Saturday, May 26, 2012

It Ain't Hay (Universal, 1943)

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

The film was It Ain’t Hay, ninth in the sequence of Abbott and Costello’s 28 films for Universal and to my mind the best of the ones we’ve watched so far in our chronological perusal of the complete A&C on Universal boxed set. What makes this one better than the common run of Abbott and Costello vehicles? First, the writing: it’s based on a story source by Damon Runyon, a tale called “Princess O’Hara” that Universal had already filmed under Runyon’s title in 1935, and the screenplay is by Allan Boretz, who had co-written the play Room Service that was filmed with the Marx Brothers in 1938. Second, the direction by Erle C. Kenton, which is pretty straightforward through much of the film but turns unexpectedly dark and Gothic (much like the Universal horror movies, some of which Kenton directed) in the scene in which Grover Mockridge (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur Hoolihan (Lou Costello) sneak onto a racing stable after dark to steal a horse to replace the one New York cabbie King O’Hara (Cecil Kellaway) just lost after Wilbur fed him a piece of a candy cane and the horse died from it.

It’s hard to say just what makes It Ain’t Hay better than your average early-1940’s A&C vehicle, but part of it is the familiar Damon Runyon characters (when Shemp Howard, playing one of a trio of disreputable gamblers, is asked why he always carries an umbrella with him, rain or shine, he says, “How should I know? I’m a Damon Runyon character!”) and the aura of raffishness they convey, part of it is Princess O’Hara (King O’Hara’s daughter) herself — a 13-year-old girl played by Patsy O’Connor, Universal’s latest attempt at finding the second Deanna Durbin now that the original had aged herself out of the kinds of roles that had made her a star and saved the “New Universal” from bankruptcy in the late 1930’s (and she’s unusually good, too, playing her part with the minimum of sentimentality and offering a good, if not quite Durbin-level, voice), and part of it is an unusually literate script that offers Lou Costello real moments of pathos (especially in the remarkable scene in which his entire neighborhood shuns him for killing — however inadvertently — King O’Hara’s horse) as well as some neat frame-breaking probably inspired by the Hope-Crosby Road movies: towards the end, when Abbott informs Costello that “Mr. Warner” (one of the villains, a maniacal “efficiency expert” played by Eugene Pallette) is looking for them, Costello fires back, “It won’t do him no good — we work for Universal!”

Though Allan Boretz had nothing to do with the movie the Marx Brothers made from his hit play, it’s obvious in writing this script he had the Marxes on his mind — not only the racetrack climax and its obvious inspiration from A Day at the Races but an audacious ripoff of the great scene in Duck Soup in which Harpo shuns the girl he’s been chasing all movie and takes his horse to bed instead (in It Ain’t Hay it’s Abbott, Costello and the horse in bed together!) — and his script (he’s actually co-credited with John Grant, A&C’s radio writer and the author of “Who’s On First?,” who comes through here in a routine in which Abbott tries to explain to Costello that a horse eats its fodder, and Costello says, “A horse eats his fodder? What is he, a cannibal?”) even allows the two stars to play some of the gender-bending games that were a mainstay of Laurel and Hardy’s movies. In one scene Abbott asks Costello about his figure (referring to how much money they have in cash at the moment), and Costello think it means his body and he starts mincing around and saying things like, “I didn’t know you cared!” It Ain’t Hay was out of circulation for many years — apparently due to some legal conflict between Universal and the Damon Runyon estate — and previous A&C boxes didn’t include it, but this one does and it’s much the richer for it: even the musical guest stars add to the appeal of the film without trying to take it over the way the Andrews Sisters seemed to in some of the earlier A&C’s. Just about all the Abbott and Costello films are funny, but It Ain’t Hay is not only funny but emotionally richer than the team’s norm — and hence even funnier than they usually were.