Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Abbott and Costello fans will sit happily through all of their pictures, including lesser efforts; I have a tough time with Africa Screams but love the silly Jack and the Beanstalk, probably because it was jammed into every open schedule space on old local TV stations back in the 1960s. I saw Lou Costello's last picture The 30-Foot Bride of Candy Rock first-run at age seven, and loved the special effects. There's nothing quite like the duo's manic energy, and Lou's infantile act can be hilarious. I laugh just thinking about him in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, hypnotized and skipping happily back to the castle so his brain can be stolen.
I'd heard about their last film Dance with Me, Henry but wasn't quite prepared for what I saw. Olive's perfect widescreen disc of the last Abbott & Costello movie is a very strange experience, and quite a sad one.
The story is not a wacky comedy with a fantasy story hook we expect from them in the 1950s, going to Mars or meeting a monster. The generic tale is in the sentimental mode, where a sad sack hero fears he's going to lose his kids. Chubby Lou Henry (Lou Costello) runs a little fun fair called Kiddyland. Social worker Miss Mayberry (Mary Wickes) thinks he's unsuited to be a single father to his adopted kids Duffer (Rusty Hamer) and teenager Shelley (Gigi Perreau). Duffer runs to Father Mullahy (Frank Wilcox) when he's worried about his dad, while Shelley happily practices her operatic voice. But Lou's best pal and partner Bud Flick (Bud Abbott) is a gambler in debt with hoodlum Big Frank (Ted de Corsia) to the tune of $2,000, and can't help but drag Lou into his problems. When Miss Mayberry visits, everything goes bad. The dog keeps bringing in the bottles that the maid stashes around the house, and Bud arrives talking of gambling and his bad associates. But things get worse when one of Big Frank's thugs frames Lou for the murder of the District Attorney (Robert Shayne). Lou gets the third degree, the kids are taken by the state and the gangsters threaten Bud's life.
Why anybody thought Dance with Me, Henry would be an appropriate vehicle for Bud and Lou is a puzzle, as it really isn't their style of show. Normally the drama elements of an A&C romp are negligible, and what we enjoy is all the personality hi-jinks and burlesque-style dialogue routines, either incorporated into the story or just baldly played out in a stage-like setting. These were so enduring that kids didn't mind if Bud and Lou repeated them in movie after movie. It's only fifteen years after their big feature breakthrough, when they were among the most popular entertainers in America. But a lot had happened in the meantime -- a career breakdown, terrible personal problems, partnership disputes. This independent production presumably left Bud and Lou in charge, and the whole thing is a case of iffy judgment. Instead of a childlike wild-card loony, Lou is the father figure in a family drama with fairly serious problems. In the older pictures everything was for laughs, and any obstacles were overcome as if the whole world were a (cleaned-up) burlesque skit. The egos, misunderstandings and one-upmanship between Lou and Bud were usually the biggest conflict in sight.
Viewers expecting Lou Costello to still be a feisty little fireplug, a Brooklyn wise-acre, will be taken aback by his appearance in Dance with Me, Henry. He's tired, unhappy and slightly slack faced. His cherubic cheeks have fallen. He smiles less, and his eyes look SAD. His bits of business with Bud are brief and subdued. There are no big laughs.
The boys' relationship is changed. Bud's Bud Flick is basically an irresponsible flake, mostly lacking the old sentimental angle. In trouble with the mob, he brings the crooks right to Lou's doorstep. In earlier films the boys were frequently mixed up with gangsters (usually Sheldon Leonard), but typically by accident. In this story Bud is more directly involved in wrongdoing, which makes him less sympathetic. When at home, Lou seems out of character trying to play 'father knows best' with Duffer and Shelley. To us it looks like Lou's bright son and talented, mature daughter should be taking care of him, not the other way around. Lou interacts mostly with the smaller kids, something encouraged by Father Mullahy -- the only time he seems in the right element is when he's driving the fun park's miniature train. 1
The adult players do their best to keep the story on track. With scenes not being played for big laughs, Frank de Corsia is suitably threatening and thug Richard Reeves is an almost too-serious menace. The talented Mary Wickes isn't given a chance to be human -- to adhere to the family formula the film needs a coda allowing her to endorse Lou Henry's worth as a father, if not get romantic with him. Rusty Hamer is at age nine a total pro; he'd go on to solid work with Danny Thomas on TV's Make Room for Daddy. Child star Gigi Perreau was fresh from a featured role in the big hit The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. She rates top billing after the stars and gets to sing, etcetera, as if setting herself up for musical roles.
The kids are okay but unevenly directed. They form a vigilante mob to save Lou and Bud from the gangsters, in a climactic comic (but laugh-challenged) showdown at the fun fair. Chief among the tots is Sherry Alberoni, a tyke who witnesses the D.A.'s murder, but isn't sufficiently credible to get Lou off the hook. At age ten Sherry looks a very cute six; with a name change to Sherry Allen, Walt Disney made her a second-season replacement Mousketeer. Four years later she had her biggest role in Ray Harryhausen's The Three Worlds of Gulliver.
With no adult romantic angle, not even a woman to twiddle with Lou's tie and make him act shy, the movie cuts down on Lou Costello's range. Lou has an okay but subdued bit when locked in a room by the cops -- he's supposed to be suffering but has smuggled in a full lunch. Ted de Corsia's threats to the boys and his roughing up of Bud is well done -- but not funny either. Lou's final shot in the film has him leading his neighborhood kids down the sidewalk like a pied piper.
I'd have to guess that Bud and Lou's reportedly miserable business relationship probably prevented them from finding stronger material or allowing their director Charles Barton to shape something stronger. On the surface level Dance with Me, Henry is pretty weak, but for A&C fans it's a thing to ponder. Fifteen years and 36 films is time enough for most stars to have problems sustaining their popularity, yet these two were beloved favorites with a following that would have responded to the right new comedy formula. Even the Three Stooges found ways to change and stay in business. After all the sorry revelations of Lou Costello's private life, his final show with Bud Abbott is a sad thing indeed.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Dance with Me, Henry is a picture perfect scan of this B&W picture, with good sound. The kids dance a bit to some bop-rock music, but Lou's Henry never dances; we're told that the movie's meaningless title was derived from a pop song that shows up in the movie only as an instrumental. Did Gigi Perreau at one time sing it?
Dance with Me, Henry is licensed from MGM, which may still have The Noose Hangs High, another Charles Barton-directed A&C comedy, produced by the comedians themselves for Eagle-Lion Films. Perhaps it will be revived as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dance with Me, Henry Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Fair + but with much nostalgia value
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
No; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 15, 2015
1. Added Note from Gary Teetzel 5.16.15
The plot elements about Kiddyland and Lou Henry trying to hold his family together reflects actor Lou Costello's desire to become a more sentimental clown, á la Chaplin. After the drowning death of his son, Costello became increasingly involved with children's charities, including the Lou Costello Jr. Recreation Center.
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson
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