Celluloid September: Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (1945)
Is there anything more indulgent than watching a movie about the movies? Lose yourself in the world of Old Hollywood with us this month as we watch films about the entertainment industry. Today Rodney and Samantha examine Abbott and Costello in Hollywood from 1945.
RODNEY: Bud and Lou (sorry…Buzz and Abercombie) are working in a Hollywood salon. Abercombie aspires to be a barber, and Buzz, inexplicably runs a barber school from the back with Abercombie as his only student. We don’t know why this is the case.
SAMANTHA: I think Ruthie (Jean Porter) alludes to Abercrombie that it is a con, and that he is wasting his tuition money.
RB: Yeah, that makes as much sense as anything, but why would a business owner allow this to happen? Lets say you run a notable salon in Hollywood and Bud Abbott asks you to run a barber college in the back room for one pupil. Would you do it? Does it matter? Not really. It gets the job done by allowing Bud and Lou to engage in their trademark nonsense for about a reel and a half, and that’s all that matters here. Rags Ragland comes in for a shave and more antics ensue.
SG: For a guy whose metier is playing a dope or a cut-up himself, Ragland does an excellent job as Lou's irate customer. I laughed at him switching places with Costello in the chair, and his attempts to bite his barber's fingers in retaliation for poor service.
RB: Through a twisted set of circumstances, the boys decide to become agents and help an aspiring singer (Bob Haymes) to get a role in a film at Mammoth Studios.
Naturally, this works out, but not without lots of disguises, routines, puns and cameos from the likes of Lucille Ball, the aforementioned Rags Ragland, Preston Foster and Dean Stockwell.
SG: Imagine Ball as a Southern belle in a costume drama. Her harsh voice doesn't have the soft melody that setting requires. Of course the movie she is making isn't real, and it doesn't matter. Its just a setting for Costello to run away from a cop he has maligned.
RB: The climax takes place on a roller coaster— that's on a film set— during a musical number— that’s all set to explode as soon as the scene is finished shooting.
SG: The ending is insanity. If you wanted to find a way to put MGM polish on a frantic chase scene at an amusement park, adding an elaborate musical number would be just the way. Oddly enough, I think the musical number comes off well because a lot of time clearly went into staging and rehearsing it, and the roller coaster comedy bits seem tedious and cheap in comparison with their obvious use of doubles and rear projection.
RB: Look, if you know and love (or at least tolerate) Abbott and Costello, you basically know what you’re in for here. The only difference is that this is the “MGM Abbott and Costello”. So, you get that nice, shiny MGM scene along with the obligatory scenes played for pathos. At Universal, A&C were basically allowed to run around and be obnoxious for 75 minutes. At MGM, as with most of their attempts at making slapstick comedy, you have a minimum of one scene where the stars are dejected because things aren’t working out for them. I’ve never understood why this always happens. It rarely works, and in an MGM comedy film, you can bet the bank on it happening.
SG: It's like the love story wedged into A Night at the Opera with the Marx Brothers. No one remembers or cares about that b-plot. It is filler. And this film doesn't have an outstanding song to make it interesting.
ABBOTT: Every time you open your mouth, what happens? COSTELLO: I eat.
RB: This is still Bud and Lou, but it does seem a little less manic than in their best Universal work. The supporting cast is pretty good though, with Jean Porter and Mike Mazurki being highlights.
Some of this may be due to the script, which comes to us via Nat Perrin and Lou Breslow. Perrin’s comedy chops are not to be disputed here. That much is for sure. He wrote Horse Feathers (1931) for goodness sake, and was later a writer on The Jack Benny Program, not to mention lots of other good stuff. His pedigree speaks for itself. Lou Breslow on the other hand—well, on the one hand, he was responsible for a few of the best Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto movies over at Fox. On the other hand, I have no idea how that qualifies a person to write an Abbott and Costello feature. Not to mention that he was also responsible for some of the worst Laurel & Hardy movies. He definitely bounced around comedies some, but I would argue that it was less that he was a great comedy writer and more that he was reliable and fast.
SG: I saw his name and immediately thought of the bizarre little comedy he wrote and directed which we showed at Cinevent several years back called You Never Can Tell. Dick Powell plays a deceased German Shepherd brought back from the dead in human form to solve his own murder. I wonder if he wrote the joke where Costello tries the shaving soap and likes it, then gives Rags a taste. (What did they use for that gag, do you think? Merengue?)
RB: Contemporary reviews were mixed, but mostly positive. A&C were pretty reliable at this time, just coming off of their peak in popularity. One theater manager noted something that was peculiar to me, however. “This was the best draw I have had from the pair,” noted James C. Balkom Jr. of the one day engagement that the film played at the Gray Theatre in Gray, GA. “This was the first of the Abbott and Costello series to click here.” WHAT?! In Hollywood clicks, but no love for Hold that Ghost, Who Done It? or Hit the Ice? That blows my mind. I’d consider all of those films to be so much more fun than this one, but seeing as we’re discussing Abbott and Costello in Hollywood, I’m going to stamp this with a solid two and a half stars and think about other, better performances from these childhood favorites of mine.
SG: Although I hate awarding half stars, I have to agree with you. This is a fun movie but it isn't peak Abbott and Costello, and the studio scenes frankly felt artificial and dull in comparison with the comedy. This is a mixture that didn't quite gel.