The Best of Abbott and Costello, Volume 4 wraps up Universal's franchise, save for It Ain't Hay (1943), a middling effort mired in rights issues apparently stemming from the Damon Runyon estate. This set contains the team's last three films for the studio, a compilation film released after Lou Costello's death (he died in 1959), and two medium-sized extras designed to fill out what amounts to pretty slim pickings. Fortunately, two of the three films are quite good, a big improvement over their mostly blah early-'50s films (Lost in Alaska, Comin' Round the Mountain, etc.), while the extras function as a nice recap of volumes 1-3.
Abbott and Costello meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1953)
This was a big hit in 1953, perhaps the team's last commercially successful release, but seen today it's arguably the weakest of their monster comedies. Set in London at the turn of the century (tepidly and unconvincingly reproduced on Universal's backlot), the film has American policemen Slim and Tubby (with names like that, not a good sign) checking out British police methods, only to stumble upon Dr. Jekyll (Boris Karloff) and his alter-ego, Mr. Hyde (mostly stuntman Eddie Parker), the latter terrorizing half of London.
Both the script and its "straight" horror sequences (which do feature a couple of good Jekyll-to-Hyde transformations), and Abbott & Costello and their shenanigans, go through the motions but the laughs just aren't there, with any single reel of Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein a whole heck of a lot funnier than all of Jekyll & Hyde. At just 76 minutes the film plays much longer; it has none of the team's signature wordplay routines and is mostly just slapstick and pratfalls. As Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo note in their indispensable volume Abbott and Costello in Hollywood, Bud does more slapstick in these last three films than all their previous work combined. (**)
Abbott and Costello meet the Keystone Kops (1955)
Not a popular title with either fans or critics, this is often criticized for its inauthentic portrait of silent movie-making, and its admittedly weak tribute to silent masters like Mack Sennett (who has a brief cameo). In fact, both this and Abbott and Costello meet the Mummy were big improvements from the team's work earlier in the decade, and both are infused with a warm nostalgia not limited to silent comedy. Perhaps aware they were near the end of the line, Bud and Lou in both films reach back to their early days of burlesque with old material successfully adapted into these pictures. Keystone Kops benefits greatly from the presence of Fred Clark, marvelously hammy and maybe the team's best comic foil since Nat Pendleton battled the boys in Buck Privates (1941). Also, the film boasts the team's best score since Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein. As per Universal's policies, only department head Joseph Gershenson is credited, and the work was farmed out to multiple composers: Herman Stein, William Lava, and Henri Mancini. One suspects it was Mancini who wrote the charming title tune, which has practically become the team's signature theme (and was used again to open The World of Abbott and Costello).
John Grant, the team's long-time official writer/collaborator, is credited with the script, which unlike Jekyll & Hyde actually has a solid, often clever story. Bud and Lou are would-be Hollywood moguls conned into buying the old Thomas Edison Studio in New Jersey. They track con artist Joe Gourman (Fred Clark) to Hollywood, where he's directing a Wings-like aerial epic under the name "Sergei Toumanoff." (***)
Abbott and Costello meet the Mummy (1955)
Despite a rather dog-eared looking Mummy (Eddie Parker again) not in the film all that much, Abbott and Costello meet the Mummy has more energy than Jekyll & Hyde, Lost in Alaska, and Comin' Round the Mountain put together, and its certainly more lavish than any of Universal's Kharis Mummy films of the 1940s. And, thankfully, Frank Skinner's much-overused score from Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, heard again and again in other "Meet" films, at long last has been retired, and a new score by an uncredited Irving Gertz, Henri Mancini, Lou Maury, and Hans J. Salter livens things up considerably.
