Saturday, March 31, 2012

Pardon My Sarong (Mayfair/Universal, 1942)

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

I ran us the next film in sequence from the 28-movie Abbott and Costello at Universal boxed set: Pardon My Sarong, an attempt by Universal and a production company called Mayfair (there were actually several companies called Mayfair, including one that had existed briefly in the early 1930’s, but in 1942 this was probably a profit-sharing vehicle or a tax dodge — at a time when the top U.S. income tax bracket was a whopping 91 percent, many stars formed “production companies” in partnership with the studios that had them under contract so the money they were paid for their films would be considered capital gains and thereby taxed at only 25 percent) to duplicate the success of the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road” movies with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. It didn’t really evoke the spirit of the “Road” movies (Abbott and Costello were brilliant comedians, equally adept at slapstick and dialogue humor, but they lacked the insouciance of Hope and Crosby, jointly or severally, and between them Crosby and Hope had two good singing voices to Abbott and Costello’s none) but it’s a quite funny movie anyway even though it has so many crashing genre shifts that, with Arthur Lubin out of the picture as an Abbott and Costello director, maybe Universal should have hired Preston Sturges instead of the actual director, Erle C. Kenton. Kenton was an all-arounder who proved equally adept at comedy and horror (he’d directed Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi in The Island of Lost Souls, the first and best version of The Island of Dr. Moreau, at Paramount in 1933, and at Universal he did three of the films in the Frankenstein cycle — Ghost of Frankenstein, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula — and here he got to work with one of his frequent horror collaborators, actor Lionel Atwill).

Written by the people who’d worked on the immediately previous Abbott and Costello films — True Boardman, Nat Perrin and John Grant — Pardon My Sarong opens in the office of the Chicago Transit Authority, where they’re wondering why an inner-city bus whose total route is only a 10-block loop has suddenly got lost and they have no idea where it is. Then we see the bus passing a highway sign which reads, “Los Angeles — 144 miles,” and then we see the drivers, Algernon Shaw (Bud Abbott) and Wellington Pflug (Lou Costello). They were somehow induced by multimillionaire playboy Tommy Layton (Robert Paige) to drive him and a bevy of girls he’s been dating to L.A., where his yacht is moored and where he’s planning to enter it in a sailing race across the Pacific (in the middle of wartime? That took guts!) — only he arouses the ire of yachtswoman Joan Marshall (Virginia Bruce, playing yet another role for which she was overqualified — aside from her marvelous performance as Jane Eyre in the 1934 version for Monogram, virtually none of her films show her true talent) when he hires away her brother’s crew, and she gets them to return to her brother’s boat and leaves Layton stuck with herself, Abbott and Costello (who’ve been waylaid by a Chicago cop, played marvelously by William Demarest, who was there to arrest them and get the bus back, only thanks to his machinations the bus ends up at the bottom of Los Angeles harbor and A&C end up rescued by Layton when they cling to his anchor as he takes it up) and a couple of people who flee in a hurry once they realize they’re in for an ocean voyage if they remain.

What’s more, Joan deliberately sabotages Layton’s compass and he doesn’t know they’re off course until he looks up at the night sky and wonders why Polaris isn’t where he thought it should be. “I told you to follow that star!” he thunders at Abbott and Costello — and Costello whines back, “You didn’t tell me what to do once we caught up with it!” Needless to say, just as they’re about to starve — they’ve had their last meal of crackers and two beans apiece — they reach land, an uncharted island with a bunch of comely natives trained to dance by the great African-American dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham. They’re supposed to represent a native tribe with a huge treasure in gems on the island, and Costello ends up proclaimed as their great spirit “Moola” and given the right to marry the chief’s daughter — only she’s got a boyfriend, Whaba (Leif Erickson — whose presence puts the rest of the cast one degree of separation from James Dean: Dean and Erickson acted together in Dean’s very first filmed appearance, the weird Roman Catholic TV-movie Hill No. 1, a story about the days right after Jesus’ crucifixion in which Erickson played Pontius Pilate and Dean the Apostle John), who appears to be the only indigenous male in the place and who’s naturally unhappy about losing his hot girl to an outsider, and a chunkily unattractive outsider at that.

Pardon My Sarong was the last Abbott and Costello film for which Universal felt they needed the audience boost of big musical numbers; the Ink Spots (with their original leader, tenor Bill Kenny) appear in a Los Angeles nightclub (a spectacular set with a mirrored ceiling, which must have been tough for cinematographer Milton Krasner to light) and do two of their hits, “Do I Worry?” and “Shout, Brother, Shout” (the latter also danced to by a spectacular Black tap trio called Tip, Tap and Toe) — also lists them as doing their mega-hit “Java Jive,” but they don’t — and when they get to the island native girl Nan Wynn gets to sing a ballad called “Lovely Luana” and then the troupe does an exotic number called “Vingo Jingo” by Don Raye and Gene De Paul, a piece of faux exotica similar to “Tropicana” from the Olsen and Johnson movie Crazy House. Then the tone of the movie changes again as Lionel Atwill makes his appearance and is revealed (not surprisingly) to be a bad guy, though his sinister plot (which includes rigging an extinct volcano with fireworks to create the illusion that it is erupting again!) is merely to steal all the native people’s jewels — it’s not, as I had suspected it would be, something to use the island’s South Pacific location to help the Axis in their war effort. Atwill and the baddies get their comeuppance and the film ends with a spectacular chase scene in which Costello is being towed on a board behind a boat, only a swordfish slices the board in half and instead of one board Costello is maneuvering uncertainly on two D.I.Y. water skis. Eventually it all ends happily, with the hate-at-first-sight couple of Tommy and Joan in love and paired off, though somewhat surprisingly it does not end with A&C recovering the native treasure and living on it in grand style back home (maybe the writers and producer Alex Gottlieb felt they’d already done that one in Hold That Ghost).

I first saw a lot of the Abbott and Costello movies shrunk to an hour-long time slot on a local TV station in the San Francisco Bay Area during my teen years — and apparently others saw them under similar conditions because the user review that came up when I looked up this film on was from someone who until the VHS tape of this film came out had never seen the opening and had only the dimmest idea who William Demarest was playing or why he was so important (as with Shemp Howard in some of their earlier films, Abbott and Costello played quite well with Demarest — having another comedian around seemed to bring out the best in them), and the last time I saw Pardon My Sarong was in the 1970’s, so I didn’t remember that much of it but it struck me this time around as quite a funny film: Abbott and Costello might not have had the genius for characterization of Laurel and Hardy or the interest in satire of the Marx Brothers, but they were still brilliantly funny, and they certainly knew whom to steal from (there’s a sequence in which both Abbott and Costello disguise themselves as Marco the Magician, and the presence of all three Marcos can’t help but evoke at least a few memories of the Marx Brothers’ mirror scene in Duck Soup) and how to get laughs from sometimes pretty thin material.