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Abbott and Costello: The Complete Universal Pictures Collection

Universal // Unrated // October 28, 2008
List Price: $119.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted December 3, 2008 | E-mail the Author
In attractive packaging resembling a steamer trunk, the kind of thing one imagines Burlesque comedians lugged around the country while on tour, Abbott & Costello - The Complete Universal Pictures Collection is a handsome set of the duo's entire output at Universal Studios, some 28 full-length features released between 1940 and 1955, as well as the 1965 compilation film The World of Abbott & Costello. The set also comes with a batch of previously-released featurettes, including Abbott and Costello Meet the Monsters and an enormously disappointing TV special, Abbott and Costello Meet Jerry Seinfeld.

For fans of the team, the release of the set is both exciting and exasperating. The good news is that it includes It Ain't Hay (1943), the only Universal-produced Abbott & Costello film heretofore never released to home video, in any format. It was left off the four-volume Best of Abbott & Costello DVDs released during 2004-05, presumably because of rights issues with the Damon Runyon estate. The set also features five new commentary tracks - for Buck Privates, Hold That Ghost, Who Done It?, The Time of Their Lives, and Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - along with an excellent 44-page booklet. The movies themselves have been authored on single-sided, dual-layered DVDs that improve upon the double-sided, double-layered DVDs Universal used in the past. Those older discs wouldn't even play on some machines.

But the set ain't hay, either. It retails for $119.98 (or around $84 after standard online discounts). That's a lot of money for a single new-to-DVD movie, some new commentaries, a book, and visually appealing packaging. Is it worth it? If you haven't bought any A&C DVDs up to now, or if you can sell or find a good home for your older Best of Abbott & Costello sets, then the answer is yes.

That said, I'd like to make the following suggestion to Universal Home Video's sales department: Come Spring or Summer 2009, why not release It Ain't Hay as a $14.98 budget title with, say, Francis in the Haunted House (1956) and call it an "equestrian double-feature" disc? And while you're at it, how about collecting the five new titles with commentary tracks as a Best of the Best of Abbott & Costello mini-set, and maybe as an extra include Fireman Save My Child (1954), the long-unseen almost-Abbott & Costello movie? Consumers wanting the Complete Universal Collection can still get that, while those who've already (and loyally) purchased the first round of releases can still get the movies and extras they want. Sounds great, no?

Though the team made the vast majority of their movies at Universal, they did occasionally work elsewhere. Early in their career they were loaned out to the all-powerful MGM for a trio of films, and then later on renegotiated their contract with Universal so that they could make additional films with outside studios. For the record Rio Rita (MGM, 1942) is currently available on VHS only, while Lost in a Harem (MGM, 1944), Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in Hollywood (MGM, 1945), The Noose Hangs High (Eagle-Lion, 1948), Africa Screams (United Artists, 1949), Jack and the Beanstalk (Warner Bros., 1952), and Dance with Me Henry (United Artists, 1956) are all out on DVD, though Africa Screams and Jack and the Beanstalk are now presumed to be public domain and the quality of those discs is variable but usually less than stellar.

The only title that doesn't seem to have been released anywhere at all is Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (Warner Bros., 1953), made around the same time as Jack and the Beanstalk. (Lou produced Jack while Bud produced Captain Kidd.) It's not one of their better films, but it is in color and features an enthusiastically hammy performance by Charles Laughton, so its inaccessibility is unfortunate. Both movies were on television frequently during the 1970s, though usually only in black and white. (Color television was still a relative novelty then, and because black and white movies confused many viewers who naively assumed everything on a color set was supposed to be in color, local stations had to run a disclaimer when B&W movies were shown: "Originally produced in black and white," a video-supered title card would read. They did this even when the filmed-in-color Jack and the Beanstalk and Meet Captain Kidd aired, but we Abbott & Costello fans knew better.

