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THE BEST OF ABBOTT AND COSTELLO
Volume 1

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Andrews Sisters, Shemp Howard, Dick Foran, various
Director: Arthur Lubin, various
Audio: English mono
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
Video: Black & white, full-frame
Studio: Universal
Features: Trailers, production notes
Length: 661 minutes
Release Date: February 10, 2004

"Hey....Abbott!!!"

Film ****

Comedy duos are a rare breed in films today, but back in the old Hollywood studio era, they were quite common.  The 1930's had Laurel & Hardy with their slapstick humor, a throwback to the comedies of the silent era.  The 1950's had Martin & Lewis with their wise guy/idiot savant routine.  But in the 1940's, Abbott & Costello were the untouchable kings of comedy.  They were everywhere - on stage, on radio, and in films.  For the better part of two decades, they were essentially the most popular comedy act in showbiz.

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello originally teamed up on the burlesque stage.  As the legend goes, back in 1936 before one evening performance, Lou Costello's regular straightman fell sick and was unavailable.  Needing a quick substitute for the show, Costello asked another fellow on the same bill to fill in as a last-minute replacement.  That man was Bud Abbott, and the rest is history.  In fact, Costello eventually insisted that Abbott accept a 60% cut of their salary, citing that good straightmen were hard to come by, while comedians like himself were a dime a dozen.

Abbott & Costello's brand of humor emphasized occasional slapstick with rapid-fire verbal witticisms, a reflection of not only their burlesque background but also of the pre-television radio era, when families used to sit together in their living room each night to listen to radio broadcasts.  Abbott always played the fast-talkin' straight man, while Costello perfected the wisecrackin', slow-burnin', and eternally-befuddled, funny fat man.  After landing a gig on the Kate Smith Radio Hour, the pair very quickly became national celebrities thanks to the hilarity of their verbal exchanges and the pair's impeccable comic timing.

It was not long before Abbott & Costello fronted a show of their own to become radio's most popular comedy act.  The next logical step, then, was a leap onto the silver screen, and the film One Night in the Tropics (1940) gave Abbott & Costello their first big break.  Although the comedy duo only had minor roles in the film, they stole every single one of their scenes and were easily the most memorable players in the film.  Their next picture, Buck Privates (1941), gave Abbott & Costello top billing and smashed all kinds of records for Universal Pictures.  Thereafter, for nearly two decades, Abbott & Costello would remain among the top box office draws of any given year.

Now, at long last, these early vintage Abbott & Costello films are arriving on DVD, many for the first time.  Universal, the film company responsible for many of the best Abbott & Costello films, has assembled eight of the comedy duo's earliest films together in an attractive package entitled The Best of Abbott and Costello: Volume One.  Covering a period from 1940-1942, these eight films showcase some of the funniest Abbott & Costello moments on film.  So without further ado, let's take a look at the offerings!

1) One Night in the Tropics (1940)

"I am b-a-a-a-a-d boy!"

In this musical comedy, happy-go-lucky Steve (Robert Cummings) attempts to marry his gal Cynthia (Nancy Kelly) despite a variety of obstacles such as, oh, her aunt hating his guts and his former girlfriend Micky (pretty Peggy Moran) scheming at every twist and turn to ruin the approaching marriage and win him back.  Luckily, Steve's best friend Lucky (Alan Jones), an enterprising insurance man, dreams up a million-dollar policy for "love insurance" and tells Steve not to worry, everything will turn out okay, or his name isn't Lucky.  The film then goes into high screwball mood as things go badly very fast, and Cynthia sails off to the tropics, with Steve in hot pursuit to make amends.

What does all this have to do with Abbott or Costello?  Nothing much, really.  The boys only have supporting roles here as a pair of two-bit mugs named, appropriately enough, Abbott and Costello.  This film truly has a split personality - on the one hand, it is a second-rate Astaire-Rogers musical without Astaire or Rogers or even dance duets.  Thanks to the participation of Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields, and Roger Hammerstein, at least the songs are okay if occasionally silly (here's a sample of one song title - "Remind me not to find you so attractive").  Robert Cummings is spot-on as the typical adolescent character that Astaire played in his various RKO films, while Nancy Kelly is a dead ringer for a young Ginger Rogers.  I'm sure none of this was accidental on Universal's part.  Surprisingly, the only dance in the film comes at the end when a large ensemble of extras gets together in a festive celebration.  Judged as a musical, the film is corny but entertaining enough as far as these wartime musicals go.

