The squat self-deprecating ‘fatso’ and his ever cynical straight man: was there ever a more perfect comedy team than Bud Abbott and Lou Costello? For, although the era in which they worked was a hotbed of now iconic lowbrow comedy acts; the Marx Bros., The Three Stooges, and, Laurel and Hardy among them; arguably, no one could pull off the mind-boggling split second timing in wordy repartee better than Bud and Lou. ‘Who’s on First?’ has become such a zeitgeist in the popular lexicon (voted by Time Magazine as the greatest comedy sketch of the 20th century) that in hindsight one tends to forget the myriad of contributions ‘the boys’ (as they were known around the Universal backlot) made to popular culture. On stage, on the radio, in the movies and finally, on television, Abbott and Costello blazed a trail, the likes of which has never been equaled in the annals of great comedy teams; becoming the inspiration for hundreds of comedians who came afterward. If not for their affinity to remain true to their Burlesque roots, we might have lost an entire era in America’s history of popular entertainments; their riotous sketches, populating 36 movies; 28 made for then beleaguered Universal Studios.
There’s no denying it: Universal was in a very bad way when it chose to gamble on a lavish musical, One Night in the Tropics (1940), casting Abbott and Costello in support of Alan Jones, Nancy Kelly and Robert Comings. The popularity of the studio’s first cycle in gothic horror had run out of steam and their number one star, soprano, Deanna Durbin was increasingly proving a handful. Despite Universal’s spectacular investment of time and money, One Night in the Tropics was not a hit. And yet, perhaps in part because of their enduring longevity on the radio, Bud and Lou caught the vapors of public interest; audiences and critics alike warming to their comedic comfortability on the screen. Universal could sense something new in the wind, and decided to build a picture around its two costars. Buck Privates (1941) was an immediate box office sensation; one of the biggest and brightest money makers in years, its infectious blend of war-themed patriotism, uber-silly Burlesque routines and ‘The Andrews Sisters’ – effectively giving Universal a formula they wasted no time in exploiting. In 1941, Bud and Lou appeared in four movies; three of them devoted to the boys’ involvement in various branches of the U.S. armed forced. But it was the anomaly in this early cycle – a spooky comedy - ‘Hold That Ghost!’ that, at least in hindsight, would foreshadow a latter-day renaissance for the team.
However, behind the laughter and congenial public facades, Abbott and Costello were infrequently something less than good humored. Lou, a fiery little dynamo, regularly clashed with his directors over the material they were being given. And there was more than a hint of resentment about being chronically typecast as the childlike simpleton. After all, Lou’s earliest ambitions had been to become a serious actor rather than a comedian. Fortuitously, this way to fame and fortune was barred. The dates are a little sketchy, but Abbott and Costello likely crossed paths for the first time somewhere around 1935 while doing the Vaudeville circuit; electing, after a brief and successful stint, to go their separate ways before finally reuniting nine months later. It’s no secret; most of the routines Bud and Lou mined to perfection – first, on the radio and stage, in their movies, and later, on television – were time-honored chestnuts from Burlesque; perennially resurrecting these warhorses for newer audiences and in different mediums, stemming from their expert calibration of split-second timing to elicit maximum laughter. Like the enduring popularity of the great American song books from this same era, the comedic routines of Abbott and Costello have since been ensconced as celebrated masterworks in the steamer trunk of America’s vintage shtick.
Were, that their private lives could have been as rosy. But hardship, self-doubt, gambling debts, health concerns and tragedy only added to the mounting friction between Bud and Lou. In reality, Lou’s on-stage innocence obscured what, behind closed doors, was a fairly aggressive personality. Harboring a grudge against Abbott ever since the proceeds from their professional union had been divided 60/40 in Bud’s favor, Lou would later demand all future earnings be split 60/40 in his favor. He also renewed an objection to billing. Universal’s management stood their ground. They had hired ‘Abbott and Costello’, not the other way around. As negotiations progressed, Universal agreed to up Lou’s salary. Although not the split he had hoped for, Costello decidedly made more than Abbott from their movies, stirring additional animosity between them. Lou’s frequent cracks about ‘straight men’ being a dime a dozen while genuine comedians were a rarified lot, also did not sit well with Bud; particularly, as he knew what Lou’s career had been without him. Alas, and despite these indignations, as the years passed, Bud and Lou became devoted to each other on and off the screen. Hence, when Lou’s infant son drowned in a backyard pool incident in 1943, just shy of his first birthday, Bud – who had been godfather to the boy – was the first to arrive on the scene and comfort an understandable erratic Lou. Director, Charles Barton has recalled how, in their later films, Bud drank rather heavily to conceal and temper the effects of his chronic epilepsy; replying on Lou to ‘snap him out of it’ when the tremors became so awful that nothing short of a sock pump to the ribs would suffice.
