Universal Studios Home Video presents
The Best of Abbott and Costello, Volume 3 (1948-1953)
BUUUUDDDDD!- Lou Costello
Stars: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr., Glenn Strange, Virginia Grey, Luba Malina, Sheldon Leonard, Tom Ewell, William Frawley, Margaret Hamilton, Dorothy Shay, Kirby Grant
Other Stars: Pat Costello, Bobby Barber, Lenore Aubert, Jane Randolph, Frank Ferguson, Patricia Medina, Walter Slezak, Nancy Guild, Mari Blanchard, Robert Paige, Martha Hyer, Arthur Franz, Tor Johnson, David Gorcey, Anita Ekberg
Director: Charles Lamont, Charles T. Barton, Jean Yarbrough
Manufacturer: Deluxe Digital Studios
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 10h:34m:56s
Release Date: 2004-08-03
DVD ReviewWhat a year 2004 has been for lovers of vintage screen comedy. From the arrival of The Marx Brothers MGM-era classics and additional Charlie Chaplin masterpieces to impending releases digitally preserving classic films by Jerry Lewis, W.C. Fields and the Marx's trend-setting Universal gems, a whole new generation is being exposed to many of the artists that helped move humor from the stages of vaudeville to the big screen and inspire the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Woody Allen, Jim Carey and countless others.
Standing head and shoulder above those trendsetters in my eyes were a former Hollywood stuntman and longtime vaudevillian who met on the burlesque circuit 68 years ago. In less than four years after joining forces, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello went from virtual unknowns to signing a movie contract with Universal Pictures, a studio teetering on financial eggshells. After garnering great notices for their co-starring roles in the otherwise forgettable musical One Night in the Tropics, Bud and Lou made a quick leap to headlining status in the well-timed war-era comedy, Buck Privates, which became the biggest moneymaker in Universal's history. Over the course of the next three years, the team became Hollywood's top box-office draws with a string of classic comedies including Hold That Ghost, Who Done It?, Pardon My Sarong, and Hit the Ice.
Only a life-threatening battle with rheumatic fever that kept Costello out of work for a year prevented the twosome from continuing their rapid ascent, but thanks to films already in the can, their success continued unabated. Shortly after Lou's enforced sabbatical ended, family tragedy struck as young son Butch drowned. Unfortunately, this sad event coincided with a series of inferior efforts that lacked the vitality and excitement of their earlier gems (but even with weak scripts and storylines, near-misses like Abbott and Costello in Hollywood and The Naughty Nineties contained classic routines that can proudly stand alongside their best, including the unforgettable "Who's On First?" (which eventually became enshrined in Cooperstown's Baseball Hall of Fame).
Reported feuding between the duo and dissatisfaction with recent scripts led to a restructuring of their comedic formula in two of their most underrated efforts: Little Giant and the delightful, creative The Time of Their Lives. But poor box-office receipts spoke loud and clear; audiences wanted a return to form.
In 1948, they got it with a movie that's not only the best film the team ever made, but its one of the best horror comedies of all time: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the lead-off flick in Universal's latest double-disc compilation package gathering nearly all of the duo's cinematic output for the studio. The Best of Abbott and Costello, Volume 3 collects eight films from the 1948-1953 era, a period in which Bud and Lou made some of their best efforts—and some of their weakest.
Chick: I know there's no such a person as Dracula. You know there's no such a person as Dracula.
Wilbur: But does Dracula know it?
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
Frankenstein was their most consistent movie since Hit the Ice. Wilbur (Costello) and Chick (Abbott) are baggage clerks for a Florida railway company whose lives take a turn for the spooky when one of the boys (guess who) mishandles crates containing the remains of Frankenstein's Monster (Glenn Strange) and Dracula (Bela Lugosi). When the owner of the cargo insist they be brought to his local museum for insurance purposes, Wilbur finds the night-craving vampire is very much alive, but he can't prove so to Chick. Meanwhile, his pretty main squeeze Sandra (Lenore Aubert), who's also a local doctor, falls under the Transylvanian's spell and soon conjures up a plan to put a human brain inside his monster sidekick: Wilbur's brain. Things get more hairy (seriously) when edgy Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) enters the picture, returning from Europe after tracking down the monstrous duo's whereabouts with the intent to finish them off—unless someone does the same to him first—for every time the clear midnight sky unveils a full moon, Lawrence becomes the Wolf Man!
