The Best of Abbott and Costello, Volume 3 features some of the team's most popular films -- and some of their worst. This, to some degree, is beside the point: only their most ardent fans have made it this far anyway. They're forgiving of pictures as lame as Comin' Round the Mountain (1951), while non-fans grumpily avoid Abbott and Costello movies altogether, even good ones like Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein (1948).
Though it was certainly accidental, each volume more or less covers a distinct phase in the team's career at the studio. The eight movies featured in Volume 1 include early classics like Buck Privates and Hold That Ghost (both 1941), brassy comedies with the flimsiest of stories that served mainly to showcase Bud and Lou's enthusiastic energy and great burlesque routines, as well as memorable '40s pop music featuring top drawer talent like Ella Fitzgerald, The Ink Spots and, most famously, The Andrew Sisters.
The eight titles in Volume 2 were all released in the wake of Lou's nearly fatal bout of rheumatic fever, the first of several life-threatening illnesses that plagued his career. More significantly, all but one was made following the death of his only son, who drowned in the family swimming pool. This affected Lou's work in subtle but marked ways; the brashness and energy of the slick shyster straight man and his naive but streetwise patsy gave way to films geared more for children, with Lou gradually becoming the epitome of the tragic clown. As Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo point out in their absolutely indispensable book Abbott and Costello in Hollywood, on the morning of his son's death, Lou's wife had given him a bracelet engraved with his son's name. Soon after the boy's death, Lou had the bracelet welded together around his wrist so that it couldn't be removed -- he literally carried the weight of his loss everywhere he went. A few films try to hide it by having Lou wear a flesh-colored wristband over the bracelet, but it can clearly be seen in every subsequent film he made.
Volume 3 traces Bud and Lou's popular renaissance, which began with their smash hit Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein. Despite this resurgence at the box office, the team's films became more by-the-numbers than ever. Gone were the great musical acts, and by the late-1940s the freshness and energy of Bud and Lou's burlesque routines had long past. Instead, the eight films in Volume 3 are mostly standard comedy team material, the kind of scripts virtually interchangable with those of Martin and Lewis or Hope and Crosby.
The movies in this set represent a period in Bud and Lou's career where they spread themselves dangerously thin and suffered from a severe case of overexposure. During this time they starred in their own filmed TV series and alternated as hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour, a live show. Their older movies were in constant re-release, much to the confusion of theater owners and their patrons who understandably had trouble distinguishing old films from new ones. Theirs were among the first to be sold in 16mm format for home use, and the team actively began producing their own movies, about one a year, outside their ongoing deal at Universal. Ironically, after years of bellyaching about cut-rate co-stars, bad scripts, and low budgets at Universal, to ensure big profits they made their independent pictures with cut-rate casts, worse scripts and even lower budgets. None of this helped their movies at Universal, which the team seemed to make their lowest priority, with performances that are perfunctory at best. By the early '50s, their interests were clearly elsewhere.
Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein (1948)
And Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.), the Wolf Man. After working through Universal Home Video's Monster Legacy sets, featuring that studio's "second cycle" of Frankenstein, Wolf Man, and Dracula movies, one is struck by how well the monsters come off in this knowing satire. Abbott and Costello aside, as a straight monster movie this is a far better film than either House of Frankenstein (1944) or House of Dracula (1945). The script by the late Robert Lees and Fredric I. Rinaldo is far better structured, and unlike the two earlier Frankenstein films, in which the monster (Glenn Strange) doesn't get off his butt until literally the last minute and where Dracula becomes a gentlemanly Kentucky Colonel, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein really delivers the goods.
Oddly, the film's main weakness is when Bud and Lou can engage in some John Grant-scripted schtick and the story stops, ahem, dead. Unquestionably, the film works best when Abbott and Costello are in the midst of (by 1940s fantasy film logic) real danger. (****)
Mexican Hayride (1948)
Before Meet Frankenstein changed the course of their careers, Bud and Lou's next picture was a throwback to their nearly plotless Broadway show adaptations of earlier in the decade. Thanks partly to the team's often outrageous demands, Mexican Hayride proved their second most expensive film at Universal, costing $1,032,218 -- Meet Frankenstein was brought it at just $792,270 and had five times as many laughs. Adapted from the popular Cole Porter musical, but without any of Porter's music intact (sure, why not?), the resulting film is spectacularly turgid, livened only by the welcome appearance of Sidney Fields (later the landlord of their TV show), hilarious as a fast-talking reporter, and Fritz Feld as an elocution teacher. (**)
Abbott and Costello meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949)
Though it's little more than a reworking of an earlier A&C comedy-mystery, Who Done It? (1942), Universal went to great lengths to market this as a horror comedy along the lines of Meet Frankenstein. Audiences must surely have been disappointed to discover that Karloff is barely in the picture, as a very minor red herring with only one extended scene. Unlike Meet Frankenstein's respect for the monster part of the show, this film's mystery is a complete cheat; don't waste your time trying to figure out who the real murderer is. However, the lost caverns climax is still visually quite stunning, and the team show a bit more energy than they had exhibited in Mexican Hayride. (**)
Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion (1950)