On the other hand, One Night in the Tropics is also a vaudeville comedy.  The main plot frequently stops dead in its tracks to let Abbott & Costello work their verbal and slapstick magic.  Officially, the boys are hired musclemen (ha ha, yeah right) whose job it is to ensure that Steve and Cynthia's marriage occurs, but in actuality, they are really just around for pure comic relief.  Fortunately, the boys are downright hilarious.  Famous skits in this film include "Two Tens for a Five," "Jonah and the Whale," "Mustard," "365 Days' Firing," and best of all, the duo's classic "Who's On First?" skit, which makes its first (abridged) silver screen appearance in this film.  Anyone who have never before seen or heard the skit is in for a real treat because it is an absolute riot!

Of course, everything eventually turns out okay in the end.  There are hugs and kisses and finally a dance number.  And most significantly, in a sign of good times to come, the film ends on a parting shot of Abbott & Costello and just one more joke.

BONUS TRIVIA - William Frawley, the memorable landlord of the "I Love Lucy" show, has a small role in this film as the crooked insurer for Lucky's regrettable love policy and the shady employer of Abbott and Costello.

2) Buck Privates (1941)

"I don't wanna fight that guy; I ain't even mad at him."

One Night in the Tropics did not win any awards for originality, although critics unanimously singled out Abbott & Costello for praise.  Universal was quick to recognize a potential goldmine, so for Buck Privates, Abbott & Costello's next studio film, principal photography commenced in mid-December of 1940 with the film already out in theaters by the end of January 1941!  Not only did Abbott & Costello have top billing this time around, but their co-stars included the most popular singing trio of the day, the Andrews Sisters.

Buck Privates followed the white-bread Americana trend of many Hollywood films of the early world years - it was uplifting, boosted the public morale, and encouraged support for those whole-hearted All-American fighting boys.  The optimistic spirit of the film helped skyrocket Abbott & Costello to international stardom, and they never looked back afterwards.

The film begins with our boys as con men Slick (Abbott) and Herbie (Costello), peddling cheap neckties on a street corner.  The local cop gets wise to them and chases them into an army recruitment center, which the boys mistake for a movie hall.  Before they realize it, the boys have enlisted in Uncle Sam's army, and of course, who should end up as their drill sergeant at boot camp but the very same cop who had pursued them in the first place!

What little actual plot exists in the film essentially serves to set the stage for Abbott & Costello to revel audiences with some of their best stage and radio skits.  Those skits include "The Dice Game," a hilarious sequence in which Abbott drills Costello, and a boxing match for Costello that is reminiscent of the classic boxing match from Chaplin's City Lights.

Mixed into the fold are several musical numbers, many performed by the Andrews Sisters.  In fact, one tune, Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, became a smash hit and ruled the airwaves for weeks (and was even nominated for an Oscar).

Buck Privates ends with a finale that is pure propaganda for the army, featuring a huge wargame scenario.  Naturally, the boys' company comes through for the victory.  The final shot in the film has Costello (after losing badly at craps) in a wheelbarrow with the words "The End" on it.  This shot would establish a regular pattern in which many of the boys' films would end in inventive or funny ways to display the "The End" splash.

At the box office, Buck Privates made $4 million (at a time when ticket prices were only twenty-five cents).  It was a smash hit, Universal's biggest ever to that time, and generated heaps and heaps of publicity and goodwill for the American military.

BONUS TRIVIA - The Japanese propaganda machine used scenes of Abbott & Costello from Buck Privates to convince their own forces of the incompetence of American soldiers.  I guess it didn't work!

3) In the Navy (1941)

Costello:  "I ain't gonna fight those guys here.  I'll fight them on a field of honor."

Abbott:  "They got no honor."

Costello:  "That's okay, I ain't got no field."

