Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion (Universal-International, 1950)

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

Last night Charles and I watched a movie that proved to be surprisingly good: Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion, the next in sequence in the Universal boxed set and a considerably better film than Abbott and Costello Go to Mars, the one we’d just seen at one of the public (or semi-public) screenings in Golden Hill. It was the first Abbott and Costello movie directed by Charles Lamont, who would do most of their movies until they left Universal in 1955, and unlike some of the other, more highly regarded horror-comedies A&C made during the period (particularly Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein), it didn’t have the maddening alternation between creatively shadowed Gothic photography in the horror or action scenes and dull, flatly lit work when Abbott and Costello are doing their comedy sequences. This time Universal-International assigned the cinematography to George Robinson, master of atmosphere, who’d shot the 1931 Spanish-language version of the original Dracula (and, for my money, did a much better job than the more highly regarded Karl Freund did with the English version) and the Dracula sequels, Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and the awesome Son of Dracula (1943). Robinson shot the whole thing in glorious half-lit atmospherics, making it look far more like Casablanca than like an Abbott and Costello spoof, and the film gained a great deal from his work.

It’s true that the script (by John Grant, Martin Ragaway and Kenneth Stern from an “original” story by D. D. Beauchamp) seems almost to have been written to a checklist of Middle Eastern clichés — slave auction? Check. Guys accidentally end up in a harem? Check. Swarthy locals throwing daggers at Our Heroes to kill them or scare them off? Check. Gags about oases and mirages? Check (though those are among the funniest scenes in the film, especially when Costello runs into a mirage of a newsboy in the middle of the desert, asks what he’s doing there and is told, “Can I help it if they gave me a lousy corner?”) — plus the boys’ enlistment scene into the French Foreign Legion, which is a virtual cop of their accidental enlistment into the U.S. Army nine years earlier in their star-making film Buck Privates. The film starts in New York City, where Abbott and Costello are small-time wrestling promoters who’ve brought in a wrestler from Algeria named Abdullah (Tor Johnson — who’s actually quite good; though the W. C. Fields/Clyde Bruckman comedy masterpiece The Man on the Flying Trapeze is probably the best film Johnson was ever in, this is probably his best role; he even gets to be an action hero on the side of good in the closing scenes! Continuity goof: In the opening scene, set in New York City, Tor Johnson's character is called Abdullah. Later, when he appears in the Middle East, he is called Abou Ben and the person he is wrestling against, played by Wee Willie Davis, is called Abdullah). The only problem is that Abdullah claims to be the greatest wrestler in the world, and Bud Jones (Bud Abbott — Lou Costello’s character is called “Lou Hotchkiss” and so this film offers us the rare treat of hearing Abbott and Costello at least able to address each other by their real first names) has scripted his latest match so Abdullah will lose. Abdullah walks out on his contract and returns to his native Algeria (Johnson was really Swedish, but once again he was cast on the one-foreign-accent-is-as-good-as-another principle), and Bud and Lou follow him there because the gangsters who put up the money to bring Abdullah to the U.S. in the first place threaten to kill them if they can’t get him back.

So they end up accidentally enlisting in the Foreign Legion and doing some gag scenes recycled from Buck Privates and the other service comedies they did in the early days of both their film careers and the U.S.’s involvement in World War II, as well as some scenes more reminiscent of the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies than anything we usually associate with Abbott and Costello (notably a fish with false teeth in its mouth — courtesy of an Arab soldier who accidentally dropped his into the oasis water — that spits at Our Heroes when they try to catch him for dinner). There’s also a plot line recycled from American Westerns and incorporated into the Algerian setting: Bud’s and Lou’s immediate commander in the Foreign Legion, Sgt. Axmann (Walter Slezak), is really a bad guy, in cahoots with corrupt desert Sheik Hamud el-Khalid (Douglass Dumbrille, who also played a corrupt sheik in Abbott and Costello’s other Mideast spoof, Lost in a Harem, at MGM in 1944) and a crooked landowner to stage raids along the proposed railroad route so the railroad will have to buy the landowner’s properties instead, pay a lot more money and have to run their trains on a much longer track. And there’s a character from French intelligence, Nicole Dupré (Patricia Medina, Mrs. Joseph Cotten and for some reason a go-to woman for Middle Eastern movies just then; she’s the good girl to Lucille Ball’s bad girl in Lew Landers’ and David Mathews’ wildly improbable but still fun Arab adventure The Magic Carpet from 1951), who’s trying to figure out who the “mole” is inside the Foreign Legion that keeps leaking its plans to Sheik Hamud. There’s nothing really that innovative or brilliant about this movie, but it kept me laughing considerably harder than most of the A&C vehicles around this time, and George Robinson’s cinematography is quite a bit better than the A&C norm and proves (as did the original 1984 Ghostbusters, with its comedy scenes brilliantly set off against a dark, almost dystopian version of New York City) that dark, atmospheric photography can sometimes, instead of taking away from a comedy, make it even funnier by contrast!