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As the 1950's began, the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello found themselves facing new career challenges -- and opportunities. After reigning as box-office champs during the war years, the duo saw the popularity of their feature films declining, while simultaneously their long-running radio show was threatened by the new medium of television. Unlike some established stars, Abbott and Costello opted to jump into TV early, becoming part-time hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1951. The following year they decided to bring their routines to viewers regularly with a weekly syndicated half-hour situation comedy, The Abbott and Costello Show. The result has been hailed as one of television's first great sitcoms, an influential classic that is still generating laughs nearly 60 years later. E1 Entertainment has now re-released both seasons of the show on a deluxe 9-disc DVD set called The Abbott and Costello Show: The Complete Series -- Collector's Edition.
Produced by Lou's brother Pat and directed by B-movie veteran Jean Yarbrough, The Abbott and Costello Show is similar to the boys' radio program, only without musical interludes or celebrity guests. Bud and Lou portray down-and-out versions of themselves, who each week stumble into misadventures, usually while pursuing work or just trying to carry out some simple task. The loose plots are little more than excuses to set up their most popular comedy routines, polished after many years working together in burlesque, vaudeville, radio and motion pictures. Such classic bits as "Mudder/Fodder", "Slowly I Turned", "Susquehanna Hat Company" and, of course, "Who's On First?" all appear during the show's first season. Lending support are veteran comedy writer and performer Sidney Fields as Bud and Lou's irritable, blustering landlord (Fields also appeared in several other roles and wrote most of the first season episodes); Gordon Jones as Mike the Cop; Hillary Brooke as a pretty neighbor upon whom Costello has a crush; Joe Kirk (Costello's real-life brother-in-law) as Italian stereotype Mr. Bacciagalupe; Joe Besser as Stinky, a bizarre character dressed in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit who behaves like a bratty, 7-year old sissy; and Bingo, a chimp dressed in an outfit matching Costello's. For the second season, the format was altered: Brooke, Besser, Kirk and Bingo were dropped; Bud and Lou no longer addressed the audience during opening, middle and closing segments; episodes became more plot driven; and the old routines, having been largely exhausted in the first season, were for the most part supplanted by slapstick concocted by Jack Townley and/or Clyde Bruckman, both of whom had careers stretching back to the silent era.
For Abbott and Costello's legions of fans the show is a terrific showcase for their best bits without the superfluous romantic subplots or musical numbers that pad out their features. The first season in particular feels like "Abbott and Costello's Greatest Hits", with some episodes playing like condensed versions of their films: "The Army Show" resembles a highlight reel from Buck Privates; "The Haunted House" is like Hold that Ghost, etc. The gags and routines may be variations on bits that already had whiskers when the duo first teamed up in 1935, but devoted fans never tire of them, like fans of a popular singer that enjoy hearing favorite songs again and again. Indeed, during live performances, the duo would often take shouted requests for favorite routines from the audience; this reviewer's father saw them perform in a USO show, and audience cries of "Baseball!" prompted a performance of "Who's On First?" The age and familiarity of the routines probably leant the show a nostalgic air even when it was new, a quality only enhanced by the passage of time. 1 While critics may gripe about the old gags, for their fans Abbott and Costello's work is a valuable comedy time capsule, preserving for future generations a brand of humor and performance that thrived in burlesque, vaudeville and English music halls in the early decades of the 20th Century. This makes the show's shift away from the classic routines toward simple slapstick in the second season all the more unfortunate. Although still funny, some of what makes Abbott and Costello unique is lost. For instance, the climactic wallpaper hanging scene in "The Paper Hangers" is amusing, but there isn't a strong sense of the characters; the scene could just as easily be done by Lucy and Ethel on I Love Lucy, or Ralph and Ed on The Honeymooners. There are times in the second season when the writers seem to lose their grip on the characters, as in "Pest Exterminators", when Abbott becomes almost as confused as Costello by the directions to "Watt Street."
The heart and soul of the team, and thus the TV show, is, of course, Lou Costello. National audiences may have first embraced him as a disembodied voice on the radio, but with his roly-poly physique, talent for pratfalls and seemingly endless repertoire of funny facial expressions, Costello was clearly born to be a movie and TV comic. As many have observed, his childlike persona attracted droves of young fans. Bill Warren, in Keep Watching the Skies!, goes so far as to assert "Lou Costello may be the only great screen clown -- and he is one-whose appeal is almost entirely to children. If you didn't love Abbott and Costello as a child, you never will; if you did, it's likely you always will." This is essentially true, but Costello could clearly appeal to the inner child of many an adult as well; they would never have become top stars if he didn't. Although in real life he could be temperamental and difficult in his dealings with adults -- including Bud Abbott -- Costello did reciprocate the love he received from young fans, devoting much time to children's charities, hosting (with Abbott) a children's radio show in the late 1940's and producing the kiddie-oriented Jack and the Beanstalk in 1952. 2 It's probably due to Costello's awareness of his young fans that lead to the creation of Joe Besser's Stinky on the TV show; it gives Costello another man-child character to play against.
Sometimes overlooked is that Costello's appeal to children goes beyond his own childlike behavior; it's also in how he interacts with the world of adults. Childhood is often depicted as innocent and carefree, but in reality it can be a frustrating time full of rules that seem arbitrary: e.g., why do Mom and Dad let me run wild and make noise in the fast food restaurant, but then insist I sit still and be quiet in another restaurant? Much of Costello's humor taps into this feeling of being stuck in a world that is bewildering and sometimes hostile. The "Susquehanna Hat Company" sketch captures this best, with strangers bursting into bizarre behavior at the slightest mention of the company or its address. There are many smaller examples of this, as in the first episode ("The Drug Store") when a woman slaps an unsuspecting Costello and declares, "How dare you remind me of that man I can't stand!" Costello's relationship to Abbott is much like that of a kid brother to an impatient, bullying big brother who constantly takes advantage of his sibling.
