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Jack and the Beanstalk (plus Africa Screams)
(Bud) Abbott & (Lou) Costello spent nearly their entire movie career (1940-56) at Universal, though Universal loaned them out to MGM for a few films in the first half of the forties. Later, the team renegotiated their contract so that they could appear in movies they'd produce independently for release by other distribution companies, up to one feature per year. That began with The Noose Hangs High (1948), which from a production standpoint resembles their other Universal titles. Africa Screams (1949) appeared the following year.
After that, for a while, they made nothing but Universal movies, but in 1951/52 they did two movies for release through Warner Bros., Jack and the Beanstalk released in 1952 and Abbott & Costello Meet Captain Kidd in 1953. Lou, along with his brother Pat produced Jack while Bud handled those reins for Kidd.
Jack and the Beanstalk was quite a departure for the team: Lou had suffered the worst possible tragedy in 1943, when his infant son drowned in the family swimming pool, and it subtly affected his screen persona. In their earliest films, Lou was a kind of street-smart adult playing the role of an innocent patsy, or maybe an innocent patsy who sometimes is more street-smart than he appears, but after his son's death Costello's screen persona gradually became much more childlike, a big kid that appealed to children in the movie audience. Like Jerry Lewis, eventually the main demographic of ticket buyers of Abbott & Costello movies were kids, which wasn't at all the case in their first decade of making movies.
Clearly, Lou aspired to make a family-friendly musical-comedy-fantasy that would showcase his talent in a different manner. Where the misguided Little Giant (1946) had Lou venturing into Chaplinesque territory, Jack and the Beanstalk seems to be emulating Danny Kaye. However, the budget, around $682,000, was too low to fully realize this aim. Though in color, the team's first, it looks cheap, the songs are mostly unmemorable, and the special effects are crude and limited, and Jean Yarbrough's direction is especially poor. Worst of all, it's not very funny.
Its structure was obviously influenced by The Wizard of Oz, which was rereleased in 1950, the year before this was made. Like that film, Jack and the Beanstalk opens in black-and-white (sepia-toned), then switches to color for the fantasy scenes, then back to black-and-white for the it-was-all-a-dream-or-was-it finish. In the framing story, Jack (Costello) is a would-be babysitter hired by Eloise (Shaye Cogan) and her fiancé, Arthur (James Alexander), to look after her annoying kid brother, smarmy child prodigy Donald (David Stollery). Jack's "agent," Mr. Dinkle (Abbott), who takes a 90% cut of Jack's earnings, tags along. To entertain Donald, Jack begins reading "Jack and the Beanstalk," or rather Donald reads it to him, because Jack can't quite manage the book's big words. Within minutes, Jack is fast asleep.
Jack's dream follows the classic fable fairly closely, with Jack (Costello) selling the family cow to the local butcher, Mr. Dinklepuss (Abbott), for a handful of "magic beans" that, once planted, overnight transform into a colossal stalk, stretching high into the clouds and the land of the Giant (Buddy Baer), who has kidnapped the beautiful Princess (Cogan).
Jean Yarbrough was a hack culled from Poverty Row, where he helmed cheap horror movies like The Devil Bat and King of the Zombies along with Monogram's "Bowery Boys" features, Yarbrough directing five entries. Occasionally he worked at bigger studios, such as Universal for She-Wolf of London and House of Horrors, probably for no other reason that he worked fast and cheap.
Jack and the Beanstalk cries out for imaginative direction but Yarbrough's direction is artless. Most scenes are unimaginatively staged in wide master shots from uninteresting angles. Lou's solo, "I Fear Nothing," is almost endearing, but staged so poorly the number drags instead of eliciting the Danny Kaye-like charm to which it obviously aspires. The cramped soundstage sets don't help; a musical finale is undercut by the dancers clearly not having enough room to move around, and the actors frequently cast shadows on the painted "sky" behind them. The giant's castle is better; my guess is that those were standing sets left over from the lavish Joan of Arc, shot at Hal Roach Studios a few years before.
The budget was too low to allow for any fancy special effects. Seeing it for the first time as a child, I was sorely disappointed that the "Giant" was just a big man in a padded costume wearing lifts. (Baer himself stood around 6'6".) None of the sets or props are oversized, and effects are limited to a couple of simple matte shots and a very brief bit of cell animation showing the sprouting of the beanstalk.
The picture's saving grace is Lou's sincere performance. Much of the comedy is culled from bits from past glories, such as Lou's comic dance with the Giant's equally towering housekeeper (Dorothy Ford), a sequence reworking the dance number Lou did with Joan Davis in Hold That Ghost (1941). Yarbrough's direction, however, once again diffuses much of its potential.
Video & Audio
Though I don't doubt that VCI remastered film elements of Jack and the Beanstalk in 4K ("from an original 35mm print" they say), their concept of "restored" is ballsy to say the least. To its credit, the opening sepia-toned scenes look pretty good, exhibiting an impressive sharpness though undercut by a flurry of missing frames resulting in disruptive "jumps" throughout. Once the movie switches to color, however, Jack and the Beanstalk is an unappetizing mess. Filmed in SuperCinecolor, the presentation is extremely grainy and murky with wildly inconsistent hues. Sometimes flesh tones look almost natural, but more often than not the actors look either jaundice or like worn leather. There are scratches, more missing frames, and a persistent "bug" in the form of a purplish hole in the bottom-center of the frame for several reels. At least the film is more or less its original 83-minute running time. (Many prints run 70 minutes; the packaging erroneously lists 78 minutes.) The LPCM 2.0 mono is similarly problematic, with portions of the film displaying a pronounced hiss. Optional English subtitles are provided and the disc is region-free
VCI originally announced a commentary track for this release, but that seems to have been dropped. Included is a second (public domain) feature, Abbott & Costello's Africa Screams, which took some effort locating on the disc's menu. In standard black-and-white, it looks okay, but a far cry from the like-new restoration completed by the 3-D Film Archive/ClassicFlix and released on Blu-ray earlier this year. Trailers for Jack and the Beanstalk and Abbott & Costello Meet Captain Kidd round out the extras.
While I've not yet seen the forthcoming 3-D Film Archive's 2021 Blu-ray of Jack and the Beanstalk, their previous efforts give every indication it will be a restoration in the true sense of the word. Wait for that, and skip this.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.