Thursday, April 14, 2016

Buck Privates Come Home (Universal-International, 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After From Caligari to Hitler I wanted something considerably lighter, and I ended up screening Charles the companion piece to The Time of Their Lives on disc eight of the Universal Home Video 14-DVD boxed set of the complete Abbott and Costello at Universal (which constitutes 28 of their 36 feature-length films): Buck Privates Come Home. As the title suggests, this is a sequel to their star-making hit from 1941, Buck Privates, which was the highest-grossing box-office hit made in the U.S. that year (a considerable accomplishment when you consider that was the year of Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Sergeant York, How Green Was My Valley, Here Comes Mr. Jordan and quite a few other acknowledged masterpieces). The original Buck Privates had been such a mega-hit largely due to its topicality — it began with newsreel footage of President Franklin Roosevelt signing the draft bill into law in October 1940 (the first time the U.S. had ever had a draft in peacetime) and showed Abbott and Costello as ultra-raw recruits who join the Army by accident and, of course, spend several reels picturesquely screwing up. In this sequel, set in the year it was made — 1947 — Abbott and Costello play the same characters, “Slicker” Smith (Bud Abbott) and Herbie Brown (Lou Costello), who have somehow survived the war in Europe and, after a six-minute prologue of clips from the original Buck Privates (including the famous screwed-up drill sequence that Abbott and Costello largely improvised on set, and which during the war was included in a Japanese propaganda film aimed at their servicemembers to show that ours weren’t so dangerous) we meet them on a troop transport going home.

The about-to-be-discharged men are singing a song called “We’re Going Home” — which later gets parodied at various points (the Andrews Sisters, who provided such appealing musical numbers as USO entertainers in the original Buck Privates, are sorely missed here) — only when Abbott and Costello finally get home the only career they have to go back to is their old one of selling bootleg ties on the streets of New York. Alas, their old nemesis as both police officer before the war and drill sergeant during it, Collins (Nat Pendleton, in his final film), got back his old job as a cop and is soon chasing them. The film is mostly a brilliant set of comedy sequences instead of a coherent story, but to the extent the movie has a plot it’s about Abbott’s and Costello’s attempts to keep a French war orphan, Evey LeBrec (Beverly Simmons — they could have come up with a more appealing French character name for her, but Simmons is refreshingly unsentimental and un-Shirley Temple-ish at a time when, though Temple herself had aged out of kid roles, her example had set the template for the depiction of virtually all movie children), in the U.S. rather than let her be deported back to France, where she’d end up in an orphanage because she has no family members left. They’re aided in this by aspiring race-car driver and designer Bill Gregory (the almost terminally dull Tom Brown) and his girlfriend, Lt. Sylvia Hunter (Joan Fulton, a.k.a. Joan Shawlee and a considerably spunkier and more appealing heroine than usually got cast in roles like this), whom Our Heroes met on the boat coming home and who agreed to take charge of Evey until she could be sent back to France.

The big comic scenes include one in which Costello accidentally sets off a booby-trapped grenade (it’s concealed inside a camera) and has to throw it out of a porthole on board ship so it will explode harmlessly in the water; one in which a banquet table that was supposed to be supported by two sawhorses but in fact has only one under it (Costello mistakenly took the other away) is precariously balanced and ends up propelling a cake, slingshot-style, into Nat Pendleton’s face; one in which Costello becomes the target in a game of tug-of-war between Abbott and a jealous man on the other end of a tenement block who accuses Costello of messing with his wife — Costello is on a blanket he suspended from a clothesline to make a D.I.Y. hammock and, after a restful night’s sleep, he awakens and suddenly realizes he’s suspended over an alley several floors below — and a great slapstick chase scene in which Costello is at the wheel of Gregory’s super-car, driving it down city streets, in and out of buildings, and at one point ending up with an advertising billboard around his neck whose broad, flat surface generates enough lift that he at least briefly flies. (The special effects in these scenes are excellent and completely convincing, a far cry from the abysmal process work that marred several similar chase scenes in Laurel and Hardy’s movies at Hal Roach Studios in the early 1930’s.) There’s even a marvelous scene in which Costello gets to enact his heartbreak at being about to lose Evey to the government bureaucracy that insists she has to be sent back — a flash of the sort of pathos that, if they’d pursued it more, would have made Abbott and Costello even greater than they were. Buck Privates Come Home is a sure-fire laugh machine, lacking the richness of The Time of Their Lives (which had been a box-office flop) but at least allowing us to see Abbott and Costello truly work as a team again — apparently they’d settled the feud that had left them refusing to speak together during the production of Little Giant and The Time of Their Lives unless they were acting a scene together, and had forced the writers of those films to accommodate them by giving them as few scenes together as possible!