Before I write about the film-comedy double-act of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, here’s a digression – an entry from The Ian Smith Life Story.
In the early 1970s I attended a primary school in rural Northern Ireland and occasionally the school would receive visits from entertainers and impresarios who’d put on shows for the pupils. These included a stage magician, a puppeteer and a couple with a mobile zoo, which in reality was some animals in tiny cages crammed into the back of a van. In today’s climate, with British educationalists placing huge emphasis on child protection, it’s hard to believe these assorted oddballs and chancers were ever allowed to saunter into a school and be in close proximity to young kids. Plus, of course, that mobile zoo would’ve been busted immediately on grounds of animal cruelty.
Not that we cared. Anything to provide a break from the drudgery of our lessons.
Another of these visitors was someone I thought of as the ‘film-man’. He’d commandeer a classroom and set up a screen and a hulking projector with reels rotating on top and a lens sending out a beam that highlighted the swirling dust patterns in the air. Once the lights were turned off, he’d show us short comedy films featuring the Three Stooges and sequences from full-length comedy films featuring Abbott and Costello – among the latter, I remember watching the finales of 1943’s It Ain’t Hay and 1947’s Buck Privates Come Home. In the early 1970s, the BBC broadcast Laurel and Hardy movies all the time. However, neither the Stooges nor Abbott and Costello seemed to have been on TV for a while and they were new to kids our age.
Yes, I lived in a low-tech world back then. I thought it was the height of excitement to be shown black-and-white film clips from the 1940s by a travelling showman with a creaking movie projector. That’s an experience lost on the Youtube generation.
© Universal Pictures
Anyway, it was thanks to the film-man that I discovered Abbott and Costello. Later, I made a point of watching as many of their movies as I could – it helped that, in the mid-1970s, the BBC acquired the broadcasting rights to some of their movies and ran a season of them. And for a few years I believed them to be the funniest thing on the planet, better even than Laurel and Hardy. It wasn’t hard to see how they appealed to a ten-year-old like myself. Their comedy was broad – few comic figures came broader than Lou Costello’s loud, bumbling, sentimental, harassed but occasionally crafty man-child – and their films contained plenty of slapstick and crash-bang-wallop chases. Also, they lacked that undercurrent of melancholia and pathos that I sometimes found unsettling when I watched Laurel and Hardy.
Fast-forward a decade to my college-years and my opinion had changed. When I watched Abbott and Costello movies on TV, I’d cringe – finding them painfully dated. Also, by then, I’d realised that the melancholia and pathos in the Laurel and Hardy films was indicative of comedy genius. So Laurel and Hardy had become the funniest, Abbot and Costello the unfunniest. (Well, not quite. They still didn’t seem as dire as the Three Stooges.)
Today, I’ve yet another opinion of Abbott and Costello. I like them again. It’s largely because now I perceive them for what they were, a pair of sharp stand-ups from the burlesque circuit – Abbot had been producing and performing in burlesque shows since 1923, Costello became a burlesque comedian in 1928 and they started working together in 1935 – who ended up in a different medium, film, where the necessity for slapstick and visual gags sometimes got in the way of their true comic talents, which were verbal. Mind you, the verbal routines that do appear in Abbott and Costello’s movies are often funny. No more so than the famous ‘Who’s on first?’ one, which the duo had performed on stage and radio before essaying it in the movies One Night in the Tropics (1940) and The Naughty Nineties (1945). Taking as its premise that there’s a baseball team whose players have unusual nicknames like Who, What and Because, a fact that Abbott is aware of but Costello isn’t, ‘Who’s on first?’ sees comic confusion escalate along these lines:
ABBOTT: Well, that’s all you have to do.
COSTELLO: Is to throw it to first base?
COSTELLO: Now who’s got it?
COSTELLO: Who has it?
ABBOTT: Now you’ve got it.
COSTELLO: I pick up the ball and throw it to Naturally.
ABBOTT: No, you don’t, you throw the ball to first base!
COSTELLO: Then who gets it?
So popular was the ‘Who’s on first?’ routine that Abbott and Costello performed it live for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and it led to their induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, a rare honour for people not directly involved in baseball. There’s also a 1999 episode of The Simpsons where Principal Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers attempt, and fail, to perform ‘Who’s on first’ at a school show – Skinner blows it by blurting, “Yes, not the pronoun, but a player with the unlikely name of ‘Who’ is on first!” Coincidentally, the actor supplying the voice of Principal Skinner, Harry Shearer, made his film debut at the age of eight in the 1953 movie Abbott and Costello go to Mars.
