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BEST OF ABBOTT AND COSTELLO
Volume 2

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, various
Director: Charles Lamont, Jean Yarbrough, Charles Barton
Audio: English mono
Subtitles: English, French
Video: Black & white, full-frame
Studio: Universal
Features: Production notes, trailers
Length: 654 minutes
Release Date: May 4, 2004

Costello:  "Whats the guys name on first base?!"
Abbott:  "No, What is on second!"
Costello:  "Im not asking you whos on second!"
Abbott:  "Whos on first."
Costello:  "I dont know."
Abbott:  "Oh, hes on third."

Films *** 1/2

Early in 2004, Universal released Volume 1 of The Best of Abbott and Costello on DVD.  It was an attractive and well-designed collector's set that gathered together some of the funniest of the early Abbott & Costello comedies.  The arrival of Volume 2 now on DVD once again gives fans of these Hollywood studio-era comedians a renewed cause to celebrate.  As with the first set, Volume 2 contains eight vintage films featuring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, this time covering a period from 1943-47.

Anyone who has never seen an Abbott & Costello film before will be in for a treat here.  The comedians are again at the top of their game, with bossy straight man Abbott feeding those classic lines to plump and funny Costello.  Included in this DVD set is a complete version of Abbott & Costello's most famous skit, "Who's on First?" (in The Naughty Nineties).  All the films in this set showcase Abbott & Costello's successful blend of slapstick comedy with radio skits and burlesque routines.  Fabulously popular in their day, these movie comedies helped the still-young Universal studio transform from a B-rate production company into one of the major movie studios.

The early Abbott & Costello films were often musical comedies and featured the likes of the Andrews Sisters and Ella Fitzgerald.  Many were also propaganda films designed to boost morale on the home front as well during the early war years.  By the end of the world war, the golden age of the Hollywood musical started to wane, and Abbott & Costello began to take their films into new directions.  So, read on below for the scoop on these vintage comedies:

1) Hit the Ice (1943)

Abbott: "We've got to follow those crooks and prove they robbed the bank."
Costello:  "I don't mind following them.  There's only one thing bothers me."
Abbott:  "What's that?"
Costello:  "We might catch up to 'em."

After two blazing years in which Abbott & Costello appeared in eight pictures (seven of them for Universal), the pair would thereafter only average one or two new releases a year.  In part, this was due to the escalation of America's involvement in the second world war, as the boys began to increasingly devote their time to touring for the war effort.  At one point, they raised $85 million in war bonds in just over one month!

Fortunately, Abbott & Costello did not lose a step at the box office, and Hit the Ice finds the boys in fine comic form.  In this musical comedy, they play a pair of freelance photographers who are mistaken for bank robbers.  To clear their name, Abbott & Costello must track down the actual bank robbers, even while those same robbers are scheming to rub them out.  There are also the usual silly sub-plots, such as a romance involving a doctor and a nurse.

As for the songs, they are generally ridiculous, with tell-tale titles such as "I'm Like a Fish Out of Water" and "Slap-Happy Polka."  The songs are completely random and hold no connection to the plot, other than perhaps giving Ginny Simms, who has a minor role in the film as a semi-romantic interest for Costello's puppy love, an opportunity to sing with the backing of the Johnny Long Orchestra.

Abbott & Costello get plenty of opportunities to perform their usual skits.  Routines include "Packing/Unpacking" and "Piano (Alright!)."  In addition, some great (and rather dangerous-looking) stunt work involve the pair struggling with a fire engine and ambulance.  Best of all, there is a thrilling finale featuring a getaway chase on skis, complete with guns and plenty of snow.  Eat your heart out, James Bond!

Hit the Ice was directed by silent film vet Charles Lamont.  It was such a happy success that Lamont would return for eight further collaborations with Abbott & Costello.

2) In Society (1944)

Crazy Lady:  "My husband's dead, he's dead!"
Costello:  "He ain't dead, lady, he's hiding!"

Hit the Ice was another solid hit for the boys, but regrettably, Costello developed a bad case of rheumatic fever after its completion.  It would be more than a year before he was healthy enough again to begin work on the boys' next film, In Society.  Happily, on his return, Costello proved that his comic instincts were as sharp as ever.  This time, the boys play a pair of inept plumbers.  One evening, they are summoned to an upper crust mansion to repair a leaky faucet.  Naturally, they only make matters worse as they flood the mansion and are last seen drifting away in a bathtub.

