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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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'”!

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (Universal-International 1948)

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It’s Halloween, and we’ve finally made it to the Universal Classic Monsters! Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and The Wolf Man had last appeared onscreen in 1945’s HOUSE OF DRACULA. Shortly thereafter, Universal merged with International Pictures and decided to produce only “prestige” pictures from then on, deeming their Gothic creature features no longer relevant in the post-war, post-nuclear world. The comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were also in danger of becoming irrelevant, victims of their own success, as audiences were beginning to grow tired of them after twenty movies in a scant eight years.

That “prestige” thing didn’t work out so well, and Universal went back to what they did best…. producing mid-budget movies for the masses. Producer Robert Arthur developed a script called “The Brain of Frankenstein”, giving it over to Frederic Rinaldo and Robert Lees. Lou Costello hated it, and the team’s gag writer John Grant was brought it to punch things up. Horror icons Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr, and Glenn Strange were recruited to reprise their most famous roles, and the title was changed to ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, the template for all horror comedies to come.

Lou Costello (Wilbur Grey) and Bud Abbott (Chick Young) deliver two crates to a house of horrors. The crates contain Count Dracula and Frankenstein's monster. The vampire wants to transplant Wilbur's simple brain into the monster so he will be completely under Dracula's control.

For the uninitiated, Bud and Lou play a pair of inept delivery men charged with transporting two very large crates to McDougal’s House of Horrors, said to contain the remains of Count Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster. Lou gets creeped out when Dracula’s coffin keeps opening (mainly so they could use the old “moving candle” gag), which of course Bud doesn’t see. The two fiends escape and McDougal has the boys arrested for stealing his property. They’re bailed out by a beautiful woman, but it’s not Lou’s girlfriend Sandra, it’s Joan Raymond, an undercover insurance investigator hired by McDougal.

Bud doesn’t understand how two gorgeous women can go ga-ga over short, fat Lou. What he doesn’t know is Sandra is Dracula’s assistant, a female mad scientist out to help revive the Monster by transplanting Lou’s pliable brain into it. Add Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man himself, into this mix trying to put an end to Dracula’s grandiose scheme, and you’ve got a recipe for horror and humor that ends in a climactic Monster Battle Royal and a guest “appearance” by The Invisible Man (voiced by the one-and-only Vincent Price !).

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The monsters play it straight, leaving the comedy to A&C, except for a funny bit when Lou scares the bejesus out of the Monster! Lugosi dons Dracula’s cape onscreen for the first time in 17 years, though he still toured with the stage play on occasion. With those hypnotic eyes and double-jointed hand gestures, the 67-year-old Lugosi still conveyed the power of the evil Count. He’s charming under the guise of Dr. Lejos, but as Dracula he’s still the deadliest vampire of them all. This was Bela’s last good role in a major motion picture, and takes advantage of it, showing his acting talents hadn’t diminished one bit. Unfortunately, he received no further scripts of this caliber, and found himself mired in dreck like BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA , Ed Wood’s no-budget efforts, and his own tragic opiate addiction.

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Lon Chaney Jr.  returned to the studio that made him a star after being dismissed with the rest of Universal’s contract players after the merger. He’s less whiny than usual as Talbot, playing the nominal hero dead-set on stopping Dracula’s quest for world domination. Chaney still makes an athletic werewolf, as his physical acting had always outshone his sometimes awkward way with dialog. When they find Talbot’s room a shambles after the moon rises, Bud quips, “Boy, what a bender he must’ve been on last night”, possibly a veiled reference to Chaney’s problems with the bottle. In a funny bit, Talbot explains, “In a half hour the moon will rise and I’ll turn into a wolf”, to which Lou replies, “You and twenty million other guys!”.

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Glenn Strange once again portrays the Frankenstein Monster, as he did in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HOUSE OF DRACULA. His shambling, psychotic version of Mary Shelley’s creature is an instrument of pure destruction, totally unlike the Karloff original. Strange’s Monster has no soul, and who can really blame him, having suffered through all those brain transplants over the course of the series. Lenore Aubert as Sandra is both beautiful and deadly, Jane Randolph is okay as the plucky heroine, Frank Ferguson blusters his way through the part of McDougal, and Charles Bradstreet has the thankless role of Sandra’s assistant who suspects foul play.