By 1954, Universal had tired of Bud and Lou…or perhaps it was the other way around. For some time, Lou was increasingly irritated by the material; in fact, all but refusing to shoot 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (renown today as one of their all-time great comedies); telling co-screenwriter, Robert Lees, “My daughter can write better stuff than that!” To some extent, one can sympathize with Lou’s detachment and frustrations. Here was the studio’s number one box office draw – a record remarkably held for nearly an entire decade – despite Universal’s executive logic, never to allow the team a respite from the screen; thereby never whetting the public’s appetite for more. Every time a new Bud and Lou picture was dumped onto the market, Universal circled the wagons with several elaborate double bill reissues from their back catalog. The few loan outs endured along the way, mostly to MGM, for one shiny musical extravaganza (1942’s Rio Rita) and two rather turgidly scripted programmers (Lost in the Harem 1944, and, Abbott and Costello in Hollywood 1945); after 1955’s Abbott and Costello meet The Mummy, Universal officially let Bud and Lou go. They were hardly big news and not nearly as light on their feet. In hindsight, Lou’s fragile heart and was slowly getting the better of him, as was Bud’s epilepsy.
Nevertheless, the boys trudged onward; appearing in a half-hour TV series for 52 episodes; most drawing on situations reworked from their Burlesque routines. In 1957, Lou dissolved their partnership for good to pursue a solo stand-up career in Vegas. It was short lived. On March 3, 1959, Lou Costello died of a heart attack at the age of 53. His widow would barely outlast him, dying in December that same year – presumably of a broken heart – at the age of 47. “There are only two times my dad cried,” Bud’s daughter, Vickie Abbott Wheeler would later recall, “When his brother, Harry died and when he heard about Lou.” Bud Abbott would outlive his partner by nearly 15 years; in the interim, attempting a comeback with Candy Candido and later, committing his own voice to a Hanna-Barbera animated series in which Stan Irwin’s brilliant vocalizations subbed in for Lou. A series of epilepsy-related strokes did much to slow Bud down. In 1972, he broke his hip. Two years later, he died of cancer at the age of 78. Asked by a reporter to quantify the loss, comedian and contemporary, Groucho Marx perhaps gave the most fitting epitaph, calling Bud Abbot “the greatest straight man who ever lived.”
Life and art are rarely reconciled; much less, do they run a parallel course. Mercifully, the films of Abbott and Costello evoke a vibrant heritage. Without them, we would have no record of these time-honored Burlesque sketches. Bud and Lou may not have invented many of the routines they repeatedly mined for laughs in their Universal Pictures; but they nevertheless, sold each as slickly packaged slapstick with precision-based timing that has made a good deal of their legacy endure amongst the most cherished movie land memories from our collective consciousness. Moreover, the team’s razor-sharp delivery is unmistakable; quick and snappy with an elegantly playful and refined play on words; most memorably displayed in their iconic ‘Who’s on First?’ performed in two separate movies for Universal; One Night In The Tropics and The Naughty Nineties (1945). In all, Bud and Lou were partnered together for a record 21 years, 460 radio broadcasts and 36 motion pictures; to say nothing of their numerous television and Broadway performances. They hold a hallowed place in our hearts, and remain the only comedy team in history to have 5 stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: each, their own; one for their work in radio, another for their mega-contribution in motion pictures, and yet another for their body of work on TV, to say nothing of their 3 Hall of Fame inductions in baseball, radio and New Jersey.
Perhaps, as Frank Morgan astutely points out to Jack Haley’s Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz (1939), “…a heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.” In the intervening decades, Bud and Lou have been beloved by comics, audiences and critics alike. And like the preamble to Oz, “time has been powerless to set (their) kindly philosophies out of fashion.” They endure, partly because we could all use a good clean laugh these days; moreover, because to bask in the afterglow of their magnificent genius is to be royally entertained as few actors – much less, comedians – have been able to do so consistently and for so many years. While profitability ought never be considered the barometer by which greatness is measured, it behooves the reader to reconsider that in 1941 alone, Bud and Lou’s 4 movies were responsible for 25% of Universal’s gross, and this, spread over 56 other features made that same year!