One of the reasons I feel Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein continues to endure is because everybody involved plays it straight; there's fun with Bud and Lou's patented hijinks along with tongue-in-cheek ribbing of the genre, yet it doesn't insult the legacy of those classic Tod Browning-James Whale-George Waggner hallmarks. It's also genuinely scary at times, particularly in the climax, which even in these desensitized times, may be a little intense for kids. Speaking of which, another aspect of that makes this film so timeless is Costello's flawless performance. Not to demean Bud (the greatest straight man ever), but the film's appeal to kids is due to this man-child; if this overgrown tyke could be scared, it was okay for children of all ages to be, too.
Given their landmark performances in the original films that inspired this one, Chaney and Lugosi were never better than they are here; although no one will ever equal Boris Karloff as the Monster, Glenn Strange does a great job filling his big shoes. Frank Skinner's influential score is wonderful (he also scored many of Bud and Lou's best films), and the dark, foreboding cinematography comes courtesy of Charles Van Enger, who performed the same duties on one of the team's best remembered gems, Who Done It? and the Robert Lees-Frederic I. Rinaldo screenplay (aided by longtime team gag writer and unofficial third member, John Grant) is packed with many brilliant one-liners, including my favorite, when Talbot agonizes about the coming of the full moon and becoming a wolf, prompting an unsuspecting Wilbur to reply (in Costello's imitable East Coast accent), "you and twenty other million guys."
"Please don't whistle the samba." - Joe Bascom
It must have been quite a comedown for America's favorite comedy duo to go from the sublime to the ordinary courtesy of their next vehicle, Mexican Hayride, a weak but watchable entry loosely based on the Broadway musical of the same name, with a score co-written by lyrical great Cole Porter; unfortunately his contributions didn't make the jump from stage to screen, they might have helped.
Still smarting from being suckered into a phony oil deal, Joe Bascom (Costello) tracks down con man Harry Lambert (Abbott) in the heart of Mexico City where he's about to unleash another scam. With the help of Joe's ex-girlfriend Mary (Virginia Grey), who's now a highly-touted lady bullfighter, one lucky American will be feted as an honorary goodwill ambassador. But it's all a setup, as one of Lambert's partners in crime is designated to catch Mary's hat—that is until Joe enters the picture. Angered at the site of her ex-paramour, she throws her fashion accessory in his direction and olé, plans foiled. Only for a bit, though.
Plodding pacing and poor scripting really let the boys down in this one; with few exceptions, the energy and vitality that colors their best work is barely evident. Save for the hilarious bullring climax, a wonderful mid-film musical number by the vivacious and gorgeous Malina (who gives the film's best performance and was the only holdover from the Broadway production) and occasionally fun Bud-Lou repartee, Hayride is warmed over Abbott and Costello.
Swami Talpur: How would you like to die?
Freddie: Old age.
Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff
With Meet Frankenstein being the big hit it was, it seemed like only a matter of time before the boys would join forces with the man who originated the Monster himself. Meet the Killer holds a special place in my heart, for it was the very first Abbott and Costello movie I had a chance to see. (If only I could view it in the same fashion again; compared to their first-rate fare, it comes off to me now as somewhat of a disappointment.)
Freddie Phillps (Costello) is a high-strung bellboy at the Lost Caverns Resort Hotel who manages to tick-off noted attorney Amos Strickland (Nicholas Joy). Following his dismissal, he decides to make nice with the criminal lawyer only to find he's been muh-muh-muh-murdered! House detective and cousin Casey Edwards (Abbott) wants to clear Freddie of any wrong doing, but a ton of evidence points towards the former employee. If that isn't enough to make anyone a nervous wreck, a number of Strickland's former clients are current guests. Worried that his forthcoming memoirs may implicate them in the case, the two attempt to do away with Phillips but fail. After several more close calls, Freddie offers to be a target once more by taking a bloody handkerchief discovered at the crime scene to the Caverns after publicizing its availibilty, setting up a spooky climax.
