What's the appeal of our favorite comedy teams? Why do we invest so much love in Laurel & Hardy, The Three Stooges, or Hope & Crosby? Why is it such joy to see so many comedians piled together in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World? Are these funny people are closer to us than our own friends and family?
Fans whose idea of nirvana is the timeless 'Who's on First?' comedy routine, will find the joy of a lifetime in Shout! Factory's Abbott & Costello - The Complete Universal Pictures Collection. The giant set is a Blu-ray upgrade of a DVD set that arrived some years ago. As we discovered with Universal's line of classic horror films, when remastered for picture and audio, the studio product looks sensational on today's digital equipment.
The show contains all 28 of the films Abbott & Costello made at Universal between 1939 and 1955, all looking better than new. First on the burlesque stage, then on radio, and finally on film, A&C reigned as the most popular comic duo until Martin & Lewis came along. Bud Abbott's aggravated straight man played well opposite the 'big baby' Lou Costello. Strong characterizations and fast, nervy patter captured the ear of the nation; if their stage act had used 'bluer' material, they left it behind.
Only a year later Universal Bud and Lou them a chance to shine with a walk-on 'guest spot' in One Night in the Tropics, where audiences liked their looks as well as their voices. The team's solo introduction Buck Privates (1941) was a rush job that made them instant stars. The show associated A&C with the coming war -- and the Andrews Sisters, whose swing harmonizing became an indelible part of wartime morale and nostalgic memories. Lou was twice as funny in the flesh. When caught being naughty, he fumbled his fingers and flashed cutesy innocent eyes, whining that he's been 'a baaaaad boy.'
Buck Privates did so well that their next movies already in the can were delayed while A&C turned out more military-themed pictures. Bud and Lou clicked on film bigger than the radio kings of the 1930s, and certainly bigger than any other comedy duo. The industry began to credit A&C for keeping Universal afloat, sharing that load with their teen star Deanna Durbin. During the war years, movie attendance was so high that all the studios did well.
With each new show earning four times what it cost to make, Universal kept Abbott & Costello working constantly. Bud did his crabby sidekick schtick, frequently watching while Lou was knocked about in slapstick routines. Lou exaggerated his little-boy mannerisms, playing up the character's infantile qualities. Shows were themed for the wild west, a haunted house and the South Seas. They were loaned to MGM for a remake of the earlier hit Rio Rita (1943). After directors Eddie Sutherland and Arthur Lubin finished with the boys, the freshness of the material tapered off a bit, but not the act's overall popularity.
In the middle of the war, Lou Costello suffered a double personal crisis. After his baby son accidentally drowned in his backyard pool, his outlook darkened and there were hints of discord between the partners. Lou also suffered health problems with rheumatic fever, and had to take off a year from work to recover. Petty bickering almost split up the team, to the point that the partners would only talk to each other through intermediaries. The act didn't really break new ground or develop much new material, but their appeal never waned. Audiences still found Lou adorable, and 'Who's on First?' was always welcome. Like a favorite children's story, it couldn't be worn out by repetition.
Some of the postwar pictures were designed to keep them apart on screen, as with the Revolutionary-period The Time of Their Lives in which Lou plays a ghost. Although still quite popular, without the headline-making record profits the team was judged to be in a slump. 1948's mega-hit and evergreen moneymaker Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein changed that outlook 180 degrees. It became an instant classic for '50s kids, and even the monster fans that thought the horror spoof short-changed Bela Lugosi & Lon Chaney Jr., eventually took it to heart. Frankly, the A&C monster romp honors the genre, and Universal's other horrors of the 1940s could have used some of the humor shown here.
Thus revitalized, the A&C duo lumbered into the 1950s trying various directions but frequently reverting to the 'meet the monsters' format. They 'Met' Boris Karloff, The Invisible Man and Dr. Jekyll. With Universal gearing up for a wave of science fiction offerings, they gave Universal's optical department a special effects challenge in Abbott and Costello Go to Mars.
By this time the duo had survived quite a rough history -- through near-breakups and more health scares for Lou. In 1948 they had won a non-exclusive clause in their contract, and soon made pictures that would be released by Warners, United Artists and Eagle-Lion. These 'free range' films tended to be even more juvenile. Lou Costello's comedy always had a great appeal for kids. He founded a charity for children back in 1945.
The non-Universal pix are of course not in this set, which wraps up with the 1955 widescreen scare opus Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. Just four years later, Lou Costello would die at age 52. I remember seeing Costello's last film The 30-Foot Bride of Candy Rock as a child, not realizing that he was already dead.
Shout! Factory's pricey Blu-ray box of Abbott & Costello - The Complete Universal Pictures Collection is an enormous undertaking, packing all 28 films (2 and 3 to a disc) into a fairly compact container. The transfers are immaculate, indicating that this was no rush job but the culmination of a great deal of restoration work. Those 16mm prints we remember from our childhood don't do the movies justice -- Universal's B&W cinematographers kept the series at a high degree of visual polish. The musical numbers from the '40s hits are highly nostalgic, with the Andrews Sisters the real deal for wartime topicality.
The extras are almost overwhelming: commentaries for 16 of the features, several of them new. The extras on an additional 14th disc include:
Abbott and Costello: Their Lives and Legacy has family interviews with Lou Costello's daughter, Chris. Abbott and Costello Film Stories is hosted by historian James L. Neibaur. In Abbott and Costello Behind the Scenes Ron Palumbo relates more production stories.
Abbott and Costello Meet Castle Films showcases eight cutdown reels for home movies, that were sold in 8mm and 16mm. Other extras are repurposed from previous collections, like the famed blooper reels. A full list of films is below, reproduced from Shout! Factory.
Abbott & Costello - The Complete Universal Pictures Collection
Text (c) Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson