E1 Entertainment's The Abbott and Costello Show - The Complete Series is essentially a repackaging of material previously released by Passport International in 2006 as The Abbott and Costello Show - 100th Anniversary Collection. Passport's boxed sets (one for each of the show's two seasons) quickly went out of print and until recently fetched exorbitant collector's prices. For a time I saw each set listed for around $100.
This release has the same extra features plus an excellent all-new booklet, and the episodes themselves are in good condition. The packaging claims they were "restored and re-mastered," but are pretty much the same as the Passport versions, though these are better authored. The E1 packaging is attractive but somewhat impractical while Passport's was rather cheap and easily broken (and Passport's DVDs cases had that peculiar odor of recycled petroleum).
By 1952, Bud Abbott & Lou Costello were nearing the end of their long partnership. They had been huge radio stars since the late 1930s, and were a Top Ten box-office attraction in the early 1940s with comedies like Buck Privates and Hold That Ghost. They floundered for a while - overwork contributed to Lou's rheumatic heart fever, which nearly killed him in 1943, and his infant son drowned just as Lou was recovering. Bud and Lou quarreled for a time thereafter, and though their popularity was boosted by a series of horror-comedies in the late 1940s (beginning with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein), by the early '50s they were pretty much just going through the motions. Their films of this period (Comin' Round the Mountain, Jack and the Beanstalk) were generally pretty feeble.
And by then, their movies appealed chiefly to kids. Bud and especially Lou complained about the lousy scripts and production values their home studio, Universal-International, was providing them; however, their own independent productions were, if anything, even worse.
But then along came a new medium: television. They began appearing live on The Colgate Comedy Hour and the freshness long absent in their films suddenly reappeared. They seem invigorated by the live, appreciative audiences and were able to do classic, primarily visual Burlesque routines (with much ad-libbing) impossible on their weekly radio series. From this sprang The Abbott and Costello Show (1952-54), a filmed-in-35mm half-hour sitcom that, instead of something cranked out by a sausage-factory studio like Universal was instead more personal, a family affair created by and featuring old Burlesque cronies and members of Lou's family. Among others, brother Pat was executive producer while brother-in-law Joe Kirk (married to Lou's sister) played Bud & Lou's neighbor Mr. Bacciagalupe.
It was quite a contrast to their movie work. Even in their best films Bud & Lou were saddled with perceived audience demands for romantic subplots and musical set pieces. Their movies ended up being vehicles loosely strung together to showcase the team's familiar Burlesque routines, and all too often these were awkwardly shoehorned into clichéd, standard comedy team plots.
The TV series has no such pretense. What makes it refreshing even now is that episodes don't even pretend to tell a linear story, to be realistic or even coherent. Pure comedy - that was the name of the game. Nearly 40 years before Seinfeld, these were truly shows about nothing.
Many episodes are practically stripped-bare remakes of their older films for Universal (which themselves were constantly being reissued theatrically during this time). "The Army Story," for instance, plays like a Buck Privates highlight reel, complete with their classic "Drill Routine" and "Dice Game" bits plus "7 x 13 = 28" thrown in for good measure. Bud & Lou are older - Lou especially has lost his youthful innocence to middle age and personal tragedy - but they also seem to be enjoying themselves and this rubs off on the audience.
Unencumbered by plot machinations, some shows are outright surreal. "Peace and Quiet" is a terrific episode that uniquely preserves a classic Burlesque routine, "Crazy House," a routine all but ruined when it was attempted (and severely cut for) the movie Ride 'Em Cowboy (1942). Similarly, the team's signature bit, "Who's on First?" is done far better here (in "The Actor's Home") than in the two movies in which it appears (One Night in the Tropics and The Naughty Nineties).
However, for this reviewer the greatest pleasure watching these shows is its supporting cast, especially Sidney Fields, Hillary Brooke, and Joe Besser. Fields was a true unsung genius of comedy. A writer and performer, Fields (who conceived most of the series' scripts) seems to have hooked up with the team around the time of Little Giant (1946), an awful attempt at Chaplin-esque pathos, in which Fields was the picture's single bright spot, indeed positively hilarious as an irate customer at Lou's filling station. On The Abbott and Costello Show Fields played Mr. Sidney Fields, Bud & Lou's grumpy landlord, as well as myriad other characters, all supposedly Fields's various relatives.