Like most straight men, Bud Abbott's contributions to the team have been underappreciated over the years. One need only study any of their classic routines to see how important he is the comedic rhythm of the piece, knowing when to fire lines out rapidly and when to give Costello room to milk a laugh for as long as possible. He's like the best dance partners in a Fred Astaire of Gene Kelly movie -- someone who has talent of their own, but also knows how to make the star look good.
The supporting cast for the television show was well chosen. Sidney Fields came from a similar vaudeville and burlesque background as Abbott and Costello and had a clear understanding of their style of comedy. He's an excellent foil for the boys. Athlete-turned-character actor Gordon Jones is similarly fine as Mike the Cop, forever exasperated with Costello's antics. The lovely Hillary Brooke, who co-starred with the boys in the earlier Africa Screams (1949) comes across at times as slightly stiff and not quit in sync with the style of the other players, but she's hampered by the lack of a well-defined character; she's just the nice, pretty girl. Joe Kirk's Italian immigrant Mr. Bacciagalupe might be branded politically incorrect by some today, but the character is more silly than offensive. He's generally kind to Costello -- at least until Lou does something to get on his nerves -- which provides a nice contrast to the more antagonistic Mr. Fields and Mike the Cop. The weakest member of the cast is Joe Besser. Best remembered for joining The Three Stooges following the death of Shemp Howard, Besser's sissy act has not aged well and today his surreal Stinky is simply grating. 3 Veteran Minerva Urecal and up-and-comer Joan Shawlee ("Sweet Sue" in Some Like It Hot) also make welcome regular guest appearances during the first season.
There is little to say about the technical aspects of the series. Production values are modest but more than adequate for the material. Shot on 35mm film, the visual style, with rare exceptions, features bright, flat lighting to ensure a clear image for early televisions. Known today mostly for his low-budget horror films like The Devil Bat (1940), King of the Zombies (1941) and House of Horrors (1946), Jean Yarbrough's direction for the show seems to consist of simply aiming the camera at Costello and waiting for him to do something funny.
E1 Entertainment's The Abbott and Costello Show: The Complete Series - -Collector's Edition is promoted as being "Restored and Remastered", but there's little evidence of either. The source appears to be old analog videotape. The image is generally acceptable but lacks fine detail and has a very slight softness overall. (Some filtering of the image may have been applied to eliminate minor dirt, etc., contributing to the softness.) Occasional aliasing is visible and Costello's checkered jacket causes some moiré issues. In general the show will look fine on small displays, merely adequate on larger sets. As for the shows being "restored", the first season episodes feature opening credits with a 1978 copyright, and no end credits at all -- just an abrupt cut to an old video logo for "Alan Enterprises." The second season has opening and closing credits that might be the originals. There are a few rough edits to eliminate bumpers and sponsor's announcements, but otherwise the episodes do appear to be complete.
As for extras, Disc Four of the first season features a "Classic Routine Reel", featuring the best Abbott and Costello bits -- "Who's On First?", "Hertz U-Drive", "Jonah and the Whale", etc. Disc Four of the second season features about an hour of Lou Costello's home movies, with an introduction by daughters Chris and Paddy. The bonus disc contains an hour-long TV special, Hey Abbott!, featuring highlights from the series. Hosted by Milton Berle, it also has all-too-brief clips of Steve Allen, Phil Silvers and Joe Besser reminiscing. Included as well is 10,000 Kids and a Cop, a short subject showing off the work being done by the Lou Costello Jr. Youth Foundation. After a brief introduction by Jimmy Stewart, the bulk of the short has a skeptical cop played by William Bendix being shown the Youth Foundation's recreational and educational facilities in L.A.; Bud and Lou also appear as themselves. Taken from Costello's personal 16mm print, the quality is slightly rough but its inclusion is most welcome. Rounding out the disc are more interviews with Chris and Paddy Costello, and more of Lou Costello's home movies. Many of the home movies feature color and sound, and include some classic Costello clowning that fans will adore. 4
Each season and the bonus disc come in separate digipack-style cases and are packaged together in an attractively designed outer slipcase. Also in the box are souvenir postcards and a 42-page booklet. Frequently these are little more than a few stills and lazily-researched text, but in this case the booklet has an excellent history of the show and biographies of the supporting cast by Ron Palumbo, co-author (with Bob Furmanek) of Abbott and Costello in Hollywood. There's also an episode guide that lists classic routines when they appear. All in all, a fine collection to recommend for Abbott and Costello fans.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. The constant emphasis on the need for money and a job and the scant references to current events, at times make the show feel as if it's set in the 30's, not the 50's, further enhancing the feeling of nostalgia.
2. Costello's appeal to children continued after death, with Hanna-Barbera's Abbott and Costello cartoons and a spin-off comic book.
3. This reviewer's favorite Joe Besser appearance is in the science fiction film Hand of Death (1962), in which we get to see his character die a ghastly death.
4. Eagle-eyed fans of Abbott and Costello's monster comedies may spot a surprise in the 1949 New Year's home movies: glimpsed behind the Christmas Tree is a figure of the Frankenstein monster, lurching toward another figure that looks like it might be Lou!
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