Buck Privates had been so well-received that Universal temporarily halted production on the boys' next film, Oh Charlie!, for another military-themed film with Abbott & Costello.  So, once again the boys are back in the service, only this time, the Navy gets it!  Costello plays Pomeroy, a hapless navy cook who has only managed to last this long thanks to his ability to make the captain's favorite jelly doughnuts.  Abbott is his buddy Smokey, an engineer.  The boys befriend Russ Raymond (Dick Powell), a radio celebrity who has enlisted anonymously in the navy, despite being relentlessly hounded by a camera-tooting lady photographer.

The film is essentially a series of gags based around Russ's attempts, with help from the boys, to avoid having his picture taken.  There is also a sub-plot involving Costello's crush on Patty Andrews and his boasting and schemes to win her favor.  This also leads to a funny finale in which Costello dreams that he is the captain of the U.S.S. Alabama as he spins the boat around on maneuvers to impress the girls.

Along the way, the Andrews Sisters again get a chance to work their vocal magic.  While none of the songs are as memorable as Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, the tunes are still fun and tend to be of the morale-boosting variety.  As for Abbott & Costello, they work some of their stage and radio skits into the story, such as "The Lemon Bit" and the hysterical "7x13=28" (be careful of this one, Costello had me convinced that 7x13 really is 28!).

In the Navy was an even bigger hit than Buck Privates and cemented the boys' popularity with war-time audiences.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Fans of The Three Stooges should watch carefully for Shemp Howard, who has a cameo in this film (as well as in Buck Privates and the next Abbott & Costello film, too!).

4) Hold That Ghost (1941)

Abbott:  Why don't you talk to yourself?

Costello:  I get too many stupid answers.

This film is a favorite among many Abbott & Costello fans.  Production on this film, originally entitled Oh, Charlie!, was started immediately after the release of Buck Privates.  After the wild success of the boys' first two starring pictures, audiences clamored for more of the Andrew Sisters.  As a result, after production had already wrapped up, two musical numbers with the Andrews Sisters were filmed and quickly inserted into the picture.  Sadly, this film would be the final silver screen collaboration between the sisters and Abbott & Costello.

Hold That Ghost puts the boys into harm's way when they inherit an old, creaky house from a former mobster.  One dark and stormy evening, the boys find themselves stuck in the house with a trio of guests.  Soon, people start disappearing and things start going bump in the night.  Costello only wants is "a nice warm bed...to hide under," but apparently rumor has it that the ex-mobster had hidden a large fortune somewhere in the house, so there is no time for rest.  The hunt is on!  Abbott & Costello do fewer of their radio routines here and instead allow the comic potential of ghostly encounters and priceless double-takes by Costello to provide most of the laughs.  So, no sooner can you say "haunted house" then candles start moving by themselves, the furniture starts re-arranging itself, and, and even a dead body keeps appearing and disappearing.  It's all frightfully funny!

Anyone remember the song Me and My Shadow?  Originally co-written by Al Jolson, it is performed by Ted Lewis and his orchestra.  The Andrews Sisters also contribute a pair of tunes, including Aurora, sung at the end of the film.

5) Keep 'Em Flying (1941)

Raye:  Don't you like dancing?

Costello:  No, it's just a lot of hugging set to music.

Raye:  What don't you like about that?

Costello:  The music.

Well, Abbott & Costello have already joined the army and the navy, so that only leaves...the air force!  That's right, the boys are back in the military, this time as flying cadets.  Well, not quite; they are deemed so useless that they end up as handymen on the base, but at least they are contributing to the war effort.

Dick Foran, who appears in several of the early Abbott & Costello films, surfaces here as a barn-storming flyer who wants to prove his worth in the air force.  There is a sub-plot about the pre-war enmity that exists between him and the flight instructor as well another sub-plot involving Foran's sweetheart and her brother, who is also Foran's struggling cadet roommate.

Abbott & Costello have several funny gags in this film, including Costello's ride on a live torpedo (shades of Dr. Strangelove) and many hilarious encounters with Martha Raye.  Not only does she show off her fine comic skills in this film, but Keep 'Em Flying has a double dose of Martha Raye in a role as Gloria and her twin sister Barbara, both of whom befuddle Abbott & Costello throughout the film with their different personalities.  Raye even has an opportunity to do some singing!

Still, what is it about Martha Raye that always reminds me of dentures whenever I see her?  How strange.