Best of all, Meet the Mummy has a great supporting cast of heavies all over Lou when he swallows a sacred amulet: Marie Windsor, Michael Ansara, Richard Deacon, Dan Seymour, and Mel Welles among them. It's pure comedy - unlike Jekyll and Hyde there are no romantic subplots to gum up the pacing - just 79 minutes of pure fun. (Rarely discussed is the film's perverse epilogue, an amazingly vulgar and culturally insensitive resolution that must be seen to be believed!) (***)
The World of Abbott and Costello (1965)
This odd compilation film, in the Robert Youngson (When Comedy Was King, 4 Clowns) vein, is composed of mostly random clips from the team's best and worst movies. The first half leans heavily on clips from Abbott and Costello's '50s films, probably for no other reason than they'd look less dated in 1965 than those from the early-1940s. (The extensive use of footage from Abbott and Costello Go to Mars makes sense given the country's obsession for space travel with the concurrent Gemini space flights.) Eventually, the film turns to classic bits from Buck Privates and, inevitably, "Who's on First?" from The Naughty Nineties, but overall the clips aren't well-chosen and their order appears almost random. Humorlessly narrated by long-forgotten comic Jack E. Leonard, whose asides are more perplexing than funny - at the end of one long clip, Leonard declares, "That picture was directed by a squid!" Huh? (**)
Video & Audio
Warning: DVD-18s. On this reviewer's player, neither Jekyll and Hyde nor Keystone Kops would play properly. If I selected "Play" for either film, the DVD (manufactured in Mexico) went dead, the picture would go black for a minute, and the disc would automatically reload as if the DVD had just been inserted into the machine. Ultimately, the only way I could get either film to play at all was to go to "Chapters," and select the first chapter. Further, the trailer (actually a TV spot) from Jekyll and Hyde jammed before it was over. Anyone interested in this set is strongly cautioned that they might experience similar problems, based on the large number of consumer complaints concerning Universal's DVD-18s.
The movies themselves look good, though at least two are inarguably presented in the wrong aspect ratio. Jekyll & Hyde, filmed in January-February 1953, may have been considered for wide screen presentation, but the titles and the framing of the actors suggest full frame is correct. However, both Meet the Mummy and Keystone Kops clearly were shot for "spherical" widescreen, and zoomed-in/reformatted for 16:9 screens, the framing looks great. Full frame both films have way too much empty space above the actors' heads and below their knees. A 16:9 widescreen transfer on these should have been done. As for The World of Abbott and Costello, theater owners probably exhibited it both full frame and slightly cropped (the titles allow for this), but since the vast majority of clips are from full frame titles, the full frame transfer is correct. Visually, Keystone Kops looks best, almost like a new movie, but all the transfers are reasonably sharp with decent blacks, and none has any major damage. The mono sound is acceptable. Optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included.
Abbott and Costello meet Jerry Seinfeld was a network special from 1994. Written and directed by Daniel Helfgott, the program is a fairly good introduction to the team, especially for those with short attention spans. Annoyingly, the show is cut like a Michael Bay movie, ignoring the fact that the charm of the team's routines is their careful build-up and timing, which is largely ruined here with all the quick cutting. The clips are further tampered with in other ways: a laugh track is added to the "Who's on First?" routine from The Naughty Nineties, while other clips are sped up, apparently to make them look like something out of Mack Sennett, or something. That said, there's still a lot of material here, with not just the Universal titles represented but also those from MGM, and elsewhere. Home movies, newsreels, and material from both The Colgate Comedy Hour and their own series are excerpted. Seinfeld, a big Abbott and Costello fan himself, is a good choice to host the show, and he rightly pays tribute to Abbott as "the greatest straight man in show business history." Classy.
Abbott and Costello meet the Monsters, a 2000 carry-over from the original DVD of Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein (and which mostly is about that film), is comparatively superficial, and could have gone into a lot more detail than it does. David J. Skal hosts the show, which features appearances by Ron Palumbo, Lou's youngest daughter Chris Costello, collector/archivist Bob Burns, and Bela G. Lugosi, son of the Dracula star. Ted Newsome [sic] provides some amusing outtakes.
There are two Trailers, both carry-overs from the laserdisc edition: Abbott and Costello meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde appears to actually be a TV spot, not a trailer. It's full-frame and complete with narration and text but curiously lacks music. Abbott and Costello meet the Mummy is also full-frame (like the film, it looks much improved reformatted to 16:9) and complete.
Though a must for Abbott and Costello fans, the incorrect framing on Meet the Keystone Kops and Meet the Mummy, along with lingering concerns about Universal's continued use of DVD-18s make this one a tough call. Recommended, but consumers are urged to carefully inspect their DVDs upon purchasing them, and make certain that they can easily return them if they prove defective.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.