Though not devoid of fun, Meet The Killer's awkward pacing, introduction of potentially interesting characters that wind up being mere cameo roles and Costello's indecision on how to portray Freddie (pathos-laden little guy or slapstick sourpuss) prevent a promising premise from really taking flight (incidentally, Lou's sickly appearance throughout the film was due to a combination of behind-the-scenes stress concerning his beloved L.A.-based youth center, which was suffering money troubles and more significantly, a relapse of the near-fatal rheumatoid fever that would keep him out of work for the better part of a year following the end of shooting).
On a brighter note, there are some great set pieces in the film including Casey's first aid techniques after he fears Freddie's been poisioned by Angela Gordon (the alluring Lenore Aubert, who was so good as Lou's sexy girlfriend in Meet Frankenstein, but has no more than an extended walk-on here), the exciting climax at the Cavern caves that recalls the exciting rooftop finale of Who Done It? (although to a lesser degree), and in the film's best scene: Phillip's hypnotism by the mysterious Swami Talpur, portrayed to perfection by Karloff, whose dry, no-nonsense, unsucessful attempt to talk Freddie into offing himself (I don't think a spray gun is the type of pistol Talpur had in mind) are hilarious. Yet, like Aubert, the horror legend all but disappears from the story immediately following.
"Our story is about two men whom the Foreign Legion would like to forget. And they were unwanted. Even in Brooklyn."
Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion
One of the boy's best opens just outside the Big Apple where Bud and Lou are making do as wrestling promoters who are about to lose Abdullah (real life wrestler-turned-actor Wee Willie Davis), their biggest star, due to a creative disagreement. Rather than face the wrath of the syndicate man that loaned them five grand to import this guy from Algeria in the first place, it's off to his homeland to bring him back. While snooping around, the boys are mistaken by Abdullah's cousin, Hamud El Khalid (Douglas Dumbrille), as spies who have gotten wise to his collaboration with Foreign Legion traitor Sgt. Axmann (Walter Slezak) to extort railroad money via raids on a local construction crew.
Surprisingly spirited to the point of echoing their early 1940s films, Foreign Legion is a funny, fast-paced romp full of rapid-fire dialogue, terrific sight gags, and a much more cohesive, involving storyline than their last two Universal go-rounds. Costello looks incredibly revitalized and when he's on, you just know it's going to be vintage Abbott and Costello. Medina is a charmer as the helpful spy, and Slezak and Dumbrille make for a sneer-worthy team of antagonists. In the madcap finale, keep an eye out for the legendary, real life Tor Johnson, yet another wrestling superstar who gained fame as one of director Ed Wood Jr.'s repertory performers.
Trivia: Foreign Legion marked the first of only two times in their film career that Bud and Lou utilized their real-life first names as lead characters.
Speaking of which....
Bud: What would an escaped killer want private detectives for?
Lou: So he can catch himself?
Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man
Though it often times plays second fiddle to Meet Frankenstein in critical overviews of their career, Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man comes precariously close to topping it. One of the team's absolute best (not to mention their cinematic apex of the 1950s output), it's a clever re-imagining of H.G. Wells classic story that shifts its focus to the world of boxing.
Bud and Lou are recent detective school graduates eagerly awaiting their first client; their diplomas barely have enough time to dry when they get their wish: Tommy Nelson (Arthur Franz), a boxer-turned-fugitive wrongly accused of killing his manager. Employing the boys to help him nab the real murderer, the trio travels to the home of fiancée Helen (Nancy Guild), whose Uncle Phillip is working on a serum for invisibility. Despite the doc's warning of potential side effects, Tommy quickly jabs himself with the serum. And just in the nick of time, because hotshot Detective Roberts (William Frawley) and members of the local police are hot on his trail.
Once Nelson pulls his disappearing act, the boys eventually learn the rest of the boxer's story. Tabbed to blow a fight by Morgan (Sheldon Leonard), a menacing promoter, Tommy just couldn't do it, knocking out Rocky Hanlon (John Day) instead. Moments afterwards, Morgan's henchmen bludgeoned Nelson's manager to death, putting the boxer in an insinuating circumstance. Working undercover, Bud and Lou pose as trainer and manager in the gym where Hanlon is training for his next bout. With a little help from his incognito buddy, Lou becomes an instant sensation via his quick retaliatory punches no one sees coming. After a confrontation with Hanlon that has the press all over the suddenly christened "Louie the Looper", a big bout is scheduled pitting the two against one another as Tommy and the boys get closer to uncovering the truth.