Now, Universal Home Video has reissued its lavishly appointed ‘trunk’ box set in scaled down packaging with Abbott and Costello: The Complete Universal Pictures Collection. As its predecessor, this set includes all 28 movies made at Universal beginning with One Night In The Tropics (1941) and ending with their bow out; 1954’s “…Meet The Mummy.” Any thorough analysis of these films is futile in a review format. Suffice it to say, what’s here is pure gold, beginning with One Night in the Tropics: in retrospect, Universal testing the waters with a wacky musical claptrap in which Bud and Lou play second fiddle to crooner, Alan Jones, cast as a ‘love insurance’ salesman, while dodging would-be thugs sent to apprehend a wayward friend, millionaire, Steve Harper (Robert Cummings). Infused with some memorable routines and also a stellar score written by Jerome Kern, One Night in the Tropic may not be first-tier A&C, but it does not miss that mark by much; a highly enjoyable excursion.
The boys’ early cinematic tenure is a rapid succession of megahits; 1941 alone, launches Buck Privates, In The Navy, Hold That Ghost and Keep ‘Em Flying. In Buck Privates, Bud and Lou are accidentally drafted into the army, with similar circumstances befalling them in the U.S. Navy and air force in the aforementioned other movies. The one exception to these patriotic flag wavers is Hold That Ghost, a riotous spook-fest of a murder mystery in which the pair inherits a rundown tavern from a deceased bootlegger. Virtually all of these excursions feature musical performances by The Andrews Sisters – Patti, Maxim and Laverne; a hot swing and jitterbug trio that, for a while, became an inseparable part of the A&C Universal formula; the studio cranking out A&C movies like link sausage. Hold That Ghost is also notable for the superb foil, Joan Davis, cast as a pseudo-love interest for Lou, or as Lou explains it, “We had a runaway marriage…she bought the license and I ran away!” Lou was not particularly fond of Davis, perhaps realizing she was not merely an appendage to their routines but a formidable comedienne in her own right who, in several of the movie’s key comic vignettes, all but steals the show. In hindsight, Hold That Ghost has held up remarkably well; its deft blend of comedy and scares foreshadowing Bud and Lou’s later outings, facing down virtually all of the studio’s classic monsters.
1942’s roster of A&C classics begins in earnest with Ride ‘Em Cowboy; a musical, casting Bud and Lou as an unlikely pair a dude ranch hands. The picture also features a very young Ella Fitzgerald in a classic performance of ‘A Tisket, A Tasket’; and the Pied Pipers warbling a few ditties along the dusty trail. The laughs continue with Pardon My Sarong as Bud and Lou become stranded on a tropical island and find themselves at the mercy of native savages. The year’s piece de resistance, however, Who Done It?: a radio-land murder mystery gone awry when Bud and Lou set themselves up to solve a real crime taking place within the confines of a broadcast of the popular ‘Murder at Midnight’ series; eventually unearthing a coded message by a Nazi sympathizer. The film is also notable for Mary Wickes’ strong performance as smart-talking script doctor, Juliet Collins, whom Lou attempts to woo, merely to land a spot on the radio. “…and the moral of the story is ‘crime doesn’t pay’…and neither did she!”
By 1943, Bud and Lou’s Teflon-coated reputations with audiences were secured: Universal pouring all of its resources into a Damon Runyon-esque musical; It Ain’t Hay – available for the first time in this collection after a long and embattled rights issue. Bud and Lou are befuddled taxi drivers who help a young girl who drives a hack in Central Park fulfill her dreams of entering her pony in the Grand National. In Hit The Ice, Bud and Lou find work as a pair of waiters at a Sun Valley Resort, forced to dodge the mob after becoming embroiled in a scheme to defraud the retreat. By the end of 1943, Bud and Lou needed a break; both from work and each other. Although the aforementioned movies made this year were box office winners, the returns were bolstered significantly by Universal’s reissues of Hold That Ghost and Who Done It? And Lou had suffered the loss of his only son, a scar that as Maxim Andrews would later recollect, “…changed him forever.” Besides, temperaments between Bud and Lou had flared on the set of both movies. While Universal regrouped with plans to relaunch their most lucrative franchise, Lou would see to it the team made only three movies the following year; the first, In Society (1944) a rather tepid distraction with Bud and Lou mistaken for members of the social elite, invading a country club, and later crashing an estate auction in which a world-famous painting is stolen. The second outing, Here Come The Co-Eds (1944) – yet another musical offering, but this one without The Andrews Sisters – was set at Bixby; a fictional all-girl’s college where, as janitors, the boys attempt to save the school from foreclosure. Finally, there was The Naughty Nineties – a careworn rehash of the team’s Vaudeville performances, notable only for preserving the complete ‘Who’s on First?’ routine on celluloid; all of it set aboard a river boat circa 1890.
