passed away October 13, 1948 at age 73. He worked right up to the end, a real trouper, and I for one am glad he gave up the dramatics of the courtroom for the dramatics of the screen. Hollywood was all the better for it!

 

 

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 8: All-Star Comedy Break

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Tonight I’ll be watching the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, but for those of you non-baseball fans, here’s a look at five funny films from the 1930’s & 40’s:

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IT’S A GIFT (Paramount 1934, D: Norman Z. McLeod) The Great Man himself, W.C. Fields , works his magic in this delightfully demented domestic comedy about hen pecked grocer Harold Bissonette, who dreams of owning an orange grove in California. His wife (Kathleen Howard) is a domineering battle-axe, his kid (Tommy Bupp) an obnoxious, roller skating brat, and daughter Mildred (Jean Rouveral) doesn’t want to leave her “true love”. This sets the stage for some of Fields’ funniest surrealistic scenes, including his grocery store being demolished by blind Mr. Mickle and perennial nemesis Baby Leroy; poor W.C. trying to get some sleep on the porch while being constantly disturbed by noisy neighbors, a wayward coconut, a man looking for “Carl LeFong”, and Baby Leroy dropping grapes through a hole in the porch (“Shades of Bacchus!”); and a wild picnic on private property. One of Fields’ best movies, an absurd comic classic! Fun Fact: Kathleen Howard was a former opera singer who costarred in three of W.C.’s films.

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GENERAL SPANKY (MGM 1936, D: Fred Newmeyer and Gordon Douglas) Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, and the “Our Gang” kids star in this Civil War era comedy that plays like a few shorts strung together. There’s not really any overt racism, as some critics claim; except for the use of the derogatory term “pickaninny” early on, it’s simply a product of its era. The story is told from the Southern POV, making it sympathetic to their cause. In fact, the slaves are treated with more dignity by the Southerners than the invading Yankee army! The warm relationship that develops between the two orphans Spanky and Buckwheat rarely gets mentioned. Still, this ain’t GONE WITH THE WIND; if it sounds offensive, just don”t watch. Fans of Our Gang/Little Rascals shorts will want to catch it, though. Fun Fact: Irving Pichel, who I’ve discussed here in past posts , plays the mean Yankee captain at odds with Spanky and friends.

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TURNABOUT (United Artists 1949, D: Hal Roach) Gender-bending screwball comedy about a constantly bickering couple (John Hubbard, Carole Landis) that have their wish to swap bodies granted by a Hindu idol come to life. Ultimately the film tries a little too hard at being wacky and is a letdown considering it’s groundbreaking theme. Adolphe Menjou, William Gargan, Mary Astor, Joyce Compton, Verree Teasdale, Franklin Pangborn, Marjorie Main, and especially Donald Meek head a game supporting cast. Based on a novel by Thorne (TOPPER) Smith. Fun Fact: One of a handful of feature films directed by comedy pioneer Roach.

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BLONDE INSPIRATION (MGM 1941, D: Busby Berkeley) Minor but amusing screwball comedy concerning an idealistic unpublished writer (John Shelton) who’s conned out of $2000 by two broke publishers (the unlikely but funny comedy team of Albert Dekker and Charles Butterworth !) to write Western pulp fiction when their drunken star scribe Dusty King (Donald Meek again!) quits. Shelton’s bland in the lead,  but the rest of the cast makes up for it, with a wisecracking script by Marion Parsonnet and swift direction from musical maestro Berkeley. Virginia Grey plays the publisher’s cynical secretary who ends up falling for the dopey, naïve Shelton. Reginald Owen, Alma Krueger, Byron Foulger, and Charles Halton all add to the fun. Fun Fact: Marion Martin, former Ziegfeld showgirl, is the “blonde inspiration” of the title, playing the dumb-blonde companion of Butterworth.

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WHO DONE IT? (Universal 1942, D: Erle C. Kenton) Abbott & Costello play two soda jerks (emphasis on “jerks”) and wanna-be radio mystery writers who get caught up in a real-life murder mystery at the station. This was Bud and Lou’s first effort without the usual musical interludes (no Andrews Sisters, no swing bands, etc), and allows them to unleash their comic mayhem uninhibited. The radio setting gives them good material to work with, like their “watts are volts” wordplay riffing (they even have a bit disparaging their classic ‘Who’s On First?” routine). There are some genuinely scary touches between the slapstick from horror vet Kenton (ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN ), and a solid supporting cast featuring William Gargan and William Bendix as a pair of dopey detectives, Mary Wickes as Lou’s love interest (!!), and Universal’s Familiar Face Brigade: Patric Knowles, Louise Allbritton, Thomas Gomez, Don Porter, Jerome Cowan, and Ludwig Stossel. Cadaverous Milton Parsons even shows up as the coroner! Fast and fun entry in the A&C catalog. Fun Fact: The page boy constantly getting over on Lou is Walter Tetley, a radio actor known to TV affecianados as the voice of Mr. Peabody’s favorite boy, Sherman!

A Grand Slam: Abbott & Costello’s “WHO’S ON FIRST?”

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This week’s baseball theme wouldn’t be complete without Bud Abbott and Lou Costello doing their classic “Who’s On First?”. The skit originated in burlesque in various permutations, until the team turned it into a baseball routine and ran away with it. They first performed it before a national audience on Kate Smith’s radio show in 1938, and it was an immediate smash. Abbott & Costello never did it the same way twice, riffing on the routine like a jam band. Enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956, here’s the boys doing “Who’s On First?” from their 1950’s television show:

Caught in the Draft: Abbott & Costello in BUCK PRIVATES (Universal 1941)

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.