Monday, January 12, 2009

Africa Screams (Nassour/United Artists, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Ironically, the night before last we had run a “B,” an Abbott and Costello comedy from 1949 called Africa Screams, which is actually quite an amusing movie, though it was made under truly independent auspices — the producer was Edward Nassour, shooting at his own studio (where he built pretty obvious but still relatively convincing African “exteriors” inside his soundstages); Huntington Hartford (the A&P heir who died early last year and ran through virtually his entire fortune as a philanthropist to various art projects, almost all of them more high-falutin’ than this!) was also an investor; and though the producers got Charles Barton to direct (he’d already handled several of the Abbott and Costello vehicles at their home studio, Universal), this still seems like a strangely unambitious project for them to do right after their big comeback film, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. (Actually, another Universal project — Mexican Hayride, a Cole Porter musical on Broadway inexplicably shorn of its songs in the film adaptation — came between the two films.)

The opening is utterly hilarious: Lou Costello, in full safari drag — pith helmet and all — and saddled with the delightfully ridiculous character name “Stanley Livington” (perhaps they removed the “s” from the last name so that none of Livingston’s real-life heirs would sue!), is cracking the whip in full lion-tamer style, only the beast he’s trying to “tame” gets away and we see it’s only a normal house cat. Livington and Buzz Johnson (Bud Abbott) work in the jungle-books section of a department store and the MacGuffin is an old, out-of-print book called Dark Safari which contained a map leading to a diamond field in central Africa which will make its discoverer fabulously rich. Livington claims to be able to draw the map from memory, and villainess Diana Emerson (Hillary Brooke, doing the same sinister, oily characterization she did in the Rathbone-Bruce Holmes film The Woman in Green and playing her part totally straight) wants to get it from him, first by sending two thugs (played by real-life brothers Max and Buddy Baer — and yes, there’s a joke about Max Baer’s former career as a boxer and heavyweight contender) to get it from him, while she’s simultaneously making him an offer directly. When Buzz keeps Livington from revealing the secret, Emerson recruits them for her safari — only Livington’s “map” was merely one he recalled drawing himself to show him the way to get to the department store where he worked.

Emerson has hired Clyde Beatty (playing himself) to guide her safari, telling him she’s looking for Orangutan gigantea, a 20-foot ape; he captures several wild animals, and there’s a great scene in which Livington gets Buzz to put on a lion costume so he can look like a lion tamer, but of course Buzz doesn’t get into the cage where this demonstration is supposed to happen and a real lion faces Livington instead. Also in the cast is Beatty’s rival real-life animal trainer, Frank Buck, whom Our Heroes run into running his own safari down the block from theirs; aside from their unique marquee value, one suspects Beatty and Buck were also engaged because the script called for a lot of tame animals to interact with the principals; though there are a few bits of stock footage, this is not one of those cheapie jungle movies that tried to suggest a safari with little or no newly shot live-animal footage at all.

Leonard Maltin’s book Movie Comedy Teams said that Africa Screams, “despite a good supporting cast, was strictly standard” — but that didn’t keep it from being quite amusing, even though some of the sequences (notably one in which Our Heroes are captured by cannibals and prepared to be that night’s main dish) were done better in the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies. The film is even a “doubles” movie in a really quirky way, since it includes Shemp Howard (as “Gunner,” a myopic hunter who’s supposed to protect Livington with his gun but in fact is incapable even of pointing the gun in the right direction!) and Joe Besser (in a surprisingly queeny characterization), who replaced Shemp in the Three Stooges on Shemp’s death in 1955. There’s also a quite nice worm-turning ending in which Costello ends up dominant over Abbott — not the way their films generally turned out, but Abbott tormented Costello so unmercifully throughout most of their career it’s nice that at least once it went the other way!