By 1946, Bud and Lou were at each other’s throats. Not only were they dissatisfied with Universal’s marketing of their movies, they were increasingly becoming aware the material in their last few movies had been substandard, strictly – and rather cruelly – devised by Universal to capitalize on their box office appeal. At times like this, Lou had a remarkably simple plan to counterbalance this studio greed. He simply would not show up to work – holding up production for days while feigning illness. Hence, in 1946, Universal regrouped and compensated the team with two of its most unusual properties; the first – Little Giant, proved a minor disaster. For the first time, Bud and Lou played characters unknown to one another. Based on a stage hit (another departure for the team), the film version of Little Giant did not gel with the public. It lost money, and deservedly so, as it quite simply lacked the old A&C chemistry audiences were expecting. Not having learned the lesson, Universal’s second attempt to keep Bud and Lou apart in The Time of Their Lives, equally failed to find its audience. However, unlike Little Giant, The Time of Their Lives is a superbly scripted ‘ghostly fantasy’ with a preamble set during America’s revolutionary war; Lou and costar, Marjorie Reynolds (pregnant at the time), shot to death after being mistaken for traitors and seemingly destined to haunt Danbury acres forever. For his part, Bud played a modern-day descendent of Lou’s old arch nemesis, determined to rectify the no good of his ancestors and help set the ghosts free.
The Time of Their Lives is a particularly engaging film; chiefly, because it does not play to the old Burlesque routines; also, in part, due to the superb casting of Binnie Barnes as the street savvy, Mrs. Dean and Gale Sondergaard as an extremely unsettling and strangely morbid housekeeper, Emily, who, in the movie’s pivotal séance, channels the spirit of Lady Melody’s long dead lover, Thomas Danbury and helps guide the ghosts to discovering a clue that will set them free from the curse upon their souls. Universal had always had luck with casting Bud and Lou in comedy ghost capers in the past. But after the box office failure of The Time of Their Lives the studio attempted to turn back the clock with a sequel to one of their brightest money makers of 1942: 1947’s Buck Privates Come Home; the boys returning to a post war milieu and patriotism, this time as newly returned veterans, attempting to adopt a war refugee. Their second outing from this same year; The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap proved one of the most dissatisfying and problematic movies in their cannon. For starters, its premise has everyone ganging up on Lou, who is more elfin and child-like than ever. Even Bud gets his licks in, making it strangely vindictive and distasteful. Second, the picture was responsible for taking a genuine toll on Lou’s health. After several months of recuperation, Bud and Lou came back with one of their best movies ever: 1947’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein: an instant classic, co-starring Bela Lugosi (as Count Dracula), Lon Chaney Jr. (as the 'Wolf Man') and Lenore Aubert as the sultry Dr. Sandra Mornay in a plot centering on the good doctor attempting to transplant Lou's brain into the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange). The movie has since been voted by the AFI as one of the 100 greatest comedies of all time.
In hindsight, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein relaunched the A&C franchise and elevated the team’s sagging popularity back into the top ten box office draws. Apart from 1948’s Mexican Hayride, a rather turgidly scripted ‘south of the border’ romp, in which Lou must masquerade as a famous bullfighter, and later, a Spanish senorita to escape desperadoes, the remainder of A&C’s Universal outings would be spent combating ...The Killer: Boris Karloff (1949), ...The Invisible Man (1951), ...Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1953) and finally, ...The Mummy (1955). In between these classic comedy/horror movies, Universal allowed the team to make some featherweight comedies; each, valiantly trying to recapture the magic of their earlier flights into screwball; Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion (1950), Lost In Alaska (1952), …Go To Mars (1953) and …Meet The Keystone Cops (1955). The singular highlight of these latter pictures remains Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy. Interestingly, Boris Karloff, who had turned down the plum offer to reprise his Frankenstein monster in the most lucrative of A&C’s monster mashups, claiming “Abbott and Costello ruined the monsters”, would trade on his popularity to co-star with the boys in two of their more forgettable monster movies. But ‘…Meet the Mummy’ is a delicious nod to the old A&C magic; Bud and Lou bumbling into the murder of a famed archeologist and forced to submit to the devious viper (played with impeccable venom by Marie Windsor), who is out to discover the mummy of Clarice; unaware the two hundred year old relic is still very much alive and ready to exact its revenge on all who dare relocate its sarcophagus.
