Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Time of Their Lives (Universal, 1946)

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

After The Cheerleader Murders I kinda-sorta wanted to watch the next movie on Lifetime — a rerun from 2014 called Stalked by My Neighbor (I hadn’t realized from Stalked by My Doctor that it’s part of yet another Lifetime title series, “Stalked by My _____,” to go along with “The Perfect _____,” “The _____ S/he Met Online,” and “_____ at 17”) — but I didn’t really want to subject Charles to it and, when I found that Christine Conradt was not the writer (Stalked by My Neighbor was written by its director, Doug Campbell), I told Charles that we could watch something else if he wanted to. To my surprise, he asked if we could break open the Abbott and Costello boxed set from Universal that contained the 28 feature films they made there between 1940 and 1955 (all but eight of their total output) and pick it up where we’d left off. We’d left off at the 1946 film Little Giant, made during a time when Abbott and Costello were so blatantly feuding with each other they literally would not talk to each other when they weren’t actually doing a scene together — and their writers were accommodating them by giving them scripts that gave them as few scenes together as possible. The next film in their output was The Time of Their Lives, probably the downright weirdest movie in the Abbott and Costello oeuvre, a ghost story (after the sensational successes of the British film Dead of Night and Paramount’s The Uninvited in 1944 ghost stories were hot properties, quite likely because it was late in World War II and wartime always seems to inspire people to believe their dead loved ones still survive in some other plane of existence) which begins in upstate New York in 1780. The prologue, which takes up 23 minutes of this 80-minute movie, is set on the estate of Thomas Danbury (Jess Barker), who is ostensibly an American patriot but secretly is part of the British plot in which Benedict Arnold turned traitor and arranged to surrender the fort at West Point to British major John André. Danbury is engaged to marry Melody Allen (Marjorie Reynolds, borrowed from Paramount), while Danbury’s maid Nora O’Leary (Ann Gillis) is being courted by Danbury’s British-symp manservant Cuthbert Greenway (Bud Abbott) but loves free-lance tinker Horatio Prim (Lou Costello, who for some reason is the only one of these people who actually looks credible in 18th Century drag). In order to get his rival out of the way, Greenway locks Prim in a trunk from which Nora frees him, and Prim proudly boasts that he’s received a letter of commendation from General George Washington saying that his skills as a tinker have been invaluable to the Revolutionary cause.

Then Prim and Melody overhear Danbury and two fellow conspirators talking about Arnold’s plot, and rush to get to Washington and warn him — only Washington and his men learn about the plot from other sources, so when Prim and Melody are being chased by Continental Army soldiers, they assume they’re Brits and fire on them. They’re killed by the Continentals and their bodies are thrown into a well on the Danbury estate, and a curse is put upon them that they must remain on the Danbury grounds “until the crack of doom” unless some evidence comes to light that proves they weren’t traitors. Then the patriots burn down the Danbury mansion and leave the property a burnt-out wreck. The director, Charles Barton, and his writers (Val Burton, who also produced; Walter DeLeon; and Bradford Ropes, a surprising name to see here since his most famous credit is writing the source novel for 42nd Street, with Abbott and Costello writer John Grant given credit for “special material”) gives us a clever montage scene showing various generations of lovers having carved their initials and the dates of their comings-together on trees on what’s left of the Danbury estate, a clever and economical way of moving us up from 1780 to the film’s 1946 present. Antiquarian Sheldon Gage (John Shelton) has bought the Danbury property and rebuilt the old house as close as he could come to what it was like in the old days — though at least he’s installed electric lights and telephones — and he’s collected as much of Danbury’s original furniture as he could (we were told during the prologue that it was looted by the Continental Army before they set fire to the house) and built replicas of the pieces he couldn’t acquire. He’s brought along some houseguests, including his fiancée Mildred Dean (Binnie Barnes), her friend June Prescott (Lynn Baggett), spiritualist medium Emily (Gale Sondergaard) and psychotherapist Dr. Ralph Greenway (Bud Abbott), who’s supposed to be a direct descendant, six generations removed, of Cuthbert Greenway, the manservant who gave Horatio such a hard time way back when. (Though the writers had quite a few possibilities in bringing back actors from the prologue and having them play their descendants in the picture’s modern portions, the only one they did that with was Abbott.)