As fate would have it, they are laughingly mistaken for a pair of society gents and receive an invitation to another high-class social function.  This time, they hope to reverse their fortunes and somehow promote their plumbing company.  In Society, directed by Jean Yarbrough, was filmed on location in a stately mansion and recalls the mania of the Marx Brothers' Animal Crackers.  Yarbrough would go on to direct Abbott & Costello in five more of their films as well as several episodes of their TV show from the 1950's.

On the musical side, In Society features Marion Hutton, vocalist for the Glenn Miller Orchestra, in a silly romantic sub-plot.  She has a role as a female taxi driver who befriends Abbott & Costello.  She's at her best, though, when she's singing, such as in the bubbly "No Doubt about It."

In Society was the boys' most expensive film to date, in part due to the location shooting and in part due to the impressive stunt work.  Among the set pieces are a plumbing sequence that was partially filmed in a huge tank and a climactic fire truck chase finale that features an extended ladder on a speeding fire truck!  As for the comedy skits, In Society offers the boys' hilarious and crazy Susquehanna Hat sequence.  It's a hoot!  Clearly, Universal, which heavily promoted the film, was eager to focus the spotlight back upon the boys.  The ploy succeeded - In Society was a smash hit with audiences and critics alike.

3) Here Come the Co-Eds (1945)

Costello:  "Hey you, there's only one reason why I don't punch you in the nose, and that's because I'm bigger than you are."
Lou Chaney:  "I'm bigger than you are!"
Costello:  "That's a better reason."

In Here Come the Co-Eds, the boys go back to school.  There's a twist - they're packing their bags for Bixby College, an all-girl's college!  Actually, they aren't students, just the local caretakers, but it is still not a bad gig, considering that early in the film, the boys literally blow up their last jobs as professional ballroom dancers.

Costello gets to play the action hero in this film, albeit not a particularly successful one.  As a professional dancer, he gets clobbered a couple of times by a jealous husband.  As a caretaker, he tackles messy molasses in a hilarious comedy skit and loses.  In the funny "Oyster" sequence, he does battle with a live oyster in his soup and loses again.  Fortunately, he redeems himself in a hilarious wrestling bout with the Masked Marvel (none other than Lou Chaney in disguise)!  Chaney also plays the boys' malicious boss in this film and would later reprise his famous Wolfman alter ego for Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Here Come the Co-Eds features some random musical numbers which are nevertheless better-than-average for an Abbott & Costello film.  This is mainly due to the participation of Phil Spitalny and his Hour of Charm All Girl Orchestra, featuring Evelyn and her Magic Violin.  These musicians, performing several string instrumental and choral numbers, bring a rare touch of culture and fine arts to an Abbott & Costello film.  Other numbers include a fun tap-dancing sequence and best of all, a rare opportunity for Costello to display his vaudeville talents in the charmingly romantic song-and-dance duet "Let's Play House."  Among the classic routines that re-appear in this film are "Jonah and the Whale" (first seen in One Night in the Tropics), "Oyster," and a variation of "Dice Game" (first seen in Buck Privates)

The film ends with a rousing chase finale featuring cars, a sailboat on wheels, and a train!  It's another totally wacky addition to the trend of outrageous chase finales for the Abbott & Costello films.

4) The Naughty Nineties (1945)

Abbott (fishing):  "What are you using for bait?"
Costello:  "Apple."
Abbott:  "You're supposed to use a worm."
Costello:  "The worm is in the apple."

This film represents the first period costume piece for Abbott & Costello.  Set in the 1890's onboard the River Queen, a show boat, The Naughty Nineties features Abbott as the lead actor on the show boat, while Costello is but a lowly handyman.  Still, they're good friends.  When it turns out that the ship's captain has lost control of the River Queen to a trio of cheating card gamblers, it's up to the boys to find a way to win enough money and buy the boat back!