While Abbott & Costello Meet The Mummy was a big hit for Universal, bringing Bud and Lou back to the forefront in popularity that had steadily waned since 1948, the studio was no longer interested in maintaining the team that, for so many lean years during the war, had meant the difference between operating in the black and teetering on the brink of foreclosure. In hindsight, it’s probably just as well. This movie capped off Bud and Lou’s Universal movie career on a very high note. Apart from one other, Dance, With Me Henry (1956), made for United Artists, A&C confined the body of their later work to television before officially marking an end to one of the most successful comedy acts in U.S. history. In 1965, Universal paid homage to the boys with ‘The World of Abbott and Costello’ – a very loose assembly of some of their funniest bits into a retrospective, narrated by Jack E. Leonard. Throughout the mid-60s, as the old guard and studio system continued to crumble, it became fashionable for studios to mine the legacy of their ‘old’ stars for nostalgia and profit. Alas, The World of Abbott and Costello was not a moneymaker for Universal. Nevertheless, the movies would find renewed interest with fans on TV in the early 1970’s; edited for time constraints, interrupted by commercials and shown early Sunday mornings.
In the mid-1990’s Universal began producing LaserDisc sets of A&C’s more popular movies: a ‘monster’ themed set in 1994, with a specially produced ‘Abbott and Costello meet The Monsters’ featurette; and later, another compendium of their earliest comedies; this time with a preamble by noted TV comedian, Jerry Seinfeld. With the advent of DVD, Universal inaugurated a more comprehensive four part ‘franchise’ collection, each set containing six A&C movies in chronological order; alas, released on the inferior DVD-18 flipper disc format and not remastered. Then, in 2003, Universal reissued the A&C catalog yet again, this time as Abbott and Costello: The Complete Universal Pictures Collection. Much to the relief of fans, the fallible DVD-18’s were gone, replaced by the more reliable DVD-9’s.
Better still, Universal had elected to go back and remaster virtually all of the titles for this deluxe reissue; albeit, some with more care and attention paid than others. There remains, as example, an oversight on A&C Meet Frankenstein, the original Universal logo replaced by a reissue logo, revealing the studio went to a second generation print to remaster this movie. In 2014, Universal repackaged this same set in a more compact case and at a fraction of the cost of the original. Rest assured, the disc content included in both sets is identical, as is the reproduction of a beautifully assembled booklet of essays, fun facts and reminiscences from the children of Abbott and Costello. There are six very comprehensive audio commentaries from noted historians and authors on Buck Privates, Hold that Ghost, Who Done It?, The Time of Their Lives, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and, curiously, Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Several of the transfers in this collection have received significant upgrades over the old Universal ‘franchise’ releases. On the whole, the B&W image is mostly impressive; the movies, housed two per disc for a total of 15 discs. While compression issues do not crop up, I find it rather skinflint of Universal not to offer us separate discs (1) movie per each to maximize the bit rate and produce even more refined image quality. But perhaps the studio is running true to form. Maxim Andrews would always claim working at Universal was ‘just awful’ – “They never spent a dime more than they had to on any of our pictures and squeezed every last red cent from the reissues. We didn’t even get a ‘thank you’.” As I pointed out earlier, certain movies fair better in image quality. The best of the lot exhibit razor-sharp clarity and a very nicely contrasted gray scale with a solid smattering of indigenous film grain reproduced and age-related artifacts tempered. A few of the lesser known features have not been given this same consideration or the necessary clean-up and show obvious signs of age-related wear and tear.
But it’s the marginal imperfections I could have done without: like the hair caught in the gate during the animated credit sequence to Hold That Ghost. Even if the hair was printed into the sequence, it could have easily been removed digitally for this reissue. I also find it somewhat appalling that more A&C hasn’t found its way to Blu-ray. To date, Universal has only given us Buck Privates and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in hi-def. The audio on all the films included in this collection is mono, but nicely cleaned up. Bottom line: for now, at least, this is the definitive Abbott and Costello movie experience. The movies made apart from Universal are understandably – if regrettably – absent from this set. Now, wouldn’t it be something if Universal could work out a rights issue with Warner Home Video and MGM/Fox to give us a comprehensive set of all their movies on Blu-ray? Hmmmm. Okay, wishing doesn’t make it so and I sincerely will not be holding my breath for this one any time soon. But Abbott and Costello: The Complete Universal Pictures Collection is a superb offering from Universal. It belongs on everyone’s top shelf of must haves. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)