The film then becomes a clever and amusing spoof of spiritualism, with the modern characters using Thomas Danbury’s published memoirs (in which he apologized for his disloyalty and swore allegiance to the U.S.) and a séance led by Emily, to attract the ghosts and find out the whereabouts of George Washington’s letter to Horatio, the evidence he and Melody need to be able to leave the property and ascend to heaven at long last. It turns out Danbury hid it inside a combination-locked clock, but that piece isn’t in the reconstructed estate — it’s in a New York museum of Revolutionary War artifacts, from which Dr. Greenway, psychologically compelled to atone for the sins of his ancestor, steals it. The Time of Their Lives is a major outlier in the works of Abbott and Costello, not only because over one-fourth of it takes place in the 1780’s but because the gags are more subtle and less out-and-out funny than usual, and for once both Abbott and Costello are given multidimensional characters and actually have to act instead of just standing up and telling jokes. A lot of the jokes center around the ghosts and their oddly assorted powers — they can’t be seen by the living people, nor can they talk to them directly, though they can manipulate physical objects (including tapping the table at which the séance is being held, rapping once for “no” and twice for “yes”), wear clothes (the sight of Marjorie Reynolds wearing one of Binnie Barnes’ dresses and with her unclad parts invisible — done with the same velvet-wrapping technique Universal used in its Invisible Man movies — is one of the film’s funniest and most spectacular gags) and make noises. They can also switch electric lights on and off (when Horatio first encounters electric lights he says, “Amazing... must’ve got it from Benjamin Franklin. He’s always inventing things”), answer phones and turn on radios — and naturally, not having experienced any of these things before, they’re flabbergasted at lights coming on without being set on fire first, voices coming out of gizmos attached to wires, and both voices and gunshots (when they turn on the radio a gangster program is being broadcast) coming out of a cabinet.

Another amazing gag is the scene in which Lou Costello and Marjorie Reynolds run through each other and, being ghosts, aren’t harmed — except each ends up wearing the other’s clothes (no doubt infinitely expansive so hers can blow up to his size and his can shrink to hers), and have to do it again to restore themselves to their proper genders. (“I’m a boy!” Costello whines in his trademark whine, which makes it somewhat a matter of opinion.) There are also clever in-jokes, including Mildred’s remark when she sees Emily, “Didn’t I see you in Rebecca?” (she almost did: Gale Sondergaard was indeed considered for Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, though Judith Anderson was ultimately cast), and an oddball quote of Lauren Bacall’s famous line, “You know how to whistle, don’t you?,” from To Have and Have Not a year before. The Time of Their Lives is a surprisingly sophisticated comedy, especially considering who the stars are, beautifully directed by Barton — many of the scenes have the Gothic look of a classic Universal horror film (and no doubt some of the sets were recycled from the Universal horror movies) — and a real oddball of a film. It’s also the last Abbott and Costello film that went out under the 1937-1946 star-mobile Universal logo; right after it Universal merged with Sam Spiegel’s International Pictures to form Universal-International, and all the remaining films Abbott and Costello made under their contract went out as Universal-International productions. The Time of Their Lives was a box-office flop (the original trailer, included as a bonus item on the DVD, made it clear how desperate Universal’s marketing department was to sell such a “different” film — they ultimately advertised it as “Something New … from Bud and Lou!,” which it was) and so it’s not surprising that for their next production the “suits” at Universal-International swung for the fences and concocted something called Buck Privates Come Home, a postwar sequel to their 1947 star-making hit.