Tuesday, April 17, 2012

BUCK PRIVATES: Blu-ray (Universal 1941) Universal Home Video

Few comedians of any vintage have been as justly celebrated as Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. The boys have six stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame – one each respectively for their careers in radio, film and on television. Even more impressive, Abbott and Costello found almost immediate and, most certainly enduring, success regardless of the mediums they tackled. Put bluntly – these boys were pros. Arguably the greatest ‘straight’ man who ever lived, Bud Abbott’s infallible seriousness and cynicism was perfectly matched by Lou Costello’s infantilized charm and mischievous innocence. Behind the scenes their partnership was rarely as idyllic. Lou was infrequently tyrannical, often incurring Bud’s discontent and the wrath of his directors. If their friendship was occasionally tenuous, their on screen partnership at Universal Studios was never anything but secure between 1939 and 1951. In fact, A&C were the number one box office draw – not only at Universal, but around the world - four years running, immediately following the release of Buck Privates (1941). Taking a cue from their days in burlesque, Bud and Lou chose to remain faithful to the routines that had made them famous on the stage – reviving a good many for the camera; slightly sanitized and delivered with rapid sure fire wit. Their timing in the movies could not have been better.
By 1941 Universal was a studio struggling to reinvent itself after an initial flourish of Deanna Durbin musicals and supernatural horror legends like Dracula and Frankenstein had outstayed their welcome. A&C brought something fresh and exciting to Universal’s back lot – comedy - and for the next decade they dominated box office intake as few stars at any studio could. For many, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello didn’t just work for Universal during this period – they were Universal Studios. Owing to their fame and fortunes fattening studio coffers their movies were afforded lavish budgets. Still, Lou was always pressing for more artistic integrity. Rarely loaned out to do such stellar work elsewhere Bud and Lou effectively ended their Universal tenure in 1951 after 36 films – 28 of them made for their alma mater.
Arthur Lubin’s Buck Privates (1941) represents the team at the cusp of super stardom. They are appropriately cast as a pair of lovable con artists; Slicker Smith (Bud) and Herbie Brown (Lou). The boys are perpetrating their fraud on a street corner, peddling poor quality neckties to the unsuspecting crowd when they run into interference from police officer Michael Collins (Nat Pendleton). Slick and Herbie make rather a bad enemy of Collins, who hunts them down to an Army Recruitment Office where Slick and Herbie inadvertently sign up for boot camp to escape prison. What they soon discover is that Collins has been drafted and will very shortly become their drill sergeant. In another part of the office spoiled playboy, Randolph Parker III (Lee Bowman) is also enlisting in the draft, along with his long suffering chauffeur, congenial Bob Martin (Alan Curtis). It had been Randolph’s hope that his father (Douglas Woods) would be able to finagle a release from Maj. Gen. Emerson (Samuel S. Hinds). Bob, on the other hand, looks upon serving his country as an honor. Both men find themselves sparring for the affections of camp hostess Judy Gray (Jane Frazee).
Life on camp is fairly homey, what with The Andrews Sisters frequently breaking into song to entertain the troops and Herbie adding comic relief each time he screws up his seemingly straight forward duties, much to Sgt. Collin’s chagrin. Randolph proves himself a fairly able body with a rifle, but skips out on an integral shooting match for a date with Judy. His company loses the match and thereafter bitterly resents him for his lack of team spirit. This also costs him his relationship with Judy for the time being. She may be in love, but she won’t settle for a dodger as a boyfriend. However, during a war game exercise Randolph manages to save Bob’s life. His valor creates quite a rouse and he is accepted by his unit, winning back Judy’s admiration as well. A telegram arrives at base camp, informing Randolph that he has been accepted into Officer’s Training. Believing that his father had a hand in this appointment, Randolph turns it down.
But Sgt. Callahan (Harry Strang) informs Randolph that the army’s decision to admit him into the corps was based solely on his merit as a soldier in training. After learning that Bob and Judy have also been offered commissions in the OTS, Randolph willingly accepts his commission. Buck Privates is a rousing patriotic charmer. Premiering, as it did at the cusp of America’s involvement in WWII, the film was practically guaranteed success. A&C offer some fairly hilarious routines to liven the otherwise pedestrian love story scripted by John Grant and Arthur T. Horman. The best of A&C’s repartees are always an elegant byplay on words. ‘You’re ten/She’s forty’ illustrates the proper way to orchestrate a May/December romance. ‘Loan Me $50’ is a hoot of a swindle in which Slick cons Herbie out of all his army money. But perhaps the best of the lot is ‘Drill’ – as Slick attempts to pound some military precision into his undisciplined charges.
The Andrews Sisters give out with three instantly recognizable songs that became part of their touring repertoire: Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, I’ll Be With You In Apple Blossom Time, and, Bounce Me Baby With A Solid Four. The songs are mere inserts. That said; all are showstoppers. In later years The Andrews Sisters would frequently make cameo appearances to ‘liven up’ and/or merely stretch the run time of other A&C movies. But here they seem properly placed along with the other oddities in this menagerie.
Universal Home Video’s decision to release Buck Privates on Blu-ray as part of their 100th Anniversary celebration is a rather curious one: not because the film isn’t entertaining or deserving of a Blu-ray release, but rather because it is hardly the ‘one’ Abbott and Costello movie everybody fondly remembers as being their best. While individual tastes may differ, the fact remains that A&C’s most successful film at Universal (at least, in terms of box office dollars) was Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Personally, I’ve also been partial to Hold That Ghost, Who Done It?, The Time of Their Lives, and, A&C Meet The Mummy.
At any rate, Universal offers us a very nice 1080p transfer. A few years ago, Universal released a comprehensive box set of all the A&C movies, including Buck Privates on DVD and I do have to say that upon viewing both the DVD from that collection and this new Blu-ray I detected no quantum improvements between the two to firmly recommend a repurchase of this title on Blu-ray – especially if you already own the box set. That said; Buck Privates on Blu-ray looks grand. The gray scale is impeccably balanced. A few brief shots still suffer from a ‘thick’ characteristic, but otherwise there is absolutely nothing to disappoint. Film grain appears to have been tempered using DNR, though not excessively. The image is smooth and mostly free of age related artifacts. Close ups reveal quite a bit of fine detail.
The audio is a 2.0 DTS mix – not stereo, but mere mono coming out of two channels. It is remarkably clean and free of hiss and pop. Universal continues to leave its vintage catalogue titles on Blu-ray undernourished. We get the same old (and not terribly impressive either) featurette: A&C Meet Jerry Seinfeld in which the latter tries to articulate the team’s popularity for today’s audiences. We also get the oft regurgitated featurettes: ‘100 Years: Restoring the Classics’ and ‘Unforgettable Characters’ as well as an all too brief featurette on Carl Laemmle. Universal has handsomely packaged the film in a digipack hardcover booklet with a DVD copy too.
Bottom line: It’s Abbott and Costello. If you don’t already own the aforementioned box set then I suppose Buck Privates on Blu-ray is a good way to get your feet wet. My only question would be: ‘Why don’t you own the box set?!?’
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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