Some notes from a recent gathering of the local cinephile society:
For years, for me, Abbott and Costello were synonymous with Sunday mornings.
That’s when one of the local TV stations used to show the pair’s Universal films when I was a kid; my siblings and I would watch as much of Bud and Lou as we could before it was time to go to Mass.
The local show was called “Movietime” – I can hear the theme music now, just as I can conjure up the memory of the theme for the same station’s “Movie of the Week,” shown at 11:30 p.m. Sundays, and which I wasn’t allowed to watch when school was in session. And then there was “Sunday Movietime,” a late-afternoon show that was hosted by the same guy who, dressed as a carnival barker, also hosted “Popeye’s Funhouse.” This being Sunday, though, he always wore a suit as he stood in front of a set that was supposed to look like the exterior of a movie theater, which he would “enter” after introducing the week’s film.
“Movietime” wasn’t limited to Abbott and Costello – there were only so many A&C movies to go around. So we also saw all the Henry Aldrich movies (I always identified with Henry, who made Charlie Brown look like an overachiever) along with the Francis the Talking Mule movies, which always seemed old hat (unfairly, I know now) because we’d seen the same basic gags on “Mr. Ed,” produced years later. (Similarly, the first time I saw the old “Honeymooners” show in reruns as a kid, they seemed old-hat too, until I realized I’d seen those gags on “The Flintstones,” which, of course, had, um, borrowed the basic idea.)
But Abbott and Costello were the gold standard, and I ate them up. What kid didn’t identify with Lou Costello, who built his career on playing a little kid who was somehow, inexplicably, in a grown-up’s body?
Eventually one of the other stations began showing the team’s TV show from the 1950s, and I was introduced to the charms of Mr. Fields. (Years later, I would come to appreciate, in a different way, the charms of Hillary Brooke.)
But as I got older, Abbott and Costello seemed tiresome. Corny. Kid stuff.
But as I got older still, I began to realize a couple of things.
1. Although I’d outgrown Costello’s antics (there’s a fine line between childlike charm and infantile obnoxiousness, and as Lou Costello got older – and, as I would later read, more obstreperous – he saw no shame in pole-vaulting over that line), I more and more became a fan of Bud Abbott. Groucho reportedly called Abbott the best straight man in the business, and I can see why. I love watching Abbott set up the routines and control the pacing. He’s flawless – never seems to break character. Yes, it was the only character he ever played, and no, of course he could never have played Hamlet, but I somehow doubt that Laurence Olivier could have put “Who’s on First?” across half as well.
2. The Abbott and Costello films – and especially their TV show – are, in a way, museum pieces of a theatrical history that is well worth preserving. Bud and Lou came from vaudeville and burlesque and knew all the routines – among them “Flugel Street,” “Niagara Falls” and “Pack, Unpack,” along with the baseball sketch – and because of them, a valuable and often very funny oral tradition survives.
“In the Navy” (Universal, 1941) is a typical example. The plot is next to nothing, to put it most charitably. Actually, when you come right down to it, the title is the plot, though you also have Dick Powell around as a famous singer who has enlisted incognito, and the relentlessly cheerful, yet somehow endearing, Andrews Sisters.
To me, the alleged plot is nothing but a framework for several classic routines – in this case, the Lemon Table Sketch, the Math Lesson (Lou shows that 7 times 13 equals 28) and, early on, a variation of Pay the Man the Two Dollars, which shows Bud at his aggressive best. And in the Lemon Table routine they are ably abetted and assisted by the always welcome Shemp Howard, whom I tended to undervalue as a kid because he wasn’t Curly (who, come to think of it, knew how to play a grown-up little kid without ever becoming obnoxious. Then again, from what I’ve read, he apparently really was a grown-up little kid).
Would I like to watch all of Bud and Lou’s movies all the way through all over again? For the most part, no.
But in short doses, they can be just what the doctor ordered.