Reuniting most of the same creative team that made Meet Frankenstein so smashing, Meet the Invisible Man has the same formula of great gags, nifty special effects and intriguing drama that keeps our attention between laughs. Terrific supporting cast, especially Franz as the embattled boxer who manages to trump past leads Vincent Price and Claude Rains (not an easy feat); future television impresario Sheldon Leonard fits his role as the heavy who's as snuggly as an Everlast glove; William Frawley (just months away from becoming part of television history with I Love Lucy) provides great comic relief as fellow snoop Detective Roberts who just can't get close enough to sniff out what's transpiring; Paul Maxwell as the "nice man" Lou gets taken to after Roberts doesn't buy his "Nelson vanishing into thin air" story, or, as the befuddled dick dubs it, "installments" (the resulting psychological session that follows is a comedy classic); and Adele Jergens is femme fatale fabulous as the moll that sets up Lou into the same scenario that placed Tommy under the gun.
Al: Look, say you're 40 and you're in love with a girl who's 10 years old.
Wilbert: This one's a pip. I'm going out with a 10-year-old. Got a good idea where I'm gonna wind up? Zoom!
Comin' Round the Mountain
Putting Abbott and Costello in a Ma and Pa Kettle-ish hillbilly farce was about as bright an idea as suggesting Marlene Dietrich play sidekick to Francis, The Talking Mule (thank God that didn't happen). Bud plays talent agent Al Stewart who's all aglow at the movie's start after managing to land two of his clients on the same bill: Dorothy McCoy (Dorothy Shay), a country girl known as the Manhattan Hillbilly, and hapless magician, The Great Wilbert. In the midst of an escape attempt, he cries out in pain, which startles Dorothy, but not for the expected reasons. After poking around backstage, it's discovered that yell is authentic; Wilbert is the long lost grandson of Squeezebox McCoy, part of a clan that's been feuding with the equally pride waving Winfield family.
Hokey songs, overly clichéd characters, embarrassing situations—if not for a couple of moments of traditional Abbott and Costello interplay and a truly funny scene with Margaret Hamilton of Wizard of Oz notoriety (as a mysterious gypsy who just happens to have a broomstick nearby), this would be un-watchable.
Maybe the mule could have helped this one.
Tom: This guy's heavy! He's got lead in his pockets or something.
Joe: Oh, so that's what you're after, my gold. All right, take it, and let me drown!
Lost in Alaska
A hidden gem among their later efforts, Lost in Alaska finds the boys serving as volunteer firefighters in '49er San Francisco. While helping haul their truck back to their station, George and Tom (Abbott, Costello) save a desperate man from drowning himself. Turns out that Nugget Joe McDermott (Tom Ewell) has plenty to live for, two million dollars in gold up Alaska way. But riches mean nothing to a man whose sweetheart wants nothing more to do with him. Daylight brings brighter news in the form of a letter from his beloved Rosette (Mitzi Green), saying she's had a change of heart. With his new buddies along for the ride, Joe returns to his old stomping grounds only to be greeted by bullets and gunfire; turns out Joe kind of forgot to tell the boys about his former gig as sheriff of Skagway, and how he hanged a lot of criminals whose pals are out for revenge. And there could be more bad news ahead: Turns out that Rosette's sudden reversal may have been financially motivated, as casino boss Jake Stillman (Bruce Cabot) wants to marry the purty saloon singer, kill Nugget and get his fortune.
Undeserving of it's dud status amongst critics, Lost in Alaska is a rather engaging excursion strengthened by the presence of gifted comic actor Tom Ewell (of The Girl Can't Help It/The Seven Year Itch fame); both he and the team play so well off one another, their chemistry actually supercedes many of Bud and Lou's scenes together. Green is charming in an Eve Arden kind of way and Cabot suits the role of a smooth yet sneaky casino operator just fine (and yes, this is the same Bruce Cabot that rescued Fay Wray from atop the Empire State Building in King Kong).
