Mummy "wrapped" in November 1954 and their next film, Dance with Me, Henry, released by United Artists, didn't start shooting until May 1956, an unusually long year-and-a-half interval between pictures. During shooting, their iconic burlesque routine, "Who's On First?" was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but Lou was anxious to shed himself of the routines they had dragged out again and again in movies, on radio, the stage, and in television. By 1956, even their fans knew them inside-out.
They talked of shooting a series of comedies set in various capitals of the world, and a situation comedy for television. (All this info from Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo's essential Abbott and Costello in Hollywood.) Lou loved children, and a morning quiz show for kids was announced in the trades. In late November 1956, no doubt prompted by Dance with Me, Henry's imminent release, Lou was ambushed by Ralph Edwards's This Is Your Life TV show, with a typically alternately touching and awkward parade of guests paying tribute to a shell-shocked Lou including, of course, longtime partner Bud.
Two weeks later, in early December, the pair opened at the Sahara in Las Vegas. It did not go well. No one seems quite certain what happened though most witnesses indicate Bud's normally razor-sharp timing was way off. Some say he'd been drinking, something he did to excess in an effort to ward off epileptic seizures; others say Bud was simply worn out. (Bud was 61 at the time; Lou was just 50, but looked older because of lifelong health problems.)
Then and there, days before Dance with Me, Henry premiered, Lou called it quits. The team of Abbott and Costello was no more.
At Universal, Lou constantly complained about the lousy scripts and production values the studio was giving them, but the team's independently-made films are consistently even cheaper, even chintzy, and generally have much worse scripts. After the tragic death of Lou's infant son in 1943, more and more Lou became something of a sad clown, and favored sentimental, family-type films involving children. All of this is present in Dance with Me, Henry, but the film is relentlessly mawkish and almost never funny.
Lou Henry (Costello) is the sweet-natured owner of Kiddyland, a small amusement park. At his strangely luxurious home he's adopted two orphans, aspiring opera singer Shelly (Gigi Perreau), a teenager, and younger boy Duffer (Rusty Hamer), as well as numerous stray animals. He's also more or less adopted chronic gambler Bud Flick (Abbott) as his business partner, despite Bud's huge gambling debt to gangster Big Frank (Ted de Corsia).
A self-important, hypocritical welfare worker, Miss Mayberry (Mary Wickes), is looking for an excuse to pry Lou away from his kids, and Bud's dire situation with the gangsters may be the leverage she needs to send the kids packing. Desperate, Lou tips off District Attorney Proctor (Robert Shayne) about the gangster's activities, but when Mushie (Richard Reeves), one of Big Frank's enforcers, murders Proctor, Lou becomes the cops' prime suspect.
Just about every aspect of Devery Freeman's screenplay is thoroughly wrong-headed. As far as Abbot and Costello are concerned, theirs is almost a role-reversal from their usual characters. Lou here plays a character he's never played before: the responsible father, with Bud this time the perennial loser causing all sorts of trouble for Lou, who must find a way to bail both of them out of a jam. They're not really a team in this outing; Bud is really playing a supporting part, as he'd done twice before, in Little Giant and The Time of Their Lives (both 1946), when the team had previously quarreled. For maybe the only time in their film career, in the end titles, Lou's name, rather than Bud's, is billed first.
In one scene, the gangsters have Bud tied up, threatening to beat Lou up unless Bud spills the beans about the location of some hidden money. Bud casually refuses, and Lou is beaten to a pulp. In their earlier comedies scenes similar to this were often hilarious, but in this context Bud comes off like a self-serving jerk with no appreciation of Lou's generosity. When the police find Proctor's lifeless body, the first words out of Bud's mouth are, "Lou! You shouldn't have done it!" Some pal, that Bud.
Another problem with the film is its movie-stereotypical characterizations of Miss Mayberry and the two kids. She's outrageously mean-spirited and unreasonable, showing no real concern for the kids' best interests. The children are sickly sweet; they call Lou "Popsy" and never once talk or behave like real children. With Bud in debt to Big Frank to the tune of $10,000, Duffer says, "I could give Uncle Bud my piggy bank." That remark might have been acceptable coming from a four-year-old, but child actor Hamer was nearly ten years old, making him sound dumber than Lou. Similarly, when another orphan, Bootsie (Sherry Alberoni), witnesses the murder and is questioned by the police, her credibility is destroyed when she excitedly talks of riding flying saucers to Mars. Again, the child actress was nearly ten years old, not three. She sounds insane.
The movie's plot faintly echo's Chaplin's early masterpiece The Kid (1921), something that surely wouldn't have escaped Lou's notice, but there's not much rapport between Lou and any of the children. The writing and acting are all on a very superficial, unrealistic level.
Instead, Lou Henry is basically just a saint: a single parent with two adopted children (he wants more), friend to all animals, and the beneficent king of Kiddyland, apparently giving free train rides for all the children in the neighborhood. (There's no sign of a ticket window anywhere.)
There's a lot of aimless slapstick toward the end, none of it funny but somewhat more in line with the team's usual fare. Other attempts at humor fall flat when it's not totally illogical. Detectives grill Lou for many hours but they're surprised by his placid endurance. When they leave the room, Lou produces a complete meal on his person: a sandwich hidden in his wallet, a rubber water heater full of coffee, and cream hidden in a fountain pen. This might have been funny had it made any sense. Why does Lou keep cream in a fountain pen? Maybe Freeman thought he was writing for Harpo Marx.
The movie's title is basically meaningless, derived as it was from the popular 1955 song The Wallflower, popularly known as "Dance with Me, Henry." It was a hit for co-writer Etta James, and covered for the pop market by Georgia Gibbs. (Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, as Minnie Bannister and Henry Crun, also did a cover version that year). However, the song is never even referenced in the movie, let alone heard.
Video & Audio
Dance with Me, Henry's 1.85:1 1080p transfer is okay but not great. In television syndication and on home video, the movie has always had a gray, washed-out quality. The image is overly grainy throughout, though at least that hasn't been vaporized with aggressive DNR. But the whole thing looks rather dupey, especially during dissolves, when the image gets really soft and grainy at the same time. The DTS-HD mono (English only, with no subtitle options) is fairly good, and the disc is Region A encoded. No Extra Features.
The best Abbott and Costello movies are still quite enjoyable. My seven-year-old loved Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Abbott and Costello Go to Mars, but I made of point of reviewing Dance with Me, Henry long after she had gone to sleep, lest she be tempted by a promised comedy that's really mildly depressing instead. Hard-core fans of the team will still want to have this on Blu-ray (I did, despite everything), but others will want to Rent It at most.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.