6) Ride 'Em Cowboy (1942)

Costello (to Abbott):  Don't be scared of Indians.  You show me one Indian, and I'll show you a coward.

Indian:  I'm an Indian!

Costello:  I'm a coward.

Having conquered ghosts and the service, the boys pick up the ten-gallon hats this time around and pony up for some fun in the west.

The film starts with the boys as hired hands in their usual trouble, running away from an irate boss after they hot-foot him during a rodeo show.  They shanghai themselves on a train and end up in the frontier lands.  Fortunately, a local rancher from the Lazy S Ranch hires them as cowboys.  In a romantic sub-plot, Costello somehow ends up becoming engaged to an Indian gal, and when he runs off in a panic, the Indians give chase.  Their frequent appearances throughout the film offer a lot of comic moments for our boys.

In a second romantic sub-plot, the rancher's daughter falls for a cowboy star, Bronco Bob (Dick Foran), who has come to stay for a while at the ranch.  Bronco Bob is the quintessential singing cowboy as he woos the rancher's daughter and even learns a few things about real western living from her.  Further drama is provided by an upcoming rodeo competition with a grand first prize.  Bronco Bob wants to help the Lazy S Ranch win that rodeo show but not before he has to tangle with some seedy gambling types who try to take him out of the equation before the big show.  Fortunately, Abbott & Costello are around to help Bronco Bob save the day!

Overall, this is quite a fun film, featuring a lot of great comic gems.  It is a hoot to watch Costello on a bucking bronco and his futile attempts to milk a cow.  There is also a hilarious swimming pool-diving board sequence with Costello looking like a fool.  In fact, this film really offers Costello many opportunities to display his brand of physical humor.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Jazz great Ella Fitzgerald makes a rare film appearance, singing A-Tisket, A-Tasket.

7) Pardon My Sarong (1942)

Cop:  Will you go ahead and back up?

Costello:  How can I go ahead and then back up?

Abbott:  Back up!  Go ahead.

Costello:  What kind of bus do you think this is?  I'll satisfy the both of yous, I'll go sideways.

After being loaned out to MGM for Rio Rita, the boys returned to Universal for this film, originally titled Road to Montezuma.  It certainly feels like a typical Crosby-Hope Road picture with a canvas that wanders all over from Chicago to California to a tropical island.

Abbott & Costello play a pair of incompetent bus drivers from Chicago.  Two drivers for one bus?  It isn't long before the boys find themselves hopelessly lost somewhat on the outskirts of Los Angeles.  The bus itself ends up in the drink, and the boys are rescued from the waters by the captain of a sea-going racing yacht.  They are enlisted as the crew for his upcoming boat race, the only other crew member being a reluctant female saboteur who stops at nothing to sabotage the boat so her brother, the captain of the other boat, will win the race.

Naturally, the boys end up more lost, and everyone becomes stranded on an exotic tropical island filled with hunky native men and luscious native women who all look conspicuously like white Hollywood extras (they speak English very well, too).  Costello is mistaken for a hero, and after the island volcano erupts, it's up to him to challenge the volcano and save the day!

This film is one of the more bizarre films in this set, primarily because the plot is all over the place and makes no sense (typical of the Road pictures, anyway).  The sub-plot romance about the captain and his lovely saboteur isn't that interesting either.  Plus, Abbott & Costello do more slapstick humor than usual, as the verbal witticisms take a backseat in this picture.  To emphasize the physical humor of the movie, many of the action scenes (Costello running away from a cop, from cannibals, from mobsters, etc.) are sped up, so the film has the appearance of a Keystone comedy.  That leaves only the native girls to entertain us, and the best parts of this film probably come whenever those lovely ladies dance around in their hula skirts and bikini tops.

Okay, realism is not at a premium here, but the film does have its moments.  Even if it has the intellectual content of a Three Stooges film, Pardon My Sarong in its original release was a huge smash, second only to Mrs. Miniver (the eventual Oscar winner) at the box office that year.

8) Who Done It? (1942)

"Where's the butler?  What kind of murder is this without a butler?"