Throughout it all Fields is just outstanding. For instance, he does a variation of his Little Giant routine in "The Birthday Party," taking umbrage at every effort by Lou to be kind and considerate; he's as funny as Lou's reactions. Bud Abbott is widely and quite properly regarded as the best straight man in the business, but Fields may come in a close second, uncelebrated though he is. (Jerry Stiller's Frank Costanza on Seinfeld seems at least partly inspired by Fields's characterization.)
Hillary Brooke (as Hillary Brooke) is another welcome presence. Something of an icy, cultured femme fatale in '40s mysteries, she's another beguiling, incongruous character here. A neighbor of Bud & Lou - she always addresses the latter as "Louis" - she's unfazed by their antics, especially Lou's childishness. And then there's Stinky, a bizarre 40-something man-child dressed like Little Lord Fauntleroy, memorably played by Joe Besser. Even more infantile than Lou (who constantly shoots off his cap pistol for no reason) Stinky is something straight out of Wackyland. It was a variation of the comedian's signature persona and while limited to a few catch-phrases and gestures ("Not so haaaaarrrd!" and "You crazy, youuuuu!") Besser is utterly, mesmerizingly funny whenever he's on-screen. Lou somehow manages to keep a straight face, but even he can't hide a kind of awestruck admiration for Besser's speciality.
Less memorable but also fine are Gordon Jones as slow-witted Mike the Cop, who seems to have been cast because of his resemblance to Nat Pendleton, the team's memorable foil in several films; and Joe Kirk as busy Italian immigrant Bacciagalupe, whose phony accent is actually worse than Chico Marx's.
Unfortunately, by the second season the show fell into the same kind of routine that their films at Universal quickly settled into. Plots became more standardized, and both Besser and Brooke are absent. It's still a fine series, but that surreal magic is decidedly dissipated.
The absence of Brooke and Besser is compensated somewhat by the great guest casts throughout, a mixture of old Vaudevillians and Burlesque performers along with character actors associated with B-movies of the period and early series television. Among those appearing: Iris Adrian, Virginia Christine, Glenn Strange, Murray Leonard, Anthony Caruso, Joan Shawlee, Marjorie Reynolds, Veda Ann Borg, Bobby Barber, Raymond Hatton, Minerva Urecal, Lucien Littlefield, Dorothy Granger, Chick Chandler, Benny Rubin, Jane Frazee, Henry Kulky, Robert J. Wilke, Alix Talton, Tristram Coffin, Max Baer, Lyle Talbot, Phyllis Coates, Paul Fix, Glen Langan, Dick Wessel, Adele Jergens, Connie Cezon, Douglas Fowley, Karen Sharpe, and many others.
Video & Audio
I didn't notice a whole lot of difference between the first season of The Abbott and Costello Show released by Passport and this version, released by E1 Entertainment. (I don't own season two of the Passport version, and thus unable to compare them.) The transfers are inconsistent, as if they were mastered at different times, but generally okay, not up to the best Paramount/CBS monochrome '50s era titles but reasonably close. First season shows from both distributors end abruptly, with no end credits, which in those early days of television might originally have been given over to an extended commercial. The mono audio is fine, and this release includes optional English SDH subtitles.
The 52 episodes, running about 25 minutes apiece, are presented over eight DVDs, with a ninth disc aside for the extra features. The gatefold packaging and boxes within the box (one for each season, one for the extras, plus the booklet) is attractive but awkward; watching a single show means disassembling it.
Included are the same extras that accompanied the Passport release: Interviews with two of Lou's children, Chris and Paddy Costello; 10,000 Kids and a Cop, a documentary short about the Lou Costello Jr. Youth Center (now the Lou Costello Recreation Center), a program for poor kids in East Los Angeles; Hey, Abbott!, a not very good TV special hosted by Milton Berle notable mainly for featuring Joe Besser in new footage; and Lou Costello's home movies.
The best thing about this new set is the 44-page booklet, which features an excellent, well-researched essay about the series by Ron Palumbo, including actor biographies and an unusually detailed episode guide.
The Passport releases weren't bad, and above average for a company better-known for its public domain library. E1's The Abbott & Costello Show - The Complete Series is several notches better, and it saves fans from paying through the nose for the out-of-print Passport versions. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.