This film would be the third straight Abbott & Costello film directed by Jean Yarbrough.  Today, this film is most famous for its rendition of the Who's on First? skit by Abbott & Costello.  Visitors to the Baseball Hall of Fame can see this skit being played continuously.  This movie version is essentially complete, although there are a few minor changes - for instance, the St. Louis Wolverines are mentioned instead of the New York Yankees, the prelude mentions different funny names, and the team shortstop's name is different (for censor purposes, no less!).  The abridged version of this skit contained in One Night in the Tropics is more faithful to the original text of the routine, but the version for The Naughty Nineties, although slightly adapted, is essentially complete and is funnier in its delivery and baseball ambience. 

BONUS TRIVIA:  If the show boat used in this movie looks familiar, that is because it is the same boat used in Universal's 1936 version of Show Boat starring Irene Dunne.  This time, though, the film is not a musical.

5) Little Giant (1946)

Abbott:  "Did you ever go to school, stupid?"
Costello:  "Yes, sir.  And I come out the same way."

After sixteen films together, Abbott & Costello were ready to try something different for their next film.  With Little Giant, the comedy duo decide to forego their usual burlesque and slapstick routines as well as radio skits.  There aren't even any musical numbers!  As a result, the outlandish wackiness and mayhem of previous Abbott & Costello films is quite minimized here.  The new film instead would be a straight-forward comedy in which the humor would arise naturally from every-day situations.  Furthermore, instead of being a team in the film, Abbott and Costello play complete strangers.  While Abbott in fact has several different supporting roles in the film, Costello for the first time is the true central character in an Abbott & Costello film, without extraneous sub-plots or musical sequences muddling up the narrative.

The film establishes Costello as a simple country bumpkin, newly graduated from a correspondence course in salesmanship.  Eager to earn an honest living and to return to his sweetheart as a success, Costello sets for the big city.  Unfortunately, things don't go quite so smoothly as the naive Costello.  There are even some sad dramatic scenes in the film for Costello, highly atypical of the Abbott & Costello series.  However, once Costello begins to believe in himself, he can do wrong and turns his fortunes around!

Although the skits are marginalized in this film, the hilarious "7x13=28" skit has a reprise here (it had first appeared in In the Navy).

Little Giant was directed by William Sieter, who had also previously directed the Marx Brothers.  In fact, Margaret Dumont, Groucho Marx's regular romantic leading lady, makes a cameo appearance in this film as one of Costello's unfortunate customers!

6) The Time of Their Lives (1946)

"You know no self-respecting ghosts do any haunting until midnight."

The Time of Their Lives again features Abbott & Costello as separate characters, not as a team.  In fact, Abbott barely even acknowledges Costello's presence at all!  Instead, Costello's partner for this film is Majorie Reynolds (best known for her romantic role in the Bing Crosby film Holiday Inn, which first introduced the song "White Christmas").

Believe it or not, but Costello gets killed in this film.  That's right - Costello and Reynolds are mistaken for a pair of traitors during the American Revolutionary War, shot on horseback, and then thrown into the well of a manor home.  Furthermore, their spirits are cursed never to leave the manor grounds until they could prove their innocence.  Thus, the stage is set for a modern-day tale of haunting hundreds of years later as Costello and Reynolds have some fun spooking the manor's latest residents, including Bud Abbott.  The playful ghosts eventually realize that, instead of scaring them, perhaps they could persuade the living folks to help the ghosts clear their good names.

None of the regular Abbott & Costello radio skits or routines (or musical numbers) appear in this film, obviously.  Nevertheless, The Time of Their Lives was the most expensive Abbott & Costello film to date due to the special effects involved in creating the ghosts and the haunting effects.  Today, this film, directed by Charles Barton, is a favorite among Abbott & Costello fans.

7) Buck Privates Come Home (1947)

Costello:  "You guys go inside.  I'll stay here and be a lookout."
Abbott:  "Who you gonna look out for?"
Costello: "Myself."

In this sequel to 1941's smash hit Buck Privates, those raw recruits Abbott & Costello have returned as vets from the war.  Buck Privates Come Home even reprises some scenes from the earlier film, such as the hilarious Abbott-drills-Costello sequence, to help refresh audience memories.  On its initial release,  Buck Privates Come Home was considered one of those rare sequels that was better than the original film.  Of course, neither film is a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but each is still a lot of fun.  Too bad the Andrews Sisters do not return for this sequel, which is not a musical.