© 20th Century Fox Television
I also like the duo’s ‘7 into 28’ routine, which today seems to form the basis of Donald Trump’s economic programme.
For me, another positive about Abbott and Costello is a particular group of their movies that I still find enjoyable – the scary ones, where they perform their comic shtick in horror-film settings, though obviously the horror is watered down to suit family audiences. It’s a formula combining laughs and chills that continues today in children’s cartoon-shows like Scooby Doo; and children especially seem to find this combination delightful. They love being scared but not too scared, with the comedy providing a safety valve. In the late 1940s, Abbott and Costello’s studio, Universal, had the bright idea of teaming them with the monstrous characters who’d populated the same studio’s famous horror films during the past two decades: Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman, the Invisible Man, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the Mummy.
The first three of these characters – well, four, as the Invisible Man makes a cameo ‘appearance’ right at the end, voiced by Vincent Price – appeared in 1948’s Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, which is one of the best horror-comedies of all time. Partly this is because, despite the presence of Abbott and Costello, the monsters are presented as serious threats rather than as comic stooges. For instance, Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and the Wolfman (Lon Chaney Jr) have a bruising confrontation at the finale, and the scene where Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) throws supporting actress Lenore Aubert to her death though a window is unexpectedly nasty.
On the other hand, there are some priceless moments of humour, such as when Abbott and Costello stand over Dracula’s coffin in a wax museum: “I know there’s no such person as Dracula. You know there’s no such person as Dracula.” “But does Dracula know it?” Also good is this exchange between Lawrence Talbot, aka the Wolfman, and Costello: “I know you think I’m crazy, but in half an hour the moon will rise and I’ll turn into a wolf.” “You and twenty million other guys.” No wonder Quentin Tarantino claims he was fascinated by this movie as a kid, because it taught him how successfully the hilarious and the horrific could be blended together – something Tarantino’s done throughout his career.
© Universal Pictures
Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein was a big success, so more movies with Abbott and Costello meet… in their titles followed. In 1951 there was …meet the Invisible Man, with Arthur Franz, not Vincent Price, voicing the titular creature. 1953 saw the underrated …meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which has an atmospheric Victorian London setting and the great Boris Karloff playing Robert Louis Stevenson’s transformative mad scientist. It contains a weird sequence where Costello accidentally drinks a potion in Jekyll’s laboratory that changes him into a giant fluffy mouse, prompting the line: “How do you like that Dr Jekyll? He turned me into a mouse – the rat!” And in 1955 there was …meet the Mummy, which while not great, was still better than the several ‘serious’ Mummy films that Universal made during the 1940s.
Like many people who found fame being funny onscreen, Abbott and Costello’s lives offscreen weren’t always a barrel of laughs. The grumpy, gravelly Abbott, greatly underrated as a straight man, suffered from epilepsy and became too fond of the bottle. Costello had to endure bouts of rheumatic fever and was devastated in 1943 when, just before he was due to do a radio show, he was informed that his one-year-old son had fallen into the family swimming pool and drowned. He went ahead with the radio show, saying, “Wherever he is tonight, I want him to hear me.” By the mid-1940s the pair of them had clashed about money and even their act’s name – Costello wanted it to be ‘Costello and Abbott’. That’s why their gentle 1946 ghost / fantasy movie The Time of their Lives seems so strange – they’re in it but scarcely have any screen-time together, because in real life in 1946 they weren’t on speaking terms.
By the mid-1950s, the writing was on the wall. Cinema audiences were more interested in a younger and hipper comedy double-act, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and to compound the misery the US Inland Revenue Service gave both of them a hammering. In 1959, two years after they’d ended their partnership, Costello died of a heart attack aged just 52. Abbott lived until 1974, but his final years were blighted by financial insecurity, strokes, a hip injury and, finally, cancer.
Abbott and Costello are too much of-their-time to be considered in the same league as comic legends like Laurel and Hardy or the fabulously surreal and anarchic Marx Brothers; but if you’re a connoisseur of wordplay and smart comedic patter, or if you just have a liking for offbeat movies where funny men meet scary monsters, then the pair retain their charm.
And I like the fact that in 2016’s impressively intelligent science-fiction movie about alien contact, Arrival, the scientists who’re tasked with communicating with the giant cuttlefish-like aliens nickname the pair of creatures they encounter ‘Abbott and Costello’. In a movie about the importance of communication, I assume this is a sly reference to the unfortunate consequences of miscommunication. Who’s on first?!
© Paramount Pictures / FilmNation Entertainment