Friday, November 25, 2016

Jack and the Beanstalk (Exclusive Productions, Warner Bros., 1951)

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

I brought over a recent videotape and ran two movies from it: Jack and the Beanstalk, a 1951 adaptation made by Warner Brothers, starring Abbott and Costello with Buddy Baer as the giant, and directed by Jean Yarbrough — the first credit I can remember seeing for the Boy Named Jean on a major-studio production. It’s an O.K. movie, a musical fantasy which begins and ends in sepia while the main portion takes place in color, like The Wizard of Oz — but that’s about the only similarity: the songs are undistinguished (true I was inevitably comparing them to Frank Loesser’s marvelous “Jack and the Beanstalk” song for Fred Astaire in Let’s Dance, but even by lesser — pardon the pun — standards they’re undistinguished sub-Disney material), neither the plot nor the budget offered much room for special effects (the beanstalk grows in animation — though when it’s completed it’s a three-dimensional rubber concoction — and animation is also used to simulate Abbott and Costello climbing up it). It’s a decent children’s movie but little more than that, though Buddy Baer is fully convincing as the giant (with his height boosted the way the Frankenstein Monster’s was, through the use of boots with false soles) and the Super Cinecolor process used, though nowhere near as dazzling as the three-strip Technicolor of Oz, is at least harmonious and nice to look at (though biased towards greens and browns, as most of the non-Technicolor color processes of the period were — at least the blue skies were convincing, Cinecolor having worked out a technique of photographing blue before Technicolor did so!). — 12/2/98


When Charles and I finally sat down to watch a movie it was a public-domain download of the next Abbott and Costello movie in chronological sequence: Jack and the Beanstalk, originally copyrighted in 1951 though’s page on it gives 1952 as the year. This is significant because RKO General, what was left of RKO Studios after it gave up filmmaking in 1958 and leased its old catalog all over the place, claimed copyright status for it based on a renewal application filed in 1980 — a year late. Jack and the Beanstalk was actually made by Abbott and Costello for producer Alex Gottlieb — who a decade earlier had supervised their star-making films at Universal — through a company called “Exclusive Productions” and Warner Bros. at the releasing studio (though according to the film was actually shot, not at Warners, but at Hal Roach Studios). Apparently Gottlieb cut a two-film deal with Abbott and Costello, and part of the deal was that each partner would own the negative of one film: this was supposed to be Costello’s film and the next A&C Warners release, Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (with Charles Laughton spoofing the part of Kidd he’d previously played seriously in 1945) would be Abbott’s. This may explain why Costello’s brother Pat had more of a role in this film than usual — generally he was Lou’s stunt double (though Lou, who’d been a stunt person himself in the late 1920’s, did a lot of his own stunt work) but this time he’s credited as executive producer and story writer. The film “tweaks” the famous fairy tale about a guileless young boy named Jack who sells his widowed mother’s cow for a handful of magic beans that grow a giant beanstalk overnight and give him access to the castle of the fearsome giant Boulevas. After a few adventures in Boulevas’s castle in the sky, which consist mainly of avoiding being eaten by the giant, Jack grabs the giant’s big treasures — a goose that lays golden eggs and a talking harp — and races down the beanstalk with the giant in hot pursuit.

Fortunately, Jack grabs an ax and chops down the beanstalk, which falls over while the giant is climbing down it, killing him. Writers Pat Costello and Nat Curtis — apparently inspired by a night when Pat Costello had been reading fairy tales to his four-year-old daughter to put her to sleep — cooked up a variation on the tale that would allow them to copy much of the 1939 classic film The Wizard of Oz. In the beginning, shot in sepia-toned black-and-white (albeit far more washed-out sepia than in The Wizard of Oz), Mr. Dinkel (Bud Abbott) and Jack Strong (Lou Costello) are sent out to baby-sit at the home of Eloise Larkin (Shaye Cogan), who’s raising her younger brother Donald (David Stollery) and an even younger baby sister. She’s also acting in a Broadway play, and she wants her boyfriend Arthur (James Alexander) to drive her there but they can’t leave until the babysitters arrive. When they get there, Arthur and Eloise leave for their play and Jack is left alone with Donald, a thoroughly obnoxious and bratty kid. Jack offers to read the kid Jack and the Beanstalk — “It’s one of my favorite novels,” he says in the trademark Lou Costello whine, establishing that this is one movie in which Costello will be playing at or close to Stan Laurel’s level of naïve idiocy — only when Jack stumbles over big words like “terrorized” and “ferocious,” Donald takes over and reads the book to him. Jack falls asleep and dreams himself into the Jack and the Beanstalk story, which is shown in color (SuperCinecolor) which is badly faded in the public-domain print but is beautifully restored in a Warners reissue print which Charles and I watched for the last 10 minutes or so when our public-domain download ended early. One gimmick Pat Costello and Nat Curtis copied from The Wizard of Oz (the 1939 movie) is having everyone in the fairy-tale dream sequence be someone Jack had met in his waking life: the obnoxious policeman who ticketed him and Dinkel in the opening scene becomes the giant (though he’s shown only as a larger-than normal human being and is played by Buddy Baer, younger brother of former heavyweight boxing champion Max Baer); the receptionist at the employment agency (6’ 2” Dorothy Ford) is the giant’s maid; Arthur and Eloise become a prince and princess from adjoining kingdoms whose families have arranged a dynastic marriage for them, but they meet each other not knowing who the other is and fall genuinely in love; and Dinkel becomes Mr. Dinkelpuss (Bud Abbott), the local butcher who buys Jack’s cow for a handful of magic beans which generate the titular beanstalk.

The film has a certain charm but, despite the efforts of people who’d worked with Abbott and Costello before at Universal (producer Gottlieb, director A Boy Named Jean Yarborough, and cinematographer George Robinson — who shoots a couple of nicely malevolent and Gothic close-ups of Buddy Baer but otherwise contributes little but competence here), it’s simply not very good. At least it gives us a chance to see Lou Costello in at least a semi-heroic role (that’s what comes of having your brother write the script!), but it makes Bud Abbott even nastier and more malevolent than usual (not a good sign), and in an attempt to make it at least a semi-musical it’s saddled with five ludicrously banal songs by Lester Lee and Bob Russell. The ballad duet Arthur and Eloise (though she calls herself “Darlene”) while they’re prisoners in adjoining cells in the giant’s dungeon is nice enough, but the rest of the songs are superficially happy pieces sung en masse by the characters as a chorus — and it’s interesting that in the big finale Bud Abbott has a singing double while Lou Costello is singing for himself. (Remember that when he died Costello was set for the part of New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in the musical about him, Fiorello! Tom Bosley ultimately played the role.) It’s an O.K. movie, and it probably charmed children in the audience in 1951 even as it was boring their parents, but as a comic fairy tale on film it hardly holds a candle either to The Wizard of Oz or the 1934 Babes in Toyland, which also plopped a modern-dress comedy team (Laurel and Hardy) into a classic fairy tale but, though in black-and-white, was better in every respect: a great score by Victor Herbert, a lavish production, a coherent story, moments of genuine terror and fright, and — let’s face it — a considerably subtler and funnier comedy team at the center. — 11/25/16