Monday, July 11, 2016

The Noose Hangs High (Abbott & Costello Productions, Eagle-Lion Films, 1948)

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

I ran the recently arrived DVD of the last Abbott and Costello movie I didn’t have in the collection, The Noose Hangs High, credited on to “Abbott and Costello Productions” and released in 1948 through Eagle-Lion Films. Eagle-Lion Films what was what PRC (the plucky little “B” studio founded in 1939 whose name really stood for Producers’ Releasing Corporation but whose films were generally so bad — though with a few exceptions like Bluebeard, Detour, Out of the Night, Lady in the Death House and Strangler of the Swamp — the wags in Hollywood called it “Pretty Rotten Crap”) became when J. Arthur Rank bought it. Rank wanted a guaranteed U.S. outlet for his prestige British productions and he called his new company “Eagle-Lion” to symbolize the union of American and British interests in it. It didn’t last long; within three years he sold it to United Artists, but its first year of operation it had a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic in Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressburger’s ballet film The Red Shoes. With Rank’s money, Eagle-Lion was able to hire bigger (if not necessarily “A”-list) stars, and Abbott and Costello came to them on a one-picture deal to make the film they could legally do once a year for a company other than Universal. Indeed, they were able to get Lou Costello and his mom, Lolly Cristillo (“Cristillo” was the original spelling of the name until Lou simplified it when he went into show business), listed as producers! They carried over director Charles T. Barton from their Universal films but used a committee-written script with no fewer than seven credited writers: Julian Blaustein, Bernard Feins, John Grant, Charles Grayson, Howard Harris, Arthur T. Horman and Daniel Taradash. (Two of the writers had their names misspelled on the credits: Feins became “Fins” and Taradash, later an Academy Award winner for his adaptation of James Jones’ novel From Here to Eternity, became “Tardash.”)

Despite the credits to six other writers, it’s clear the main author is John Grant, not only because he’d been with Abbott and Costello even before their film career started (he wrote “Who’s on First?” and the other famous dialogue routines A&C did on their radio broadcasts) but because he liberally sprinkled the script for The Noose Hangs High with excerpts from previously performed Abbott and Costello material, including the famous routine in which someone tries to explain to Costello that “a horse eats its fodder” and Costello assumes that mean horses feed on their male parents. (Alas, perhaps because of Production Code restrictions, the version here is missing the funniest line of the original, when Costello responds to “a horse eats its fodder” by saying, “What is he, a cannibal?”) When I looked up The Noose Hangs High on, the reviewer called it “sub-par” and said the other Abbott and Costello films from the era — most notably the ones in which they got to “meet” Frankenstein, Dracula, the Invisible Man and the Mummy — were better. Leonard Maltin’s chapter on Abbott and Costello in his book Movie Comedy Teams dismissed it as “inconsequential,” and even Charles thought it was far from their best. I quite liked it, mainly for the same reason the reviewer didn’t: its virtual absence of a plot. Oh, there’s a story of sorts: Abbott and Costello play window washers whose company name, “Speedy,” gets them mistaken for messengers. As such, they’re hired by bookie Nick Craig (Joseph Calleia in the sort of role he could have played in his sleep, which sometimes it looked like he was doing here) to deliver $50,000 to a middleman who will in turn pay it to J. C. McBride (the marvelous British comedian Leon Errol) to cover a bet McBride made with Craig and won. Unfortunately, Our Heroes are scared by the two thugs Craig hired to tail them, Chuck (the marvelous Mike Mazurki from Murder, My Sweet and the first RKO Dick Tracy) and Joe (Jack Overman), so they hide out in a mailing room sending out samples of face powder to women. Costello stuffs the $50,000 in an envelope and intends to put it in another envelope so he can mail it back to Craig, but he loses it and instead it ends up in an envelope destined for Miss Van Buren (Isabel Randolph).

Miss Van Buren is apparently bedridden and is giving her maid/caregiver Carol Blair (the personable Cathy Downs, who looks as undercast in her role as Patricia Morison was in the petty villain roles they were giving her at Universal before she escaped to Broadway and the female lead in the premiere production of Kiss Me, Kate) a hard time. When the powder ad arrived with the $50,000 in it, Miss Van Buren specifically tells Carol she can do anything she likes with the envelope’s contents — and so Carol treats herself to a shopping spree including renting a new apartment, buying a new car (a convertible whose top keeps coming down and whose hood keeps flying up at the most inopportune moments) and of course, being a woman in a 1948 movie, treating herself to tons of new fashionable clothes. Our Heroes track down the mailing list of people the face powder samples were sent to, and trace Carol and try to get the money back — at one point, having heard that J. C. McBride never loses, they decided to put the remaining $2,000 on a 30-to-1 longshot in the next day’s horse race — which they watch on a TV screen in a nightspot with the au courant name “The Television Club” — only they bet the money on “Lolly C.” (a horse deliberately named after Costello’s real-life mother) while, unbeknownst to them, McBride has switched his own bet to the eventual winner, Lucky George. Worried that Craig’s thugs are going to catch up to them and knock them off, Abbott and Costello decide to get themselves arrested so they’ll at least be in police custody instead of out on the open where Craig and his thugs can get them — only, in the film’s funniest scene by far, everything goes wrong for them. They throw a rock through a store window — and get congratulations from the store owner for proving the window wasn’t unbreakable, as the man who sold it to them (and who’s the one who actually ends up arrested) had told him. They try to steal a coat from a man who’s carrying it — only the man stole the coat himself and thinks Costello is merely the rightful owner stealing it back. Eventually they hit on the idea of running up a huge tab at the Copper Club, the city’s most expensive restaurant, and then getting themselves arrested when they refuse to pay for it — only McBride, who’s known to Our Heroes only as “Julius Caesar” (they assume he thinks he’s the Roman one and he’s crazy — “Well, I’m Brutus,” sneers Costello — but that’s just what the “J. C.” in his name stands for, and he ultimately loses $50,000 to Carol at some incomprehensible game, she pays off Craig, Craig pays off McBride, the cops show up and arrest the gangsters just as they were about to plunge Abbott’s and Costello’s feet in cement and throw them off the dock, Carol and McBride pair off and everything is more or less happy at the end.

But, even more so here than in most A&C movies, the plot is merely pretext for a lot of great John Grant dialogue routines (including one in which Abbott fools Costello into betting $10 that he isn’t here — “Are you in Chicago?” “No.” “Are you in Philadelphia?” “No.” “Are you in St. Louis?” “No.” “Then if you’re not in Chicago, and you’re not in Philadelphia, and you’re not in St. Louis, you must be somewhere else. And if you’re somewhere else, you’re not here.” Then Costello pulls it on Mike Mazurki, and when Mazurki accuses Costello of stealing his money, Costello says, “If I’m not here, how could I take your money?”), and the supporting cast is better than usual. Cathy Downs is a personable young woman who seems like she should have had more of a career than she did — she seems like she could have been a good femme fatale in films noir as well as a comedy ingénue — and besides Calleia, Errol and Mazurki, the film also features Fritz Feld in a great routine as a psychiatrist who thinks he’s losing his own head when he sees Lou Costello’s head poking through his floor. (Costello’s head got there via a crazy dentist with a chair that elevated so high that it pushed Costello’s head through the ceiling and onto the floor of the psychiatrist’s office just above.) While hardly a patch on the great early-1930’s Marx Brothers Paramount classics — Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck SoupThe Noose Hangs High scores with a similarly irreverent attitude towards the whole idea of plot and story continuity, and while not much of Noose is laugh-out-loud funny it is quite amusing throughout.