These Warner titles, as well as the MGM movies and all of the Universal ones were a television mainstay for years. For some reason in most markets across the country they ran Sunday mornings, which is how this reviewer and probably millions of other impressionable youngsters first saw them. Over-and-over again. This and concurrent airings of their classic, almost surreal 1952-53 TV show (a major influence on Seinfeld's sensibility) sparked a mini-revival of interest in the team, resulting in new merchandising, a few books, and the TV-movie biopic Bud and Lou (1978). Most of this audience consisted of older children drawn to Lou's clowning, and because so many of their movies featured classical horror, sci-fi, and fantasy elements. That was also true of the team's audience for its 1950s releases - like Jerry Lewis, toward the end their audience was pretty much limited to kids - though back even further, the early-1940s, Abbott & Costello were popular with just about everyone, adults and children, blue-collar audiences and sophisticated types alike.

Bud Abbott (1895-1974) and Lou Costello (1906-1959) had been kicking around show business for years by the time they made their film debuts in One Night in the Tropics (1940). It was Lou's second stab at Hollywood: in 1927 he moved to Los Angeles but could only find work as an extra, laborer, and occasional stunt man. In the classic Laurel & Hardy silent short The Battle of Century, Lou is clearly visible as a front-row spectator at a boxing match. Bud, from a showbiz family, had been in the business since childhood (he was almost literally born in a trunk; his parents were circus folk) and by the early-1930s Bud was already a veteran straight man.

They teamed around 1936 and not long after that became a fixture on radio (particularly Kate Smith's show before earning one of their own) and appeared in the Broadway musical-comedy review The Streets of Paris. Their meteoric rise led to what amounted to featured supporting parts in One Night in the Tropics, lowly B-picture studio Universal's idea of an A-musical. The company didn't really have any musical stars other than Deanna Durbin, so this featured Allan Jones, Nancy Kelly, and Bob Cummings - appealing but hardly top-tier talent. As a musical it was a flop, but Bud and Lou's scenes, including the routines "Jonah and the Whale," a variation of the "Mustard" sketch, and an abbreviated version of their all-time classic routine, "Who's On First?" were a sensation.

This led to Buck Privates (1941), the team's seminal army comedy. Produced for just $233,000, with most of that going toward the big-scale musical numbers, Buck Privates was a colossal hit and because it was so cheap to produce, incredibly profitable. Filmed in December 1940-January 1941, its release was timed with the newly inaugurated peacetime draft but, more importantly, the film was part of a larger, unprecedented trend in film comedy, a virtually overnight shift away from the silent era and early-talkie traditions of Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, The Marx Bros., and W. C. Fields - and toward a brasher, less-refined, faster-paced, more verbal, less visual kind of humor (and with more in-jokes) epitomized by Bob Hope, Danny Kaye...and Abbott & Costello.

Abbott & Costello's stock-in-trade were wordplay routines and other Burlesque and Vaudeville perennials they reworked over time to suit their needs. By the early-1940s they had built a repertoire of several dozen of these, most of which were incorporated into their early follow-ups to Buck Privates. As Universal had virtually no other big stars beyond Deanna Durbin, they rushed to make as many Abbott & Costello movies as possible before the fad for them faded. Over the next two years - just 24 months - Abbott & Costello made ten movies. After Buck Privates the team visited other armed forces in In the Navy and Keep 'Em Flying (both 1941), while they appeared in the kinds of genres comedy teams always tackle early on: comedy-horror in Hold That Ghost (also 1941), a comical Western in Ride 'Em Cowboy, South Seas adventure in Pardon My Sarong, a murder mystery in Who Done It? (all 1942). They battled hard-boiled gangsters in Hit the Ice, and Damon Runyon-imagined rogues in It Ain't Hay (both 1943). And in the midst of all this they were loaned out to MGM for their remake of Rio Rita (1942).

Without exception these films are fast and funny. The team was eager to please their Hollywood bosses, and Lou was fascinated by film technology, especially the way editors could improve upon their stock routines - routines they never performed the same way twice for the cameras - by milking the best laughs from multiple takes and extending the laughs. Their directors quickly realized that it was also a good idea to keep multiple cameras on Lou, in order to capture his wild ad-libs and frenetic motion, including some amazing pratfalls. (They're pretty incredible even when you watch them frame-by-frame; how he punished his body!)

