Saturday, October 22, 2016

Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (Universal-International, 1953)

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

Last night’s “Mars movie screening” in Golden Hill consisted of a couple of science-fiction spoofs, made about a decade apart — Abbott and Costello Go to Mars in 1953 and The Three Stooges in Orbit in 1962 — but rooted in a pretty similar Zeitgeist. Abbott and Costello Go to Mars — a misnomer because, while the two actually (inadvertently) hijack a spaceship and fly it to another planet, they go not to Mars but to Venus — doesn’t have much of a reputation in the A&C oeuvre (Leonard Maltin quoted the New York Herald-Tribune’s snarky one-line dismissal — “And about time” — and called the film itself “one of their worst”) but it turned out to be genuinely amusing, though not laugh-out-loud funny. It was based on a story by Howard Christie (who also produced) and D. D. Beauchamp, worked into a screenplay by Christie and John Grant (the wordsmith who wrote “Who’s on First” and many of A&C’s most famous wordplay routines), though oddly in the 1950’s A&C were moving away from dialogue comedy and getting virtually all their laughs from slapstick — usually comedians moved out of slapstick and towards dialogue comedy as they aged, but for some reason A&C did the reverse. The plot of this one concerns a secret U.S. government program headed by Dr. Wilson (Robert Paige, reuniting with Abbott and Costello from their second film and career-establishing hit, Buck Privates, in 1941) that has successfully constructed a nuclear-powered single-stage rocket capable of interplanetary travel. Orville (Lou Costello) is an orphan who has stayed at the Hideaway Orphanage his entire life until he’s reached age 38, and when the film begins he’s flying one of those model airplanes which has a motor on it but is tied to strings to the pilot can control it. He’s challenged to explain the principles of space travel by two glasses-wearing kids (today we’d call them “nerds”) who of course understand it all better than he does. (According to, Harry Shearer of This Is Spinal Tap is one of the kids at the orphanage.) When Orville flies his drone plane through the window of a post office, the cops go after him and he flees by leaping into a truck that’s delivering equipment to the base where the spaceship has been built.

The truck is being driven by Lester (Bud Abbott), the delivery person for the base, and there’s an amusing scene in which Lester becomes convinced Orville is a spy seeking to steal the secrets of the rocket for some sinister foreign power, while one of the scientists who helped design and build the rocket is named Dr. Orvilla (Joe Kirk) and he and Orville are mistaken for each other. The scientists meet in solemn conclave to vote whether to take the rocket to Mars or Venus, but of course that decision is made for them when Abbott and Costello end up hiding inside the thing and accidentally start it off into space. They fly the thing around New York City, including through the Lincoln Tunnel — there’s a neat scene in which an alcoholic stumbles into a bar, swears he’s just seen a spaceship go through the Lincoln Tunnel (where Costello has just been fishing through his spacesuit looking for a quarter to pay the toll) and demands a drink — and the bartender doesn’t believe him until he sees the ship emerge from the Lincoln Tunnel, whereupon the bartender grabs the bottle from the poor guy and takes a swig himself. The ship finally lands in New Orleans in the middle of Mardi Gras, where our accidental astronauts see all the strangely costumed people getting ready for the parade and think they’ve actually flown to Mars. About the only normally dressed people are two convicts who sneak into the ship, steal two spacesuits, hold up a bank using a ray gun that paralyzes people without killing them (much like the gas in Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome six years earlier), and then steal some normal clothes and stow away aboard the spacecraft. Wanted in all 48 states, the two crooks, Mugsy (Horace McMahon) and Harry (Jack Kruschen), demand that A&C take them to another country — only instead A&C screw up the controls instead and the four end up on Venus. (The planet Venus?) Venus turns out to be one of those weirdly sexist fantasy worlds that appeared in a lot of 1950’s movies, including Cat Women on the Moon, Fire Maidens from Outer Space and Queen of Outer Space, in which the entire population is humanoid female — and breathtakingly attractive humanoid female at that, so the filmmakers could cast (and credit!) beauty-contest winners. The queen of Venus is Allura (Mari Blanchard, a nice-looking blonde who a year after this film took Marlene Dietrich’s original role in a remake of Destry Rides Again) and her guards include the young Anita Ekberg (Miss Sweden of 1950 — Abbott & Costello and Fellini, one degree of separation!), Jackie Loughery (Miss U.S.A.), Jeri Miller (Miss Welcome to Long Beach — that’s really her title) and Judy Hatula (Miss Michigan), while Allura’s (the name says it all) handmaidens are Ruth Hampton (Miss New Jersey), Valerie Jackson (Miss Montana), Renate Huy (Miss Germany), Jeanne Thompson (Miss Louisiana) and Elza Edsman (Miss Hawai’i).

It seems that 400 years previously Allura’s husband ran off with another woman, and rather than allow that to happen again Allura made the royal decision to banish all men from Venus, thereby ensuring that its women could live in peace and harmony with each other and would be eternally youthful and immortal (though this rather begs the question of where, with no men, little Venusians — and we see at least one — come from). Only the other Venusians are so hot to have men around they really don’t care whether they look like Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Horace McMahon and Jack Kruschen — at least until Allura shows them photos of the Venusian men who got banished, who all look like Charles Atlas models (rather than the major male movie stars of the period) and says that if they’re going to have men around, they should at least be hot-looking musclemen instead of twerps like the four they’ve actually got. Eventually A&C flee Venus — the Venusians have thoughtfully refueled their ship in hopes of stealing it and using it themselves to conquer Earth and put an end to this “man” thing once and for all — and the four astronauts return to Earth and a ticker-tape parade, A&C in an open car and the two crooks, recaptured, in a paddy wagon. Abbott and Costello Go to Mars is a nice, amusing movie — it’s not laugh-out-loud funny except in a few places (notably a neat special-effects scene towards the end in which the spacecraft is heading for the Statue of Liberty — and the statue ducks to get out of its way; also the final tag scene, in which Queen Allura back on Venus sends a flying saucer to Earth just to splat a pie in Costello’s face as he’s in the middle of the parade honoring him) but it has a certain charm even though, especially early on, the ongoing real-life hostility between the two stars (which for a time reached such nasty proportions that they literally didn’t speak to each other unless they were doing a scene together — and their writers accommodated them by giving them as few scenes together as possible) is quite apparent in their on-screen (lack of) chemistry.