I don't wanna go to the moon. If I wanted green cheese, I'd go to the delicatessen." - Orville
Abbott and Costello Go to Mars
Orville (Costello) may be the oldest resident at the Hideaway Orphans Home, but that certainly hasn't made him any brighter or responsible. After breaking yet another store window with his remote-control airplane, he's off and hiding in a nearby delivery truck that just happens to be heading toward a top-secret space facility. Once driver Lester (Abbott) discovers his stowaway, it's off to security where it's determined the surprise visitor is completely harmless—at least until he and Lester climb aboard an experimental rocket ship while loading supplies.
Curiosity getting the best of him, Orville flips a switch and it's liftoff! After soaring through the Big Apple faster than a speeding bullet, the spaceship lands in a swampy area in New Orleans. But try to convince Lester and Orville of that after the twosome run into Mardi Gras-costumed locals and mistake them for aliens. Meanwhile, a pair of escaped convicts comes across the rocket, don the spare spacesuits and proceed to rob a local bank. Not surprisingly, our instant astronauts are blamed for the crime and haul tail back to their point of landing, only to be accosted by those meddling crooks. Intending to head to Mars, instead they wind up on Venus, which lives up to its name hundreds of times over, for the planet is surging with goddesses. But hold back on the Aqua Velva, boys; Allura (Mari Blanchard) is one man-hating Queen and it's going to be up to Orville to supply every last ounce of charm in order to make their stay a pleasant one.
Yet another unjustly maligned film, Go to Mars is a fun parody of sci-fi films with appealingly cheesy '50s-era effects (I still laugh when a familiar American landmark ducks for cover), lots of laughs, and a smorgasbord of beauty queens with many originating from the 1952 Miss Universe Pageant, along with the eye-popping Blanchard ("Allure"-ing, indeed) and a very young Anita Ekberg as one of the queen's guards. If the gent playing the friendly Dr. Wilson looks familiar, you're definitely a card-carrying Abbott and Costello fan. That's Robert Paige, who played the carefree playboy in Pardon My Sarong.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
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Image Transfer Review: Let's break it down: Best transfers: Invisible Man, Foreign Legion, Go to Mars and Lost in Alaska have never looked more splendid and I wonder if they were struck from restored prints. Not great/not bad honors go to Mexican Hayride and Comin' Round the Mountain, which have grainy visuals at times, but are still highly watchable. Meet the Killer suffers from dirt and grain, which is really distracting at times. Finally, for the one everybody's wondering about, the classic Meet Frankenstein looks to me to be slightly cleaner, but still evidently taken from the same elements used for the special edition single-disc version Universal released a couple of years back.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
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Audio Transfer Review: After watching many of these films over and over in younger days, I can say without a doubt they have never sounded more crystal clear. Only the slightly muddy audio on Meet the Killer spoils doesn't meet the positive standards of the other films. There's the occasional distortional moment and other minor age related shortcomings associated with movies of this era, but I think you'll be laughing too hard to notice.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 144 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man, Abbott and Costello Go to Mars
Packaging: Box Set
Extras Review: Given Universal's incredible generosity in releasing 24 Abbott and Costello films over three double-disc sets, I don't wanna play coal-raker. Well, not too much. I don't see why trailers could have been tracked down for every one of these films via archivists, collectors, or even e-Bay, instead of the three included. But really, when you're talking about three hours of content per side, there wouldn't much room for anything else but a short retrospective piece (which I would hope is in the cards for Volume 4, since only a quartet of Universal-era films from the vaults remain to anthologize ).
Extras Grade: D
Final CommentsYet another Abbott and Costello mini film festival in a box courtesy of Universal. Like a Whitman sampler, one or two are yucky, others aren't bad, and some you just can't get enough of. And it's those classics (Invisible Man, Meet Frankenstein, Foreign Legion) and underrated funfests (Lost in Alaska, Go to Mars) make this yet another indispensable collection for the duo's die-hard fan base or anyone who wants to experience the magic of comedy's best team.
Jeff Rosado 2004-08-05