And unlike the team's later films, even by the mid-1940s, these early films are noteworthy in that their musical numbers and romantic subplots - the anathema of Abbott & Costello fans - are usually quite good. Songs performed by The Andrew Sisters and Ella Fitzgerald still hold up, and actors like Dick Powell, Dick Foran, Joan Davis, and Martha Raye were bona fide stars. In short order the team would be stuck with second-rate musical interludes and contract players Universal otherwise had little use for.

And what about It Ain't Hay? For Abbott & Costello fans of my generation, watching it for the first time in something like 35 years is a strange experience; certain moments I remembered like it was yesterday. Unfortunately, it's probably the worst of the team's early films, partly because it signaled a subtle shift in Costello's screen persona, away from the naïve, childish, but still-streetwise patsy with a penchant for cigars and gambling to the sloppily sentimental man-child less mature than the average eight-year-old.

If that sounds harsh, it's only an honest reaction to the team's later films, which have aged remarkably well except in this regard. The team is always funny doing their classic routines, or caught up in standard genre-spoof slapstick, but Lou's efforts to fashion himself after his idol Charlie Chaplin are mostly disastrous.

Though the seeds of this are apparent in a few of the early films, two life-altering events profoundly moved the team in this and other new directions, most of them bad. Probably exacerbated by overwork, Lou was stricken with rheumatic heart fever that nearly killed him and kept him out of action for year at the very height of their popularity. Worse, just as he was recovering his only son, Lou Jr. (also known as "Butch"), days shy of his first birthday, drowned in the family pool.

Lou was inconsolable and even to casual viewers of his movies never quite the same. The Peck's Bad Boy of the early films gave way to the sad clown of the later ones. He permanently welded a bracelet around his wrist bearing his son's name; it can be seen in every post-1943 film and TV appearance he ever made. His enthusiasm for and career ambitions in the movies seemed to evaporate. The team became more famous for the on-set poker games and clowning than for the work they were capturing on-camera. Lou especially took to biting the hand that was feeding him, chastising Universal for giving the team substandard scripts, co-stars, and production values. These complaints would become highly ironic in later years, when Abbott & Costello's own movies produced on their own dime would have markedly worse scripts, co-stars, and production values. And then Bud and Lou started fighting between themselves.

The first films they made upon Costello's recovery weren't bad: In Society (1944), MGM's Lost in a Harem (1944) and Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (1945), but Here Come the Co-Eds and The Naughty Nineties (both 1945) were substandard, despite the performance of "Who's On First?" in the latter. Another problem was the scripts. While Lou liked to complain about them a lot, he and Bud would just as soon perform their familiar routines over-and-over again than take a chance on new, uncharted material, or deviate much from their establish personae. Abbott & Costello had a George Martin-esque unsung hero in John Grant (1891-1955), who was a kind of showbiz historian-cum-writer; he'd reworked classic Vaudeville routines dating back to the 19th century (or earlier) and adapt them for use by Abbott and Costello. Universal scribes assigned an Abbott & Costello picture had to work around Grant's routines and vice versa, which pretty much put the kibosh on them doing anything genuinely ambitious.

(Just like his bosses, Grant unambitiously reworked tried-and-true routines into the ground. Take a look at Grant's script for Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair, for instance. It's practically an Abbott & Costello movie, complete with several of their routines ["Two Tens for a Five," etc.]. There's even an in-joke reference to the pair.)

All these unhealthy developments culminated when the bickering team were separated for their next two films, Little Giant and The Time of Their Lives (both 1946). Little Giant is just terrible, shameless treacle, with Lou at his Chaplin wannabe worst. Conversely, The Time of Their Lives is a partially successful break away from the usual slapstick of an Abbott & Costello movie. A comedy-fantasy about two Revolutionary War era souls (Costello and Marjorie Reynolds) falsely accused of spying for the British and cursed to spend eternity on the estate where they were killed unless otherwise proved innocent. It's a beguiling, almost unique story - funny, even haunting, and lushly romantic - but also nearly ruined by grotesquely inappropriate burlesque clowning woefully out-of-place here. The film's lovely conclusion, for instance, is greatly spoiled by an idiotic, thuddeningly literal coda that nearly brings down everything that had preceded it.

