THE BEST OF ABBOTT AND COSTELLO
Review by Ed Nguyen
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
Features: Trailers, production notes
Length: 661 minutes
Release Date: February 10, 2004
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.
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.
& 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
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.
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!
Night in the Tropics (1940)
am b-a-a-a-a-d boy!"
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.
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
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
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.
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.
don't wanna fight that guy; I ain't even mad at him."
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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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"
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.
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!
the Navy (1941)
"I ain't gonna fight those guys here.
I'll fight them on a field of honor."
"They got no honor."
"That's okay, I ain't got no field."
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.
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.
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!).
the Navy was
an even bigger hit than Buck Privates
and cemented the boys' popularity with war-time audiences.
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!).
That Ghost (1941)
Why don't you talk to yourself?
I get too many stupid answers.
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.
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!
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.
'Em Flying (1941)
Don't you like dancing?
No, it's just a lot of hugging set to music.
What don't you like about that?
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.
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.
& 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!
what is it about Martha Raye that always reminds me of dentures whenever I see
her? How strange.
'Em Cowboy (1942)
(to Abbott): Don't be scared of
Indians. You show me one Indian,
and I'll show you a coward.
I'm an Indian!
I'm a coward.
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.
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.
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!
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.
TRIVIA: Jazz great Ella Fitzgerald
makes a rare film appearance, singing A-Tisket,
My Sarong (1942)
Will you go ahead and back up?
How can I go ahead and then back up?
Back up! Go ahead.
What kind of bus do you think this is?
I'll satisfy the both of yous, I'll go sideways.
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
& 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.
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!
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.
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
Done It? (1942)
the butler? What kind of murder is
this without a butler?"
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!
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.
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!
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.
& 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!
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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.