Of Abbott and Costello's 36 feature-length comedies, all but two were out on DVD until last April, when Warner Home Video finally released the last holdouts, Rio Rita (1942) and Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952), as part of their Warner Archive Collection. The latter film is particularly welcome even though it's not very good. Until now it's been among the hardest Abbott and Costello movies to see, especially in its original SUPERCINECOLOR. Back in the 1970s, WXYZ-TV in Detroit would run both it and Jack and the Beanstalk, another SUPERCINECOLOR Abbott and Costello movie, in bleary black and white. Adding insult to injury, at the start of each airing the TV station would superimpose the erroneous claim that the movie was "Originally filmed in black-and-white" over the picture, usually just as the SUPERCINECOLOR credit was onscreen.
Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd looks cheap even with the color, however, and isn't especially funny though co-star Charles Laughton, instead of looking embarrassed (as Boris Karloff clearly was in his two films with the duo), seems to be having a whale of a time, and this enjoyment rubs off a little on the audience.
As with other Warner Archive Collection titles, this is a no-frills release. It's too bad for both A&C titles they couldn't at least spring for commentary tracks with the likes of Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo (authors of the indispensable Abbott and Costello in Hollywood book) or film historian Tom Weaver. But it is remastered and looks better than ever, though the limitations of SUPERCINECOLOR probably make an absolutely perfect presentation impossible.
To say the story is slight would be an understatement. The picture runs just 70 minutes, and the many musical numbers eat up at least a third of that. Oliver "Puddin' Head" Johnson (Costello) and Rocky Stonebridge (Abbott) work at the Death's Head Tavern, where short-fused Captain Kidd (Charles Laughton) is dining with glamorous Captain Bonney (Hillary Brooke, then appearing in A&C's TV show), the pair mulling over plans to exhume buried treasure from Skull Island - presumably the part not occupied by King Kong.
Lady Jane (singer Fran Warren, who gets an "and introducing to the screen" credit) asks Oliver and Rocky to deliver a love letter addressed to tavern singer Bruce Martingale (Bill Shirley), but the letter repeatedly - indeed, endlessly - gets mixed up with Kidd's map. With Oliver and Rocky having various captains over various barrels, everyone eventually ends up traveling to Skull Island, with Kidd and Bonney all the while plotting to get the map away from Oliver and Rocky.
Abbott and especially Costello complained constantly that their longtime home studio, Universal, was always sticking them in second-rate features with second-rate talent. And yet once they began producing and starring in the occasional independent film of their own, movies made outside Universal, the resulting films generally were much worse. Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd was the second of two films released through Warner Bros. Costello's company produced the first: an awful, indulgent family musical based on Jack in the Beanstalk, the team's worst film. Abbott produced Captain Kidd soon after and it's a bit better on all counts. For one thing it looks less cheap if still below Universal's standards*, the songs by Bob Russell and Lester Lee (who also worked on Jack and the Beanstalk) are a slight improvement and are significantly better staged. The photography, by The Magnificent Ambersons' Stanley Cortez, is fine.** And the addition of Charles Laughton and Hillary Brooke helps.
Undoubtedly some of the budget was eaten up by the addition of SUPERCINECOLOR, the poor man's Technicolor. Though it reportedly only added only 10% to production costs vs. black and white, theatrical prints were still more expensive to produce and the results were inferior to three-strip Technicolor. The color is still weird at times; Lou's tongue, for instance, is corpse-gray. Instead of making their two color films resemble a big MGM or Fox musical, the SUPERCINECOLOR process instead gives them the look of a slightly classy Roy Rogers oater.
If Jack and the Beanstalk resembles a high school pageant, Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd appears equal parts of their Universal movies, the team's half-hour TV series, and the sketches they performed as regular guests of The Colgate Comedy Hour. The picture starts promisingly, with several wild sight gags (one possibly suggested by director Charles Lamont has them gallantly draping a garment over a mud puddle for a dignified lady who then falls in up to her eyeballs) and good one-liners (in one especially rowdy and violent neighborhood a tavern owner complains, "If business doesn't pick up soon, I'll have to close up!").
But by far the best thing about the picture is Laughton, who for years secretly wanted to learn the art of the double-take. He's as broad as the rest of the cast and can't hide his amusement. In at least one scene he nearly loses his composure while acting alongside Costello. A handcuff routine originally performed in Who Done It? (1942) with William Bendix is revived here, but mostly Laughton is simply bombastic around a timid Costello, and that's enough.
Video & Audio
Part of Warner Home Video's movie on demand program - billed under the "Warner Archive Collection" banner - Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd is presented in its original full-frame format. Though remastered the SUPERCINECOLOR process seems to differ from the kind of restoration possible with three-strip Technicolor and its black and white matrixes. I confess to not fully understanding why this is exactly, but the results here resemble a worn 35mm positive print with slightly off color. The mono audio is adequate. There are no alternate audio or subtitle options. As usual, this comes with no-frills menu screens (having only a "Play Movie" options) and chapter stops every 10 minutes.
Not a thing, not e'en a scurvy trailer. Arrrrr!
No better than mediocre yet still a must for Abbott and Costello fans, their adventure with Captain Kidd is on DVD at last. Completests rejoice. Recommended.
* The final cost was $701,668, not bad until one realizes 43% of the budget, $300,000, went to the three stars. (Abbott and Costello got $125,000 apiece, and Laughton received $50,000.)
**The chief assistant director was none other than future director Robert Aldrich.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.