Monday, January 31, 2011

 

You’re a lucky fellow, Mr. Smith


By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
1989 found me gainfully employed as a “customer service representative” for our local Blockbuster Video franchise (it was a dream…I made it happen) and I proved to be remarkably well-suited for the job, owing to the fact that I’ve enjoyed a lifelong love affair with movies, particularly those of the classic variety. I would often spend hours on end chatting with many of our customers on the subject — much to the dismay of the store manager, who felt such passion-fueled conversations distracted me from my other menial CSR duties.

One gentleman who used to come into the store regularly — I never did learn his name, since he never offered and I never asked — liked to pass the time with me discussing films of the 1940s and I remember that he was enthusiastically fond of 1941’s Buck Privates, the wartime service comedy that made the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello a box office force to be reckoned with from 1942 to 1952. At the time, the store didn’t have the film on VHS but because of his affection for the movie I sort of made it my personal mission to lobby anyone and everyone I could to see about adding it to our inventory. My persistence paid off; our district manager even called me aside one day to let me know he’d ordered a copy and when I passed this information along to the customer his face literally lit up like a Christmas tree. So as you’ve no doubt guessed by now, this misty water-colored memory has been generated by the revelation that 70 years ago on this date Buck Privates was released to movie theaters; a film that ended up grossing $4 million (a whopping return on an initial $180,000 investment) and made Abbott & Costello kings of the Universal Studios lot.


There’s really no getting around it: Abbott & Costello were a real cinematic anomaly. They weren’t universally beloved like Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy, they weren’t championed as brilliant satirists by the intelligentsia like the Marx Brothers — they were just a pair of hard-working burlesque comics (who partnered together in 1935) who happened onto a hilarious piece of patter material (the classic routine “Who’s on First?”) and were able to capitalize on its success by landing roles in a Broadway revue entitled Streets of Paris in 1938…the same year they also began appearing as regulars on radio’s The Kate Smith Hour. Two years later they headlining their own radio show (a summer replacement series for comedian Fred Allen) and making their film debut in a movie trifle entitled One Night in the Tropics (1940).

Were it not for Bud & Lou’s antics in Tropics, the film would be largely forgotten today but at the time of its release critics and audiences were in agreement that the duo stole the movie (doing several of their routines, including an abbreviated version of “First”), prompting Universal to offer them a two-picture deal. The installation of the first peacetime draft in real life would inspire their starring debut, and Privates cast the two men as Slicker Smith (Bud) and Herbie Brown (Lou), a pair of necktie-selling hucksters who run afoul of beat cop Michael Collins (Nat Pendleton) while peddling their wares. To escape his clutches, the two men duck into an induction center (mistaking it for a movie theater) and through a series of misunderstandings unwittingly find themselves volunteering for military service.

At the same time that Slicker and Herbie are enlisting, wealthy playboy Randolph Parker III (Lee Bowman) is doing all that he can to weasel out of his draft obligation, thinking his education (he’s a Yale man) and familial connections entitle him to an exemption — a marked contrast to his valet-chauffeur, Bob Martin (Alan Curtis), who takes his military duty very seriously. Preparing for the train trip that will take the men to boot camp, Bob runs into an old friend in Judy Gray (Jane Frazee), who is one of the Army’s “camp hostesses” — a sort of goodwill attendant whose duty is to make the enlistees feel more at home by offering them treats (apples, candy, chewing gum) and providing helpful information about the camp. Randy also makes Judy’s acquaintance, though he’s much more interested in moving beyond simple friendship, something that does not sit well with Bob (or Judy either, to be honest).

Arriving at camp, Slicker and Herbie are dismayed to learn that their nemesis Collins is their drill instructor…and Randy’s attempts to get his influential father to pull some strings and get him out of the Army are stymied when Mr. Parker refuses to help his son, believing that a hitch in the service will do his spoiled progeny some good. It takes a bit of time for Randy to realize that the Army is, as Judy puts it, “the great leveler”; he lets his fellow platoon members down in a sharpshooting contest (he’s the top rifleman in the company) by weaseling out of the competition for the sole purpose of scoring a date with Judy. But by the film’s end Randy surprises everyone by turning out to be a right guy (his actions during a “sham battle” make Bob a hero and allow the company to emerge as the victors in the war game) and he’s even managed to obtain a commission to Officers Training School. Bob also will be joining him (I don’t know why attending OTS is a happy ending, but I guess we should just go with it), and both men learn that Judy will be “camp hostessing” there as well.

This admittedly thin plotline is really nothing more than a peg on which to hang some classic comedy routines from Abbott & Costello; Lou’s Herbie Brown is essentially a stock comic character who manages to screw up everything while in basic training and yet suffers very few serious repercussions as a result. The comedic highlights of Privates include a riotous crap game aboard the train where Slicker attempts to fleece “novice” Herbie (who explains that his knowledge of such slang as “fade that” and “let ‘er ride” was picked up hanging around the “clubhouse”) and a boxing match in which Herbie is dragooned into fighting a 97 pound weakling…who gets a reprieve when a larger, heavier bruiser substitutes in his place. (To add insult to injury, Sergeant Collins is the “impartial” referee in the bout.) There also is a drill routine that Bud & Lou had previously performed on stage but the set piece became longer (and in Lou’s estimation, funnier) with director Arthur Lubin’s insistence on shooting it multiple times (and piecing together the various takes) and some judicious ad-libbing on the part of the duo. Much of Abbott & Costello’s dialogue was completely off the cuff; a funny example of this occurs during the “Clubhouse” routine when Lou, explaining that the older boys wouldn’t let him shoot dice, blurts out for no reason: “Startin’ Tuesday I’m goin’ out with girls!” “I don’t blame you,” returns Bud, without missing a beat.