One good thing that came out of these two features was that it made clear that even without Lou's support Bud Abbott easily could have enjoyed a long career as a character actor in the Jerome Cowan mold.

After temporarily mending their fences, Bud and Lou reteamed onscreen for more movies: Buck Privates Come Home (1947) was a belated, forgettable follow-up to their classic 1941 film, but the comedy Western The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap (also 1947) was something of an improvement, partly because of its unique, fact-based premise and the strong support the film got from Marjorie Main. But the film that really gave Bud & Lou a much-need shot in the arm, and which defined the remainder of their career as a team, was 1948's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

The horror genre's decline, actually more of a screeching halt in 1946, coincided with Abbott & Costello's increasing staleness. It's not clear who exactly thought to pit Bud and Lou against Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), the Wolfman (Lon Chaney Jr.) and the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange), surely not Lou, who hated the concept, but the idea was ingenious and the execution of it near flawless. The root of the film's appeal was in restricting the clowning to Abbott & Costello; the rest of the film is a straight-on monster movie. Indeed, you could remove Abbott and Costello and it would arguably still be Universal's best monster movie since the early-1940s.

After the over-produced, unfunny Mexican Hayride (1948), set into motion before the impact of Meet Frankenstein was made plain, Abbott & Costello met all of Universal's classic monsters (and monster movie stars) in turn, in four of their last nine Universal movies: Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949), Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951), Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955). (Had they stuck with Universal another year I'd wager they would have gone on to meet the Creature from the Black Lagoon.)

Though none of the films captures the spirit of Meet Frankenstein, each has its advantages. Meet the Killer has an exciting climax in a perilous cavern with lots of neat-o special effects, with danger around every stalagmite; Invisible Man has good optical/invisibility effects and a fine performance by a mostly-unseen Arthur Franz; Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy is unexpectedly energetic for so late in the team's career, a welcome final spurt of energy at the finish line. Only Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with its contempt-laden phoned-in performance by Boris Karloff (he hated doing this movie, and it shows), disappoints today, though undiscriminating children (as I once was) enjoyed it (as did I).

In between Bud and Lou made the entertaining Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion (1950); Comin' Round the Mountain (1951), a dreadful hillbilly comedy; Lost in Alaska (1952), a poor man's Road to Utopia; they cashed in on the sci-fi craze with Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953), and painted an inauthentic portrait of silent comedy in Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops (1955). By 1955 the team was getting old - Bud was 60 and 49-year-old Lou's baby fat-like youthfulness is spent - and their films are strictly by the numbers, lacking in the razor-sharp routines and production polish of their early films. And yet they have a certain charm all their own. Less encumbered with hackneyed romantic subplots and musical numbers, these generally shorter, more steam-lined films cut to the chase. And in place of big musical numbers with Dick Foran or Dick Powell they've got Universal-International's film factory know-how: particularly in terms of set design and special effects, these films are fun to watch.

By the early-1950s though, Abbott & Costello were concentrating their energies on the new medium of television. Like Martin & Lewis, at this point Abbott & Costello were a lot funnier on TV, especially performing (and ad-libbing like mad) in front of a receptive studio audience hosting The Colgate Comedy Hour. The team was also much livelier in their own filmed-in-35mm series, The Abbott and Costello Show (1952-54), which ultimately featured the best renditions of their classic routines and which most accurately captures the spirit of what their original Burlesque performances might have been like.

Popular as they were, the team had become egregiously over-saturated. During 1952-55, Bud and Lou were appearing virtually simultaneously on The Colgate Comedy Hour and in their own series, both on the tube and on radio. Beyond the four new movies they made during this period, eight others - Buck Privates, Keep 'Em Flying, Ride 'Em Cowboy, Who Done It?, In Society, Little Giant, One Night in the Tropics, and Africa Screams - all were reissued! No wonder general audiences tired of them.

In 1955, Universal was considering Abbott and Costello in the South Seas for their next picture, but when contract negotiations stalled, neither side was terribly eager to see it continue. Bud and Lou made one last picture together, the lifeless, childish Dance with Me, Henry (1956) and split up soon thereafter. Lou died suddenly in 1959, just shy of his 53rd birthday. (Adventures of Superman star George Reeves died barely three months later. American children must have thought their world was coming to an end, and in a way it did.)

