Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Naughty Nineties (Universal, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The last two nights Charles and I, at least partly to get away from the heaviness of Parsifal, had reopened the 28-film Abbott and Costello boxed set from Universal and picked up the next two films in sequence. On Friday night we watched The Naughty Nineties (1945), a pretty close reworking of Show Boat that seemed to have existed mainly so Universal could make a movie with their big comedy stars and also recycle the show boat from their 1929 and 1936 versions of Universal’s classic musicals and the saloon set they’d built five years earlier (1940) for the Mae West-W. C. Fields classic My Little Chickadee. The plot of this one is pretty simple: Sam Jackson (Henry Travers) is the owner of the River Queen show boat and he has the obligatory pretty daughter, Caroline Jackson (Lois Collier), who’s his female star. His male star is vainglorious actor Dexter Broadhurst (Bud Abbott), and he’s putting on clean shows and doing good business until he’s set upon by three unscrupulous gamblers who are about to be thrown out of town. The Terrible Trio this time are Crawford (Alan Curtis, a decent if unexceptional leading man who got a lot of work from Universal around this time), Bailey (Joe Sawyer) and Bonita Farrow (Rita Johnson, who’d got a star buildup at MGM in the late 1930’s that hadn’t taken even though she was quite good, as she is here), and their plot is to get Captain Jackson into the Gilded Cage saloon and casino, where they will cheat him out of the River Queen — which they do by challenging him to a card game and then drugging him so he can no longer see the cards. (I couldn’t help but joke that instead of playing a guardian angel, this was one movie in which Travers needed one.) Dexter and Sebastian Dinwiddie (Lou Costello), who’s a sort of general assistant on the show boat as well as the drummer in the marching band, manage to get Jackson out of the casino before he’s lost the show boat altogether, but by the time they do so Jackson is into the bad guys for $15,000, for which they claim three-quarters ownership of the River Queen and insist on opening a casino aboard. They do that and rig the games, and eventually Jackson has had enough when a gamblers’ quarrel on board leads to a gunshot and he complains that his unwanted partners have turned his nice, clean show boat into a cheap saloon.

Eventually, of course, Broadhurst and Dinwiddie cotton to what’s going on and save the day; the gamblers play one last hand with Jackson for total ownership of the boat, only Crawford — who’s fallen in love with Caroline Jackson — stacks the deck in Jackson’s favor, he gets his show boat back, Bailey and Bonita get arrested and everyone presumably lives happily ever after (though, perhaps due to the Production Code, instead of ending up as a couple Crawford seems simply to disappear from Caroline’s life — they don’t get together and they don’t have the tearful farewell one would otherwise expect). Like a lot of the Abbott and Costello movies, The Naughty Nineties isn’t much as a film, though it has a certain period charm, but it lives and dies mainly on the strength of its gags. In an early scene, Lou Costello is playing a huge bass drum for the River Queen’s marching band — and he loses track of the rest of the group and starts marching down the streets alone, still banging away on his drum. Later he’s supposed to be making a cake in the show boat’s kitchen but accidentally puts a feather-filled pot holder in as one of the layers — and when the cake is served in the River Queen’s casino, everyone starts exhaling tiny feathers and it looks like it’s snowing indoors. The film’s best part is the most complete version ever recorded of the famous Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First?” routine — you know, “Who’s on first, What’s on second, I-Don’t-Know’s on third” — which was added to the film after it was edited and Universal’s executives got a look at it and decided it wasn’t funny enough. Abbott and Costello had already been doing this routine, written by John Grant (who got a co-producer credit on this one — he was also the credited producer of their immediately previous film, Here Come the Co-Eds), for almost a decade in burlesque and radio as well as a much shorter version in their first movie, One Night in the Tropics, and reportedly this routine has become so famous that a continuous loop of the performance of it in this film runs at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

There are also a couple of gags ripped off from the Marx Brothers: the “throw me a lifesaver” bit from Horse Feathers (an anachronism in this film, one contributor pointed out, because this is supposed to be taking place in the 1890’s and Life Savers candy wasn’t invented until 1912) and the mirror scene from Duck Soup — which was actually an old vaudeville routine that before the Marxes got it had previously been filmed by Charlie Chaplin in The Floorwalker (1916). The Naughty Nineties is a bit derivative, and the Abbott and Costello routines were starting to bore audiences — which Charles could totally understand: so many of their gags were based on Abbott getting the better of Costello we actually heave sighs of relief on the rare occasions their writers were willing to let Costello get the upper hand! — but it’s charming, well made, quite funny and has a winsome performance by Lois Collier, who gets two songs, the period piece “On a Sunday Afternoon” (the film is chock full of actual 1890’s songs, including Al Jolson’s hit “Ma Blushin’ Rosie,” played as an instrumental by the show boat band during the scene in which Costello gets lost) and a new song, “I Can’t Get You Out of My Mind” by Edgar Fairchild (music) and Jack Brooks (lyrics); says she was dubbed but not by whom. The film was written by committee, and it shows — Edmund L. Hartmann, John Grant, Edmund Joseph, Hal Fimberg and “additional comedy sequences” by Felix Adler — and directed by the Boy Named Jean Yarbrough in better form than usual; some of the scenes actually have visual distinction (though that may be as much due to the great cinematographer, George Robinson, as to Yarbrough) and the overall atmosphere is a bit richer than usual for Abbott and Costello.