An example of Bud & Lou’s humor in the film, an old burlesque chestnut called “You’re 40, She’s 10”:
SLICKER: Answer this question: you’re 40 years old and you’re in love with a little girl say, 10 years old…
HERBIE: This one’s gonna be a pip
SLICKER: Well, wait’ll I finish…
HERBIE: Now I’m goin’ around with a 10-year-old girl
SLICKER: Well, wait a minute…
HERBIE: You got a good idea where I’m gonna wind up…
SLICKER: Will you wait a minute, please? Look, you’re 40 years old and you’re in love with this girl who’s 10 years old…now, you’re four times as old as that girl…you couldn’t marry her, could you?
HERBIE: Not unless I come from the mountains
SLICKER: There you go…you see?
HERBIE: Why don’t you ask me something...?
SLICKER: Wait a minute…wait ‘til I finish this…you’re 40, she’s 10…you’re four times as old as this girl…now, you couldn’t marry her so you wait five years…now the little girl is 15, you’re 45…you’re only three times as old as that little girl! So you wait 15 years more…now the little girl’s 30, you’re 60…you’re only twice as old as that little girl…
HERBIE: She’s catching up!
SLICKER: Well, yes…yes…now here’s the question: how long do you have to wait before you and that little girl are the same age?
HERBIE: Well… (After a slight pause) What kind of question is that?
SLICKER: Answer the question!
HERBIE: That’s ridiculous!
SLICKER: What’s ridiculous about it?
HERBIE: If I keep waiting for that girl, she’ll pass me up!
SLICKER: What are you talking about?
HERBIE: She’ll wind up older than I am!
SLICKER: Aw…that’s…
HERBIE: And she’ll have to wait for me!
SLICKER: Why should she wait for you?
HERBIE: I was nice enough to wait for her!!!

Supplementing Bud & Lou’s hysterical antics in Buck Privates is the music of Patty, Maxene and Laverne — collectively known as the Andrews Sisters. The popular female vocal trio sing some of their best-known tunes in the movie, including “(I’ll Be With You in) Apple Blossom Time” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” (which earned an Academy Award nomination for best original song, as did Charles Previn for best original score), and perform all of their numbers with a great deal of gusto — the studio made the sisters learn the choreography on their own time, but the Andrews’ dedication paid off handsomely. The girls would return (for a more prominent presence) in Bud & Lou’s second starrer, In the Navy (1941)…and because the studio was shooting the boys’ third feature, Hold That Ghost (1941), at the same time as Privates’ release Universal attached a couple of numbers by the Andrews Sisters to that film as well. (The harmonizing trio would grace a number of Universal musical comedies, as well as appearing in their own starring vehicles such as 1942's What’s Cookin’? and Give Out, Sisters.)

Buck Privates, it could be argued, isn’t necessarily the best movie in Abbott & Costello’s oeuvre (cases could be made for many of their other romps, notably Hold That Ghost, Who Done It? [1942] and Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein [1948]) but it was a watershed film for several reasons. Its success at the box office rescued the troubled Universal studio from the precipice of bankruptcy (a place with which the company was familiar on several occasions in the past) and it provided a surefire formula for future A&C successes —cheap, profitable films that blended their veteran burlesque routines (often contributed by writer and crony John Grant) with sprightly music and sappy boy-meets-girl storylines. Privates also is an example of why the early Bud & Lou films often hold up the best; moviemaking was still a new experience for the duo and their performances have a crackling energy that’s noticeably missing from their later vehicles, when it often seemed as if they were going through the motions. Privates’ staggering box office take even paved the way for a 1947 sequel entitled Buck Privates Come Home, which allowed Bud, Lou and Nat Pendleton (in his final film) to reprise their roles in an outing that in some ways is more entertaining than the original, thanks to some first-rate physical comedy sequences (highlighted by a wild “midget” car race) and a meatier plot with some genuine “heart” (as our heroes smuggle a French orphan into the U.S. when they are shipped back home).

But Buck Privates Come Home ultimately lacks the vivacious verve of Buck Privates’ toe-tapping tunes (featuring some truly energetic lindy hop performers) and signature comedy routines that made its stars one of the classic movie comedy teams of all time. It’s no wonder that it remained a cherished memory for my video store friend, and its good-natured humor, music and rah-rah patriotism can still bring movie audiences to appreciative applause today. “Three cheers for the red, white and Captain Brown — hip, hip, hip, hooray!”

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Comments:
In third grade, a classmate and I memorized "Who's on First?" which had been printed in that great kids magazing Dynamite and performed it for the class. I was Bud, he was Lou. Can anyone imagine a publication aimed at grade school students reprinting that today?
 
I have to say A&C are responsible for my love of movies. As a kid in NYC they use to be on WOR - Channel 9 all the time. As you mention, they were never championed or received much respect from anyone. What they were though was damn funny. BUCK PRIVATES, HOLD THAT GHOST and A&C MEET FRANKENSTEIN IMO are arguably their best. THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES is probably their best plotted film. Thanks Ivan!
 
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