Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops (Universal-International, 1955)

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

Our “feature” last night was the next-to-last film in sequence of the Abbott and Costello boxed set from Universal (though there are three so-called “bonus features” in the box, including a 1960’s documentary called The World of Abbott and Costello, a 1994 production about them introduced by Jerry Seinfeld, and a more recent film about their horror-comedy movies called Abbott and Costello Meet the Monsters): Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops. This was made in 1955, two years after the immediately previous A&C feature, Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, because in the meantime Lou Costello had had one of the serious, debilitating illnesses that wracked him in their later career and led to his death in 1959. In 1954 Universal had planned to team Abbott and Costello with wacky bandleader Spike Jones for a film called Fireman, Save My Child, but after doing long-shots and stunt scenes Costello had fallen ill and Universal had put two contract players, Hugh O’Brian and Buddy Hackett, in the film instead. (In the 1970’s Hackett would play Lou Costello in a made-for-TV biopic.) Leonard Maltin called Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops “another big disappointment, with … very little of the verve and action of silent comedy,” but in fact it’s a quite funny film, not on the level of the best of Mack Sennett’s silent work (though Sennett himself makes a brief appearance as himself directing a pie-fight scene — what else? — he had just published his autobiography, King of Comedy, and he was willing to do just about anything to promote it) but still appealing and funnier than just about anything else being made in 1955 except the marvelous Marilyn Monroe-Billy Wilder collaboration The Seven-Year Itch. The plot centers around con-man Joseph Gorman (Fred Clark, a considerably better comic nemesis than most of the co-stars A&C got in their later years), who swindles Harry “Slim” Pierce (Bud Abbott) and William “Tubby” Piper (Lou Costello)[1] out of $5,000 belonging to Tubby’s aunt and sells them a phony movie company. (The company’s “studio” is actually the Edison “Black Maria,” the first purpose-built structure for shooting movies, with black tar-paper walls and mounted on a giant turntable so it could be revolved to get the maximum amount of sunlight during the shooting day.) Realizing they’ve been swindled, they do an unexpectedly smart (for Abbott and Costello characters, anyway) thing and contact the New York police, who attempt to arrest Gorman — but he and his girlfriend and co-conspirator, actress Leota Van Cleef (Lynn Bari), disguise themselves as foreign movie personalities and high-tail it to California, where he establishes himself as Russian director “Sergei Toumanoff” (though, like virtually all Hollywood parodies of stuck-up movie directors, he comes off like Erich von Stroheim, complete with monocle) and plans to make an epic Western.

Only the big final action scene of his epic Western is ruined when Slim and Tubby hijack the covered wagon that’s supposed to drive through the scene and be attacked by Indians and rescued by the Seventh Cavalry. The studio head, Mr. Snavely (Frank Wilcox), sees the sequence, which includes a gravity-defying drive of the covered wagon across a gorge (a remarkably convincing effect, especially considering it was done decades before CGI), and immediately demands that Toumanoff hire Slim and Tubby as stunt doubles — and Toumanoff works out a plot to kill them so they can’t find out he’s Gorman and testify against him. The result is a big action sequence involving a mid-air dogfight between two planes, one of them flown by Costello in drag (he’s doubling for Leota) — something Costello had often done: he’d worked as a Hollywood stunt man in the 1920’s and had frequently donned drag to double for women. (Women stunt doubles didn’t become common until the 1950’s, when Doris Day insisted that her stunt double for Calamity Jane be a woman, Donna Hall.) Once again, Snavely thinks the scene is hilarious and assigns Toumanoff to direct a comedy featuring Slim and Tubby — which means he has to tell all his henchmen that the plans have been changed and he now needs to keep them alive instead of knocking them off. Then Toumanoff t/n Gorman learns that the $75,000 needed to make the first Slim and Tubby comedy is being kept in a safe in Snavely’s home, and he determines to break in, steal it and abscond with the money to Europe, where he can continue to work as a director (presumably under yet another pseudonym). Slim and Tubby end up in a spectacular chase scene in which the Keystone Kops, or a reasonable simulacrum thereof (at least three real Keystone Kops — Hank Mann, Harold Goodwin and Heinie Conklin — played character parts in this film), are enlisted by mistake by Slim and Tubby to arrest Gorman and Leota. Ultimately good triumphs over evil, real L.A. cops arrest the baddies and Slim and Tubby recover the money — only, in a scene that anticipates the ending of the serious crime film The Killing by two years, Tubby opens the case containing the money and the backwash from the propeller of one of the planes blows it out of the valise and scatters it all over the countryside. The End. 

Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops isn’t much of a movie as a whole, but it’s got some screamingly funny scenes, including one in which A&C are lost in the desert and a squirrel sneaks its way into their bread loaf and starts eating it from the inside (and Costello plays this with a lot more pathos than he usually showed) and one in which they plan to break into Gorman’s house to see if they can get evidence against him — Slim will be the burglar and if anything goes wrong, Tubby, wearing a cop’s uniform, will come and “arrest” him — only it so happens that a real burglar picks that night to burglarize Gorman’s home and a real cop shows up to arrest him, and the result is a marvelous mistaken-identity free-for-all we’d expect more from the Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy than Abbott and Costello. Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops isn’t a great movie, and as an evocation of the Sennett days it’s well below the great scene in the 1939 film Hollywood Cavalcade in which Buster Keaton (who in fact never worked for Sennett) led a revived force of Keystone Kops, but it’s still a lot of fun and one wishes A&C had made more movies like it instead of the horror-comedies which had been novel in their inception but by the mid-1950’s had grown rather tiresome. It’s also an indication that as their careers progressed A&C relied more on slapstick (and their own stunt doubles — though Costello still did a lot of his own stunt work, and when he didn’t his double was usually his brother, Pat Cristillo, which helped in the verisimilitude department) and less on dialogue, even though John Grant, who in the early days had contributed mostly funny dialogue routines like “Who’s on First?,” was the sole credited screenwriter on this one (though Lee Loeb has a credit for the original story). Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops is a minor gem that’s well worth seeing and a nice excursion by A&C into the realm of traditional movie clowning; it was made at a time when silent films were just trickling back into circulation on TV via Paul Killiam’s Silents, Please! show and a syndicated rerun of some of Charlie Chaplin’s early films, and audiences were just beginning to discover that silent film was a great art form in itself and not just an inept and unwittingly funny precursor to sound film!

[1] — Ironically, though his character is called “Tubby” Costello looks considerably slimmer in this film than we’re used to seeing him — doubtless the result of his long succession of debilitating illnesses.