Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Buck Privates (Universal, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Buck Privates, the second film made by Abbott and Costello and the first in which they starred — and an enormous hit (it grossed $4 million, more than any previous film in Universal’s history and more than How Green Was My Valley or Citizen Kane, on an investment of $180,000) that basically had it all: surprisingly lavish production values (though much of the mock-battle footage was clearly stock from Universal’s newsreels), sprightly music (the Andrews Sisters are in the film and are featured almost as prominently as Abbott and Costello are!) and an unexpectedly topical theme. In October 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt signed America’s first peacetime conscription bill in its history, and the bill was predictably controversial, especially among the still-powerful isolationists who wanted no part of the European or Asian wars. Roosevelt saw U.S. entry into World War II as inevitable and wanted us to be prepared, and as part of the war-preparation effort he asked the movie studios to make films illustrating life in the Army for the new draftees and promoting both voluntary enlistment and cooperation with conscription.

Among the movies that got produced in response to the U.S. government’s call were this one, Great Guns (a virtual copy of Buck Privates made at 20th Century-Fox with Laurel and Hardy instead of Abbott and Costello; left to their own devices Laurel and Hardy could probably have made a considerably funnier service comedy, as they had in 1932 with the first half of Pack Up Your Troubles, but they were given their marching orders by the “suits” at Fox and the result was a film that’s basically Buck Privates, only not as good) and Caught in the Draft (a Paramount comedy that starred Bob Hope and was probably more influential for the future direction of his career than it was as a movie in its own right: in order to promote it, Paramount booked Hope to perform live at two Army bases, including Fort Ord near Monterey, California; and Hope enjoyed the experience of performing at Army bases so much he literally did it for the rest of his career!)

Service comedies from Hollywood pretty much followed the same formula, and this one is no exception: it’s essentially three parallel tracks — a romantic plotlet in which Army “hostess” Judy Gray (Jane Frazee) is torn romantically between arrogant rich bastard Randolph Parker III (Lee Bowman) and his former valet, Bob Martin (Alan Curtis); Parker arrogantly expects his influential father to get him out of the ranks and into a cushy job in Washington, but dad decides to leave him in the Army thinking it will make a man out of him — which, of course, it does — plus Abbott and Costello essentially playing the comic relief (two small-time con men who join the Army to get away from the cop who’s chasing them, only to find that the cop, played by Nat Pendleton, is in the Army too and is, of course, their drill sergeant) and lots of music not only from the Andrews Sisters (this is the film that introduced their song “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” a hit for them at the time and later for Bette Midler in 1972) but from Jane Frazee (singing a quite lovely romantic ballad called “I Wish You Were Here”) and Lou Costello (a quite funny novelty in which he’s stuck in the kitchen with Shemp Howard — who before he got tapped to replace his brother Curly in the Three Stooges worked with quite a few other legendary comedians, including W.C. Fields in The Bank Dick and Olsen and Johnson in Hellzapoppin’ and Crazy House — and fantasizes that he’s a captain).

Indeed, Charles thought the music held up better than any other element in the film — though the Abbott and Costello verbal routines are still very funny (their main writer, John Grant, got a “special material” credit, and deserved it) and it was nice to see their first one, in which Costello claims never to have played craps before but his command of such gambling lingo as “fade it” and “let it ride” “outs” him — and in which for once it’s Costello who takes Abbott’s bankroll and not the other way around (though Abbott cons Costello back and gets the money in a later scene). I’ve had mixed feelings about Abbott and Costello; as a kid, watching these movies when San Francisco’s Channel 7 showed them early Saturday mornings, I thought they were hilarious; later I thought Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers were a good deal funnier; then in the early 2000’s when American Movie Classics (in their death throes as a classic movie channel before they went all John Wayne or James Bond all the time) showed quite a few of the Abbott and Costello features, my reaction was that maybe they weren’t funnier than Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers but they’re a damned sight funnier than just about anyone who’s done movie comedy since.

Leonard Maltin’s book Movie Comedy Teams, published in 1970 and revised in 1974, was appreciative of Abbott and Costello but also zeroed in on their main weakness: “[W]ith few exceptions, the team never strove to portray realistic characters in their films. If they had any flaw, this was it. They always provided laughs, but they could never establish the bond that made Laurel and Hardy so popular with audiences; they never convinced their fans that the two guys they were playing were real people, worth caring about.” (Neither did the Marx Brothers, but the Marxes made themselves such figures of anarchistic wish-fulfillment they didn’t need to.) Still, Buck Privates holds up pretty well; the drill sequence (in which Costello not only can’t tell his left from his right but, in its funniest gag, gets tired of being told to put his rifle on his left shoulder, then on his right, then on his left again ad infinitum and whines to the drill sergeant, “Will ya make up your mind?”) was apparently largely improvised (and, according to one commentator, was shown by the Japanese army as an alleged example of their enemy’s incompetence!), and though the gags are so old Aristophanes probably would have rejected them as too clichéd, they’re still funny.