This time around, war vets Abbott & Costello decide to adopt a young French orphan girl after returning to America.  But there is a catch - according to the government adoption agency, they have to be married (ha-ha) and they have to hold a steady source of income (not the tie-selling scam they were running before enlisting in Buck Privates).  The boys eventually put their savings into building up a race car company, but first they have to dodge trouble from the same cop who chased them around in the first film!

Fittingly enough, Buck Privates Come Home ends with a grand $20,000 auto race featuring motorcycles, commandeered cars, police cruisers, tractors, airplanes, ambulances, and horses, too!  The race wanders onto airfield runways, one-way streets, horse tracks, and naturally, a race track as well.  It's the craziest Abbott & Costello chase finale yet!

8) The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap (1947)

"Marriage is nothing but a three-ring circus.  First the engagement ring, then the wedding ring, and then the suffer-ing."

Abbott & Costello return once again to the western genre (previously visited in Ride 'Em Cowboy).  The basis for this new film is a Montana law from the 1800s stipulating that the winner of a gunfight is responsible for the welfare of the loser's wife and children.

So, when Costello gets tricked into believing that he accidentally shot and killed a local cowboy, he ends up in charge of a spinster and her multitude of children.  Not only is he hen-pecked to exhaustion, but the townspeople decide to make him the town sheriff, since no one now dares to shoot him (for fear of inheriting that awful family).  It's better than wearing a bullet-proof vest!

Best of all (for Costello, at least), this film gives him a rare opportunity to boss Abbott around for a change.  It's an atypical role reversal that will tickle the funny bone of many Abbott & Costello fans.  The film also features Marjorie Main (Ma Kettle in the successful Ma & Pa Kettle film series) as the "wistful widow."

The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap kick-started another first for the boys - the film would inspire a comic book adaptation.  In fact, Abbott & Costello comic books began to appear after this film and would remain in publication until the mid-1950's, representing yet another multimedia coup for Abbott & Costello.  The boys, despite the successes of their films (and now comic books) together, did not forget their original radio fans and continued to perform weekly broadcast over the ABC airwaves.

While this film concludes Volume 2 of The Best of Abbott and Costello, the best is yet to come.  Some of the most popular Abbott & Costello films, including the hilarious Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, still await loyal fans in an as-yet upcoming collector's set.  Until then, fans have two great DVD collections to give them plenty of laughs until the next round of these Universal vintage comedies!

Video ***

The eight films of this collector's set have been organized onto two separate, dual-layered, double-sided flipper discs.  The films are presented in their original black & white, full-frame format, and each DVD contains a couple of movies on each side.  This is perfectly acceptable, although figuring out which movie is on which disc can be a little tricky at times!

As with the previous volume one of this set, the picture quality for these eight films is very nice.  The image is clear and fairly detailed, and contrast levels are superb.  Of the films, Here Come the Co-Eds shows some damage in a couple of transition scenes.  The Naughty Nineties has a bit of wear and tear in the last reel.  Otherwise, the films look great!  There are a few dust marks here and there but nothing significant.  Universal has once again offered these vintage Abbott & Costello films in fine condition.

Audio ** 1/2

The soundtracks of the eight films are monophonic.  Dialogue is always clear, and the music is not distorted, as can sometimes occur in older films.  The dynamic range is understandably a little limited but otherwise easily acceptable.

Features *

There are only a few extra features on these discs.  Each film (save for The Time of Their Lives) is supplemented by several pages of production notes and interesting trivia.  In addition, trailers are included for In Society, The Time of Their Lives, and The Wistful Window of Wagon Gap.

I also want to applaud the exceptional packaging for this collector's set.  This set is handsomely packaged with a wealth of photos and promotional artwork inside and out the box.  The DVD menu screens for each film have also been given their own distinctive looks.  Hit the Ice, for example, features a snowflake cursor, while In Society has a dollar sign for a menu cursor, and so on.  Additional promotional photos are also included with the production notes.  The overall appearance is very pleasing and perfectly in tune with the fun spirit of these films.

Summary:

Once again, Universal has done an admirable job with the Abbott & Costello films.  The Best of Abbott and Costello, Volume 2 is another winner, offering eight hilarious films for one low price.  If you enjoyed the Volume 1 set and vintage Hollywood comedies in general, this collector's set is definitely a must-have!