Saturday, April 26, 2014

Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (MGM,1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I went back to his place and I ran him the 1945 film Abbott and Costello in Hollywood, in which the titular comedy team (I’m pretty sure they hold the record for the number of times actors got their own names included as parts of the titles of their films) co-starred with Robert Stanton, Dick Haymes’ brother, in a pretty obvious reworking of the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera with a movie studio instead of an opera company. There’s the arrogant established star who thinks he can get the newly discovered ingenue to go to bed with him in exchange for a major part, and the young unknown guy whom the comedians help to replace the arrogant established star so he and the girl can romance each other on screen as well as in real life. There’s also an exciting thrill climax on a rollercoaster that’s set to blow up on cue, on which Costello and the arrogant established star are fighting even though no one is supposed to be on the set except dummies in the cars. This occurs right after Robert Stanton and a cast of hundreds, directed by Charles Walters — S. Sylvan Simon did the bulk of the film but Walters directed the dance numbers — have sung and danced a paean to the wonders and joys of a carnival midway, to a song written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, whose work here compares to their efforts in Meet Me in St. Louis about the same way Harold Arlen’s and Yip Harburg’s songs for the Marx Brothers film At the Circus compare to their songs in The Wizard of Oz. I found the comedy scenes held up surprisingly well, despite Abbott and Costello’s oft-criticized (even then) reliance on old jokes — one critic dismissed them with the line, “Some of their gags are older than they are!” — and Robert Stanton, though he had all the personality of a stuffed pig, did look nice and sing well. Lucille Ball and Preston Foster appeared as guests in this one — just as seven years earlier Lucy had made a movie with the Marx Brothers (Room Service) but had had no comedy scenes with them, so here she made a movie with Abbott and Costello but had no comedy scenes with them, either! — 2/28/98


Our “feature” was Abbott and Costello in Hollywood, made in 1945 and the third of three films Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made for MGM. Their main contract was with Universal, but their Universal contract provided that they could make one film per year for another studio, so in 1942, at the height of their popularity (their star-making film, Buck Privates, was the biggest-grossing film of 1941 — amazing when you consider that was also the year of Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Sullivan’s Travels, Sergeant York, Meet John Doe and John Ford’s Academy Award winner How Green Was My Valley), they signed a three-film contract for the one film a year they were allowed to make elsewhere than at Universal. MGM kicked off the contract with a 1942 remake of the 1929 RKO film Rio Rita, with Kathryn Grayson and John Carroll in the leads originally played by Bebe Daniels and John Boles, and Abbott and Costello taking over the comedy parts originally played by Bert Wheeler and Bob Woolsey. In 1944 (they didn’t make a film at MGM in 1943 because Costello fell ill with rheumatic fever) they did an Arabian Nights spoof called Lost in a Harem on the sets of the just-completed non-musical version of Kismet with Ronald Colman and Marlene Dietrich (a pity MGM didn’t make Lost in a Harem in color the way they did Kismet!). Then, with the box-office take on their Universal films falling, MGM put them into this one in 1945 and did not renew their contract. Abbott and Costello In Hollywood is basically a veiled remake of the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, copying its romantic triangle — established singer/actor and big-time asshole Gregory LeMaise (Carleton G. Young) thinks he can get into the pants of aspiring starlet Claire Warren (Frances Rafferty) by promising her the female lead in his new film, but she only has eyes for unknown crooner Jeff Parker (billed here as Robert Stanton but later known as Bob Haymes) — and casting the comedians as barbers turned up-and-coming agents Buzz Kurtis (Bud Abbott) and Abercrombie (Lou Costello) who worm their way into representing Parker and getting him the big romantic role after they frame LeMaise for murder. (He’s supposed to have killed Abercrombie, and the scene in which the two — both wearing outrageously fake beards — come across each other in a bar is delicious.) Abbott and Costello insisted on Martin A. Gosch, the producer of their radio show, as producer of this film as well — and Gosch also co-wrote the “original” story with ex-Marx Brothers gagman (and future Addams Family show-runner) Nat Perrin, with Perrin and Lou Breslow collaborating on the script.

Surprisingly, there aren’t any of the elaborate A&C word-play routines here (it’s one of the few films they made that does not credit the “Who’s on First?” author, John Grant, as a writer), but there are enough delicious slapstick sequences — especially one at the beginning when Costello, as an aspiring but spectacularly incompetent barber, tries to shave “Rags” Ragland (a great comedian who’s largely forgotten today because he died young — age 40 — after making only one movie after this one), and one at the end in which Costello and LeMaise end up fighting each other on a roller-coaster that, unbeknownst to them, is supposed to be blown up as the conclusion of the spectacular musical number that’s going to complete the film LeMaise got aced out of by A&C’s frame. Abbott and Costello in Hollywood isn’t a great movie — few of their films were (perhaps because they never got a truly great director — one wonders what Leo McCarey, who worked so memorably with Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers, could have done with them) — and in the middle of shooting it they were called back to Universal to film a version of “Who’s on First?” for inclusion in The Naughty Nineties (and quite frankly that classic routine is even funnier than anything in Abbott and Costello in Hollywood!), but it’s still a lot of fun even though the implicit promise of a look at some of MGM’s star names isn’t really kept. We get to see director Robert Z. Leonard shoot a sequence which, predictably, Costello ruins (later we get to see Costello impersonate a dummy and mess up another scene for one of the film’s comic high points), and we get to see another sequence in which Preston Foster and Lucille Ball enact a scene from a Civil War drama. (That’s right: Lucille Ball, one of the most brilliant physical comediennes of all time, made movies with both the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello and didn’t get any comedy scenes with either of them!) Aside from a cute scene in the MGM schoolhouse with child star Jackie “Butch” Jenkins, that’s about all you get here — Abbott and Costello went to Hollywood and all they got to meet were the “B”-listers — though the film at least benefits from some infectious songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, coming off the high of writing the brilliant score for Meet Me in St. Louis and here coming up with tunes that, like the film itself, are pleasant and entertaining even if not great — though I’d seen this film with Charles before and didn’t remember it as being as good, or as funny, as it seems now! — 4/26/14