Sunday, November 4, 2012

Here Come the Co-Eds (Universal, 1945)

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

Charles and I ended the evening by watching the next in sequence in the Abbott and Costello boxed set: Here Come the Co-Eds, a 1945 Universal film produced by their long-time writer, John Grant — oddly, since the film relied almost exclusively on slapstick for its laughs and didn’t have any of the marvelous bits of word-play (including the famous “Who’s on First?” routine) Grant had written for them. It was also a bit on the long side for an Abbott and Costello vehicle — the running time was a full 90 minutes and much of it was taken up by the featured musical guests, comic singer Peggy Ryan (who plays a dumb college girl — it’s indicative of the 1930’s and 1940’s movie attitude towards higher education that that’s not a contradiction in terms — who falls hard for, of all people, Lou Costello) and Phil Spitalny and His Hour of Charm All-Girl Orchestra, featuring Evelyn and Her Magic Violin. Evelyn was actually quite good — her rendition of Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweisen” (which two years later was the source for the song “Golden Earrings,” performed by Marlene Dietrich in her Paramount film of that name) is impressively virtuosic and blessed with a lot more finger vibrato than a modern-day violinist would be allowed to get away with — but Spitalny (who quite obviously wasn’t female) led a pretty draggy orchestra that alternated between lush string-driven instrumentals, a cappella vocal choirs from his musicians (actually quite nice, though a little of the all-woman a cappella choir sound goes a long way) and one number where they break out jazz instruments and attempt to swing. (They’re O.K. in that department but Ina Ray Hutton and Rita Rio wouldn’t have lain awake nights worrying about the competition, and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm would have eaten them alive!)

Anyway, Here Come the Co-Eds is a typical Abbott and Costello vehicle in which they start the movie working as taxi dancers in a dance hall — frankly I wasn’t aware that any of these establishments provided male partners for women who wanted someone to dance with and couldn’t or wouldn’t go on dates, but there they are, only they have a mixup with both the management and the cops and they need to find somewhere to hide out in a hurry. Abbott’s character is called Slats McCarthy and Costello’s is called Oliver Quackenbush (how he got away with playing someone named Quackenbush while Groucho Marx couldn’t in A Day at the Races is a mystery; maybe it was because Costello, unlike Groucho, wasn’t impersonating a doctor in the film), and the gimmick is that one of the female taxi dancers at the ballroom is Slats’ sister Molly (Martha O’Driscoll), whom he’s trying to promote into a bigger entertainment career. One way he’s done that is to plant a story in a magazine called Pic (obviously patterned on the real-life Life) that her dream is to attend all-female Bixby College. Bixby’s progressive dean, Larry Benson (Donald Cook), decides to offer her the college’s annual scholarship on the ground that at least once it should go to someone who couldn’t afford to attend the college without it. Unfortunately, his progressive ideas are being sabotaged by the college’s principal funder, Jonathan Kirkland (Charles Dingle), whose daughter Diane (June Vincent) is in love with Dean Benson. Kirkland père is determined to run Bixby the way it was run when his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother went there (as Charles pointed out, the film’s title is a misnomer: a co-ed is a woman student at a gender-mixed college, but Bixby’s student body is all-female and therefore none of its students are co-eds), and he sabotages Benson’s innovations at every turn and at one point threatens to close the college down altogether by calling in the $20,000 in loans it owes him. Abbott and Costello end up working at Bixby as caretakers under the supervision of a loathsome character named Johnson (Lon Chaney, Jr., who the same year this film was made played the Wolf-Man opposite Martha O’Driscoll in a much more typical vehicle for him, the horror omnibus House of Dracula), who takes an instant dislike to them and gives them both a hard time.

The essence of the film is a series of big slapstick set-pieces, starting at the ballroom when every time a woman picks Costello as her dancing (or, in one case, just necking) partner, a near-sighted man (Richard Lane) comes along, accuses Costello of trying to take his wife away from him, knocks him into a potted plant, then puts on his glasses and realizes the woman Costello is with is not his wife (the topper occurs when Costello explains to Abbott why he keeps getting knocked over and a woman, thinking Costello is seriously accusing Abbott of taking away his wife, knocks Abbott into the plant); a nice scene in which Abbott and Costello suddenly realize the car they’ve stolen is a police cruiser (they return it, then accidentally set it on fire — a gag Laurel and Hardy could have made more of but it’s still pretty funny); a scene at the college in which they’re trying to clean up a kitchen and end up getting their hands and feet stuck in molasses, bread dough and other sticky substances; a neat variation on the crap-game sequence in Buck Privates in which Costello swallows Chaney’s loaded dice and Chaney and Abbott use him as a human dice cup, with an X-ray machine (they’re in the college’s fluoroscope room) telling them how the dice inside Costello’s stomach landed; a wrestling match in which Costello is supposed to fight “The Masked Marvel” and win $1,000 which Abbott can then bet on the Bixby team to win its big basketball game against rival Carlton (they’re 20-to-1 underdogs and therefore this will give Abbott the money to pay off Kirkland’s loans and save Bixby), which seems O.K. because the Marvel (Sammy Stein) is an old friend of Abbott’s and agrees to throw the match — only at the last minute the Marvel has to drop out because he’s O.D.’d on banana splits and Chaney’s character replaces him (wearing a skin-tight all-black costume with white rings around the eyes and mouth — he looks like a were-skunk and seems surprisingly athletic, though I suspect the already bloated Chaney had a stunt double for this sequence); the basketball game itself, for which Chaney’s character works out a fix with the gamblers and the Carlton team to import ringers — a professional women’s basketball team called the Amazons — for the second half of the game; and a final chase scene in which Abbott and Costello are fleeing with the $20,000 in a boat, though they’re not anywhere near the water: the boat is on a four-wheel trailer that’s detached from its hitch and A&C are using its sail to make it go on dry land.

It’s a nonsensical movie but also a very funny one; as I’ve noted before (including in the early 2000’s after the American Movie Classics channel, back when it still was a movie-classics channel instead of a dumping ground for John Wayne, James Bond and quirky original series like Mad Men and The Walking Dead, ran most of the A&C films and I recorded them then), compared to their predecessors in movie comedy — Chaplin, Keaton, Langdon and Lloyd in the silent era; Laurel and Hardy on both sides of the silent-sound transition; and the Marx Brothers and W. C. Fields in the 1930’s — Abbott and Costello weren’t that good, but compared to everyone and everything that’s happened in movie comedy since, they’re utterly hilarious!