Though essentially a reworking of Laurel and Hardy's The Flying Deuces (1939), itself a remake of their superior four-reeler Beau Hunks (1932), this unassuming formula comedy works thanks to sure-fire sight gags and low-brow slapstick courtesy writers Martin Ragaway, Leonard Stern, and usual gag man John Grant. The game supporting cast includes Patricia Medina, Douglas Dumbrille, Walter Slezak, the still-active Marc Lawrence, and, for all you Ed Wood fans, the great Tor Johnson. After more life-threatening illness, Lou is almost thin in this feature; compare his appearance here to Go to Mars, where he's positively roly-poly. (***)
Abbott and Costello meet the Invisible Man (1951)
The Lees-Rinaldo team strike again in this excellent comedy that, even more than Meet Frankenstein, has a serious side that compliments the laughs, and vice versa. (And, like the Frankenstein series, this proved superior to the last few "straight" Invisible Man movies.) Particular good are the film's plentiful special effects which, extremely rare for a movie this old, are still impressive in today's CGI age. Arthur Franz (Invaders from Mars, The Caine Mutiny) is very good as the title character, a boxer accused of a murder he didn't commit, who uses Jack Griffin's invisibility formula to find the real killers. (*** 1/2)
Comin' Round the Mountain (1951)
Universal "Ma and Pa Kettle" hillbilly comedies, especially The Egg and I (1947) were very popular and are still quite charming in small doses. But Comin' Round the Mountain is a lame and shamelessly padded patchwork, whose Hatfields vs. McCoys-type shenanigans mix with Bud and Lou's personalities like oil to water. Worse, co-star Dorothy Shay's five (!) dreary novelty songs too often dominate this short (77 minutes) feature. Only Glenn Strange's hulking hillbilly and Margaret Hamilton's backwoods witch enliven this misfire of a movie. (**)
Lost in Alaska (1952)
As with Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion, the unique setting of this Klondike comedy goes a long way to spruce up the increasingly tired material. Replete with igloo and gold rush gags, the film is only mildly successful, but does have one great routine, where Lou unwittingly earns and loses a king's ransom at the roulette wheel. Tom Ewell (The Seven-Year Itch) is their unlikely co-star. (** 1/2)
Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953)
As with Meet Frankenstein, Bud and Lou's adventures on Venus (don't ask) are bolstered by special effects and production sheen generally superior to those found in the science fiction films they were spoofing. More than ever, Lou plays to his now predominately kiddie audience, this film opening with a sappy scene of lovable Lou living at an orphanage (where one of the kids is Spinal Tap and Le Show's Harry Shearer). Sophisticated it's not, but once the team arrives on Venus, with its bathing beauty Venusians and wild '50s art direction, the film becomes an eye-popping wonder to behold. (*** 1/2)
Concerning Titles or: Let's Be Nitpicky Department. Technically, using the rule that the title onscreen is the title of the movie, the actual titles in this collection are: Bud Abbott Lou Costello meet Frankenstein, Mexican Hayride, Bud Abbott Lou Costello meet the Killer, Bud Abbott Lou Costello in the Foreign Legion, Bud Abbott Lou Costello...meet The Invisible Man, Comin' Round the Mountain, Lost in Alaska, and Abbott and Costello Go to Mars. Those that would argue Abbott and Costello meet the Killer, Boris Karloff would, by that same logic, have to call the team's 1941 naval comedy Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Dick Powell In the Navy. Then again, do we call John Huston's 1951 classic Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen? And what about...oh, never mind.
Video & Audio
Universal appears to have used a mix of new and old masters for this collection. Mexican Hayride looks flawless and the best of the eight, with a beautifully sharp image with solid blacks and good contrast. The other titles range from good to very good, except for Meet Frankenstein which is easily the worst. It has a lot of speckling and is a bit soft, though overall it's okay. Partly this may be due to the very popularity of the film and subsequent excessive printing off the original negative. However, looking at these films as a whole, one suspects those titles previously released on laserdisc used those older masters, while titles not released in that format were given new transfers.
A persistent, annoying problem for many consumers has been that these four movies per disc bargain DVDs have a bad habit of jamming up. On this reviewer's Sony player, Disc Two froze two minutes before the end of Invisible Man, right as Arthur Franz's visibility was being restored (Doh!), and continued several minutes into Comin' Round the Mountain. The same sequences played just fine on my Cyberhome, but how many consumers have two DVD players? Considering the number of rightly pissed-off consumers, Universal desperately needs better quality control to ensure these discs play the entire movies problem-free on all standard players.
Each film is presented in full frame format. The last feature in the set, Abbott and Costello Go to Mars, was apparently exhibited wide screen in some theaters, cropped up to 1.85:1 (the opening titles bear this out), but the picture, shot in the summer of 1952, was definitely filmed as a standard format, full frame movie, so the aspect ratio is not an issue. (However... the remaining Abbott and Costello titles: ...Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, ...Keystone Kops, and ...Mummy were wide screen movies, and Universal owes it to consumers to release them in 16:9 anamorphic format.) Each film includes optional subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
As with previous volumes in this series, the only supplements are production notes cribbed from Furmanek and Palumbo's book (I hope they got paid!) and trailers for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (that same dog-eared reissue trailer seen many times before), Invisible Man (which is missing title cards), and Abbott and Costello Go to Mars, which is missing a music track and plays like it might actually be a TV spot.
This is certainly a mixed bag of titles, but Abbott and Costello fans, this reviewer included, will be satisfied, save for those nagging technical glitches. So what's next? Hopefully, minimally, Volume 4 will see the release of Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), Abbott and Costello meet the Keystone Kops (1955), Abbott and Costello meet the Mummy (1955), and The World of Abbott and Costello (1965).
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.