Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (Warner Bros., Woodley Productions, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was the next Abbott and Costello movie in the sequence, Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd, which was their second and last film for Warner Bros. (through an “independent” production company called Woodley Productions). Sources differ on just how these two films, Jack and the Beanstalk (a sort-of adaptation of the classic fairy tale which began and ended in black-and-white but the fantasy part was in color à la The Wizard of Oz) and Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd, got made and why. One source on imdb.com says it was because Abbott and Costello wanted to make films in color and Universal wouldn’t give them the budget (in the early 1950’s it still cost about twice as much to make a film in color as in black-and-white); another said that it was a way of creating nest eggs for both Abbott and Costello, since each of the films would be owned by one of the star — Jack and the Beanstalk was to be Costello’s and Captain Kidd was Abbott’s — though as things turned out Jack and the Beanstalk slipped into the public domain and Captain Kidd didn’t. Producer Alex Gottlieb (who had made Abbott and Costello’s star-making films for Universal in the early 1940’s) wisely hired Charles Laughton to play Captain Kidd, since Laughton had already played him in a 1945 film directed by Rowland V. Lee from a script by his brother Robert, and while having little to do with the life of the real Captain Kidd it was a quite entertaining film, well balanced between serious action drama and camp, despite some major overacting from the cast (even a normally restrained performer like Randolph Scott, playing the good-guy romantic lead, got some teeth marks on the scenery). Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd contains six songs by Bob Russell and Lester Lee — when the first one came on, a choral number in which Captain Kidd’s crew sings his praises, Charles joked, “Ah! Abbott and Costello in The Pirates of Penzance!” He wasn’t far wrong; though Russell and Lee are hardly in Gilbert and Sullivan’s league as a songwriting team, they came up with some fun songs (considerably better than the lame ones they wrote for Jack and the Beanstalk), and Alex Gottlieb’s casting people came up with two nice-voiced singers to play the romantic leads: Irish tenor Bill Shirley as Bruce Martingale and big-band singer Fran Warren, billed as making her movie debut, as his love interest, Lady Jane. (Warren had sung with the Claude Thornhill band a decade earlier and been the vocalist on their biggest hit, “A Sunday Kind of Love.”)

The problem with this movie is that virtually nothing happens; the characters simply chase each other around sets both representing ships and shore, and though I nodded off during much of the movie Abbott and Costello seemed in the parts I did see more like comic-relief sidekicks in an operetta than stars. The script was credited to Howard Dimsdale and John Grant, but it doesn’t seem like Grant had that much to do with it because he was A&C’s go-to guy for “Who’s on First”-style wordplay and there’s virtually nothing of that sort of thing here. The director was Charles Lamont, who by then was making most of A&C’s films at Universal too, and like the rest of the movie he’s O.K. without being especially inspired. Oddly, it’s only at the end of the film that Dimsdale and Grant have Charles Laughton and Lou Costello impersonate each other — had they done it earlier and had Costello fearful both of Kidd killing him and of the authorities capturing and executing him as a pirate, they would have had the basis of a film both more entertaining and more funny than the one they made — though the close-up of Costello imitating Laughton’s pursed-lip scowl is still a lot of fun and worth having. The plot, in case it matters, casts Kidd and female pirate Anne Bonney (Hillary Brooke, as good as a villainess here as she was as Professor Moriarty’s partner in crime in the 1945 Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes film The Woman in Green) as sometime partners, sometime rivals (and Brooke’s relative restraint compares favorably to Laughton’s overacting, which not surprisingly is even worse here than it was in his more-or-less “serious” previous performance as Kidd) as Kidd and his crew search for buried treasure on “Skull Island” (one wonders where are the living dinosaurs and the 50-foot ape, since “Skull Island” was also the name of the locale of the original King Kong and its direct sequel, Son of Kong) and the two nice young kids playing the romantic leads finally get together.

Oddly, though one of the reasons this film exists is so Abbott and Costello could make films together in color, the process was SuperCinécolor (their budget wouldn’t stretch as far as three-strip Technicolor and Eastmancolor, the process that studios were allowed to name after themselves as “WarnerColor,” “Metrocolor,” etc., wasn’t generally available yet) and the color on the print we were watching (from Turner Classic Movies’ Abbott and Costello marathon at the end of 2012) was badly faded to the point where certain scenes looked awfully black-and-white to us. It seems strange that the current holders of the Warners catalog spent the money to do a vivid color restoration on Jack and the Beanstalk but have left this one, which isn’t in the public domain, to rot. This film is more evidence that the bloom was off the rose for Abbott and Costello big-time — one of the funniest gags is one in which Lou Costello looks out the porthole of Kidd’s ship and gets drenched with water (a nice variant on the “’Tain’t a fit night out for man nor beast” gag from Clyde Bruckman’s savagely funny 1933 short The Fatal Glass of Beer with W. C. Fields), but even there the writers couldn’t resist the old A&C chestnut of having Costello call Abbott, who opens the porthole … and nothing happens. The consensus of the critics in 1952 was that Charles Laughton was over the hill and through as an actor — and certainly he did nothing to change that perception the next year, when he turned up as King Herod in the Rita Hayworth Salomé (based on an alternate version of the story also used by Massenet in his opera Herodïade, in which Salomé does her dance to ransom John the Baptist in hopes of receiving him alive, and Herod double-crosses her and presents him to her dead instead) and overacted so relentlessly he was just about as funny in this presumably “serious” context as he is in Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd. Fortunately Laughton had at least two great performances in great movies in the last decade of his life — as attorney Sir Wilfred Robarts in Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and U.S. Senator Seabright “Seab” Cooley in his last film, Advise and Consent (1962).