Buck Privates (1941)
Service comedies almost feel like a rite of passage for comedy teams, and it’s no different with this early success from Abbott and Costello. Against their hijinks, there’s a blatantly obvious love triangle (Lee Bowman, Jane Frazee, and Alan Curtis) meant to lend some balance to the drama. It feels reminiscent of what studios tried to do by domesticating all the Marx Brothers’ later works with “plot.”
The Andrew Sisters — at the height of their powers — also sing a couple of their best toe-tappers including “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Bounce Me Brother, With a Solid Four.” There’s a certain amount of buoyant jingoism about them. This is a staple of their appeal.
Still, it’s strange to think Pearl Harbor had not yet occurred when the film was shot. The country was on the cusp of something but not yet plunged into the abyss of World War. For now, Abbott and Costello can live their charmed comedic life.
This is the picture that transitioned them from the vaudevillian circuit and really made them lucrative movie stars. It’s all about the bits from playing craps to army physicals and a bumbling drill regimen as only Abbott and Costello could pull it off. They do have a mark and easy rival who goes from police officer to hulking company officer (Nat Pendleton), but just as often the comic tension is borne out of their own self-made antagonism.
Costello is always a hapless victim and Abbott always has a way of either berating his ineptitude or egging him on. This was the crux of their not-so-secret formula. Again, like the Marx Brothers, it’s not like they were an overnight success trying to come up with their personas as they went along. They already feel like a well-oiled machine we can thoroughly enjoy without any reservations.
Hold That Ghost (1941)
Hold That Ghost finds Abbott and Costello perfectly in rhythm. First, they’re bumbling waiters at a fancy restaurant. Then, they’re gas station attendants and in both places, they find themselves unwittingly linked with a local gangster named Moose, who’s tangled up with a blackmailer and the D.A.
All of this is a set-up because the majority of the picture takes place in a haunted house. Even if the studio added these earlier scenes to capitalize on the musical success of Buck Privates, it does feel like the perfect entree.
Our hapless heroes are piled into a jalopy full of a menagerie of mostly second-rate character players and then dropped off in front of a dark and haunted tavern. There’s a ridiculously handsome professor with his head buried in his work, and the pouting blonde just waiting for him to notice. The third member is a jovial radio actress who’s more than game to make Lou’s acquaintance. I was gleeful when the cast took to the floor of the haunted manor for some after-dinner dancing with some raucous choreography courtesy of our portly twinkle toes.
The dark and stormy night elicits all the typical scares especially because Costello is the king of the yellowbellies (and for good reason). Because while his partner chides him for being a lily-liver, gangsters commit murders, detectives show up unannounced out of nowhere only to disappear, and of course, there are the ghosts.
The way Costello sounds off like a little kid taps into his shtick at its best. He’s known for being hoodwinked and demonstrative in some of their most well-known skits (ie. Who’s on First?), but the dynamic works when he’s totally nettled his straight man with his utter idiocy. One can only work with the ire of the other. The same goes for any of the sleights of hand or deception gags they pull.
They work on this spectrum of perceived intelligence. Costello sees things and protests. We know he’s speaking the truth, but to any objective outsider (in this case Abbott), he’s being unreasonable.
Like Stan Laurel, he’s a bit of a charmed character, and the world in all its many lunacies is observable only to him. His hat is swiped from his head, a bedroom turns into a gambling joint, and dead bodies fall on the floor only to disappear into thin air.
The ongoing candle gag only works due to this same principle predicated on timing. Abbott’s out of view and yet standing just off stage so he comes back into frame at the most inopportune (or opportune) time for the visual gag to take. Abbott and Costello pretty much built a career on this, and why not? I find it delightful even after all these years.
Who Done It? (1942)
It wouldn’t be an Abbott and Costello picture without them taking some menial job ripe with some humor to show off their usual conflicting ineptitude. They display perfectly out-of-sync, synchronicity if you will. You have to be working together to be so visually discordant.
Costello’s behind a cafe counter cutting a piece of cheese — Linberger cheese — and he’s about to suffocate from the smell. The customer’s grousing for his food and Abbott’s barking after his pal, who has no recourse to bring out a gas mask…
Again this feels like the appetizer whetting our appetite for coming attractions as Costello keeps on getting fleeced by a kid bellhop. But they’re on to better things because our boys are aspiring radio talents moonlighting as soda jerks.
They meet another professorial fellow, who might be their inroad to a career in radio murder mysteries. However, when the network president (Thomas Gomez) gets murdered mid-program, they have a chance to prove just how good they are at solving crimes. Most of the movie takes place in these stationary interiors, inside the radio set, and yet the boys tumble all over the place as per usual.
What sets the movie a cut above some of the other A & C pictures comes with the supporting cast. Who Done It is bolstered by some well-remembered talent of the era falling into their readily available parts.
Patric Knowles and Louise Albritton are well and fine as the prospective young lovers caught in the drama after losing the good colonel. Mary Wickes brings her ever-wry wit to play up her own fledgling romance with Costello.
William Gargan and Bendix can be called upon in a pinch to lampoon their typically hardboiled cops plucked from just about any noir you’ve ever seen. There’s Jerome Cowan in another role. This familiarity helps carry the lulls when our heroes aren’t front and center.
All the rest of the time they’re hard at work filling us with belly laughs. There’s a familiar-sound “watts and volt” bit. Then, with a killer on the loose, Costello gets beset by transcription machines, stage acrobats, and sound effects; it feels like a comedic jungle gym with so many possibilities for his elastic talents. I’ve rarely considered halitosis so funny.
But just about everything is superseded by the finale kicked off by the anxiety-inducing phone gag I knew in another iteration during my childhood. Every person and his brother is able to patch through their calls in an instant — the world over — and yet the operator tells poor Lou his line is busy.
It doesn’t matter if he has thousands of dollars on the line or if there’s still a murderer to be apprehended. Because he constantly reminds us these pictures are about the means, not the ends. This one’s a lively ride hyping up the melodrama and leaning into chaotic bits of slapstick in all the best ways.