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Abbott and Costello are… well, they’re Abbott and Costello! The duo had spent years honing their schtick in burlesque, on Broadway, radio, and in films. Teaming them with the Universal Monsters helped put them back on top and opened the floodgates for a slew of ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET movies. They met THE KILLER BORIS KARLOFF, DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (again with Boris), THE INVISIBLE MAN, THE MUMMY, and even THE KEYSTONE KOPS! The boys are in top form here, their timing and snappy patter routines sharp as ever, and are the comic glue that holds the horrors together.

Many horror fans ask, “Yeah, but where does this fit in the Universal horror canon?” My answer to that is, “WHO CARES!” ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN stands alone as a horror-comedy classic, and should be enjoyed as such. It’s your last chance to see Lugosi in his definitive role, Chaney as the cursed Larry Talbot, and Strange as the demented Monster. Plus Bud and Lou at the peak of their comic power. That’s more than enough for me, and will be for you too when you watch ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Happy Halloween all you monster lovers out there!

 

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.

 

Halloween Havoc!: Abbott & Costello in HOLD THAT GHOST (Universal 1941)

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Before they met Frankenstein, The Mummy, or Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made their first foray into scary territory in 1941’s HOLD THAT GHOST. This was the boys’ third released film that year, and one of the team’s all-around best. Bud and Lou are two relief waiters at a swanky nightclub (is there any other kind in theses 40s flicks?). Ted Lewis (“Is everybody happy?”) and his orchestra provide the entertainment, along with singing sensations The Andrews Sisters. Of course the boys get fired because of Lou’s bumbling, and return to their regular jobs as gas pump jockeys. Along comes gangster Moose Matson, and clumsy Lou accidentally fires a gun he finds in Matson’s back seat. This gets the cops attention, and they chase down Matson with Bud and Lou in tow. Matson is killed by the police and, according to his will, the boys (being “the last people with me when I die”)  inherit his roadhouse, the Forrester’s Club.

Left to right: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Evelyn Ankers, Joan Davis and Richard Carlson in HOLD THAT GHOST (1941), directed by Arthur Lubin.
Left to right: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Evelyn Ankers, Joan Davis and Richard Carlson in HOLD THAT GHOST (1941), directed by Arthur Lubin.

Crooked lawyer Bannister and his associate Charlie Smith are trying to get ahold of Matson’s hidden loot. They set Bud and Lou up with a ride from a disreputable bus service. But the greedy driver books some other fares,including professional radio “screamer” Camille Brewster, pretty young Norma Lind, and nerdy scientist Dr. Jackson. The driver strands them all at the Forrester’s Club, a spooky, cobweb-infested, rundown hotel. That’s when the fun begins, as they encounter dead bodies, hidden rooms, clutching hands, and the usual things one finds in “old, dark house” movies. The boys end up finding the hidden money and chase off the villians. Dr. Jackson discovers the waters at the roadhouse have “miraculous therapeutic powers”, and the duo turn the old place into their own swanky nightclub, complete with Ted Lewis and company. The Andrews Sisters swing out to their hit “Aurora” and ‘everybody’s happy’ at the end.

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Abbott and Costello were at their peak in this entry, and their incredible wordplay still astounds me. I especially enjoyed the “figure of speech” routine, aided by funny girl Joan Davis (Camille). Davis, a veteran of radio and vaudeville, more then holds her own with Lou in the slapstick department, almost stealing the film. Their comic dance sequence is hysterical, as is the old “moving candle” routine (later reprised in ABBOT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, on top of Dracula’s coffin). Joan Davis went on to star in the early 50s television sitcom I MARRIED JOAN, and passed away in 1961.

HOLD-THAT-GHOST (1)

A Universal cast is worth repeating, and this film’s no exception. The studio’s resident “Scream Queen” Evelyn Ankers plays Norma, and shows a comedic side not usually seen in her fright films. Richard Carlson (Dr. Jackson) was just beginning his picture career, which would take him to sci-fi fame in CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and It Came From Outer Space. Mischa Auer, Shemp Howard, Marc Lawrence, Milton Parsons, and Thurston Hall all add to the fun. The animated title sequence may (or may not) be by “Woody Woodpecker” creator Walter Lantz (I can’t find any info on this….does anyone out there know?). HOLD THAT GHOST holds its own in the spooky deserted house creepstakes and it’s a funny showcase for stars Abbott & Costello and comedienne Joan Davis. Watch it with the kids this Halloween!!

And now here’s a link to The Andrews Sisters singing their hit song “Aurora”!!

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