Of all the great American film comedy teams, only Laurel & Hardy can claim to be as enduring as Abbott & Costello. There just isn't the same fondness for Martin & Lewis's movies, even though they were arguably more popular than Abbott & Costello were at their peak. Olson & Johnson were in some respects funnier, yet their movies are virtually forgotten today, and the film of their long-running Broadway success, Hellzapoppin' is trapped in a legal mire that's prevented a U.S. home video release for years. Few remember Wheeler & Woolsey or Clark & McCullough, funny as they were.

Abbott & Costello touched a nerve. Lou's sad clown may have been cloyingly sentimental at times, but he intimately connected with children who identified with and even loved this hapless patsy. Equally if not more so, Bud was a straight man second to none, the best in business, the best-ever maybe. He and Lou had a rapport one finds in only the very best of teams, a rapport that transcended the sometimes second-rate quality of their movies.

Video & Audio

Abbott & Costello - The Complete Universal Pictures Collection is composed of 15 discs packaged in seven notebook-like, DVD case-size containers, each attractively adorned with original poster art (usually one- or half-sheets) from each film. There are two movies on each of the first 14 single-sided, dual-layered discs, with the 15th disc set aside for The World of Abbott & Costello and other special features.

The movies all look great, including the previously unavailable It Ain't Hay. Most seem sourced from original nitrate negatives, and in most cases are identical to Universal's earlier Best of Abbott & Costello DVDs. One mistake not rectified, unfortunately, is that Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, both released widescreen, are presented full-frame here.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono is generally strong on all the releases, and the optional English subtitles are unusually good. French and Spanish subtitles are also included.

Extra Features

The 44-page booklet is a welcome compendium. Bud and Lou's children Vicki Abbott Wheeler, Paddy Costello Humphreys and Chris Costello write heartfelt introductions. (Paddy and Chris note their father's fascination with new technologies, suggesting he'd have loved DVDs!) Ron Palumbo contributes five pages of biographical and career info, there's an "Abbott & Costello by the Numbers" page, and one page is devoted to each film. Included are a list of each film's classic routines, more poster art and stills, and a smattering of movie trivia. The back of the booklet offers a helpful DVD Guide and information about the Abbott & Costello Official Fan Club.

The new audio commentaries are variable but all worthwhile. I most enjoyed Tom Weaver and Richard Scrivani's for Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Weaver has a knack for coming off both relaxed and conversational yet full of interesting information, and his best commentaries tend to be those where he's working with another film historian (as here) or a participant in the original production.

Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo, authors of the definitive Abbott and Costello in Hollywood, provide the commentary for Buck Privates. It's a strong track with good information, but I was a bit disappointed by its lack of personal observations; I would have liked them to expand further beyond the boundaries of their book.

Jeff Miller's unpretentious track for Hold That Ghost is weaker on the nuts and bolts history of the film but stronger in the personal reflections department. His tribute to frequent A&C scribe Robert Lees, who survived the Hollywood blacklist and lived into his nineties only to be horribly, randomly murdered, compensates for the relative lack of new information. Frank Coniff is on board for Who Done It?, a personal favorite A&C movie of this reviewer; while Frank Thompson tackles the difficult The Time of Their Lives. Gregory Mank's previously available track for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is also included, along with a smattering of trailers and production notes for each film.

The other supplements are all reruns. Abbott and Costello Meet the Monsters has been available at least twice before, while Abbott and Costello Meet Jerry Seinfeld could have been great if not for network nervousness (one suspects) about the program.

Parting Thoughts

Abbott & Costello - The Complete Universal Pictures Collection is a wonderful though ill-timed set - ill-timed for those who've been buying Abbott & Costello DVDs all along, and now frustrated to find this available with its long-unseen single entry (It Ain't Hay) and smattering of new extras. Still, on its own terms this is a beautifully packaged collection, and for fans it's heartily recommended. A DVD Talk Collector Series Title.

Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, The Toho Studios Story, is on sale now.

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