This is another fan favorite and rightly so as the boys conquer another genre, this time the murder mystery.  The president of a popular radio station has just been murdered live on the air, and it's up to Abbott & Costello to find out who done it!  In this film, they play a couple of soda jerks working at the concession stand inside the lobby of a huge broadcast building.  They want to break into the radio business writing murder mysteries, and the boys figure that if they pose as detectives and solve the murder case, they can land a job writing!  Things get more complicated when the real detectives show up and start chasing the boys around the building as suspects!

Who Done It?, featuring one of the better scripts for an Abbott & Costello film, is also the boys' first film not to include any musical interludes or dance sequences.  Frankly, the film doesn't require any tunes and succeeds quite spectacularly as a straight comedy.  In addition, the film noir elements which are peppered throughout the film, from shadowy figures and silhouettes to dizzy dames and gun fights, really enhance the style and look of the film.

Happily, the boys never let the film take itself too seriously.  There are wonderful gags involving a water fountain, a troupe of acrobats, a stupid cop and his handcuffs, and much more!  The boys even find a couple of opportunities to bring in quick references to their "Who's on First?" routine.  Among the skits, "Watts vs. Volts" is a riot!

Who Done It? was Abbott & Costello's finest film of 1942.  By the end of the year, the pair had catapulted to the number one spot at the box office, and they would remain near the top until their final film together in 1956.

Abbott & Costello, towards the end of their career together, tackled the new entertainment medium known as television.  They even had their own program for a couple of years, starting in 1952.  Later, on another TV program in 1956, host Steve Allen announced that, thanks to the immortal "Who's on First?" routine, Abbott & Costello had become the first non-baseball-playing celebrities ever to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame!

Comedy pairs like Abbott & Costello simply don't exist anymore in popular entertainment.  The closest thing to them today might be the uproariously hilarious Magliozzi Brothers, Tom and Ray, otherwise known as the hosts of public broadcasting radio's popular Car Talk.  But, the brothers are more interested in dishing out occasionally correct automotive advice on the radio than aspiring to the big screen.  The multi-media success of Abbott & Costello probably had to do as much with their talents as it did with the economics and social conditions of the times.  We may never again see a comedy team as beloved in radio, theater, and film as were Abbott & Costello, but at least we will always have their movies to cherish.

Video *** 1/2

So, how did Universal manage to squeeze eight movies onto only two DVDs?  Answer - they used dual-layered, double-sided flipper discs.  In other words, each DVD contains two movies on each side.  The films are less than ninety minutes apiece and are presented in their original black & white, full-frame format (widescreen did not exist back in those days).

The picture quality for these films is surprisingly pleasant.  The image is clear and fairly detailed.  The contrast levels are superb, and the films almost sparkle at times.  In acquiescence to their age, the films do have ubiquitous spatterings of dust marks here and there with a mild jingling of the frame from time to time but nothing significant enough to distract from the overall viewing experience.  I only wish all vintage black & white films could look this good!

Audio ** 1/2

As might be expected, the soundtrack of the eight films of this box set are monophonic.  The earlier films have a lot of background noise to them, too, but that just adds to their nostalgic, vintage feel.  The dynamic range is limited and the sound is sometimes screechy at the upper end but par for the course as far as these old movies go.  Audio synchronization is perfect, not including any scenes in which overdubbed dialogue obviously doesn't match lip movements.  Overall, Abbott & Costello fans should really have no problem with the way these fun films sound.

Features *

Understandably, with eight movies already taking up residence, the two discs in this set do not have a great deal of space left for many bonus features.  The only real extras available are several pages of production notes for each film and trailers for most of the films.  The production notes are actually quite informative and fun to read, so don't ignore them.

I also want to mention the exceptional packaging for these films.  The box itself is quite handsome, featuring a wealth of photos and promotional artwork inside and out.  The DVD menu screens, though simple, are appealing in their design, with each film's section having its own distinctive look.  Hold that Ghost, for example, features a ghostly cursor, while In the Navy has a torpedo-shaped menu cursor, and so on.  Little touches like these make the overall package a delight.

Summary:

You get eight great vintage movies for the price of one!  How is that not an absolute steal?  Considering that this collection gathers together some of the funniest early Abbott and Costello comedies, it merits a place in the DVD library of all fans of vintage Hollywood!  Highly recommended, so what are you waiting for?