RODNEY BOWCOCK: Okay, so full disclosure before we go any further. Neither of us had actually seen this film when we chose it, but it seemed like a no brainer. I mean, it’s called One Night in the TROPICS, right? Well, we were wrong. Imagine our dismay when we wrapped up the film and noted that at no point during the movie does anyone actually visit the tropics. Not even for a night. Heck, if it was called One Hour in the Tropics, it would still be wrong. But we watched it, and it would be unfair to you, faithful readers, not to share our thoughts, even if we did misjudge the film by its title.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: I'm reaching here, but it does take place in a hot and humid environment. It isn't like we mistakenly watched a movie about mountain climbers in the Alps. We ain't so dumb. RB: Right away, we’re introduced to Jim “Lucky” Moore (Allan Jones), a slick insurance salesman who devises a policy that he feels is guaranteed to bring some big bucks his way. He presents his pal, Steve (Robert ‘Bob’ Cummings) with a “love insurance policy”. See, if Steve doesn’t marry his long time fiancé Cynthia (Nancy Kelly), Lucky stands to make a million bucks. The insurance policy is underwritten by a shady nightclub owner, Roscoe (William Frawley) who sends two of his enforcers with the whole entourage to a fictional South American country called San Marco to make sure the marriage happens. Along the way, some songs and hijinks of the early 40’s Universal variety ensue.
SG: A subplot involves Steve's ex-girlfriend Mickey (Peggy Moran) who keeps hanging around, threatening to ruin his chances with Cynthia. He enlists Jim to pose as Mickey’s lover to keep Cynthia from finding out about their past. Jim's own feelings for Cynthia begin to jeopardize his big payoff. Additionally, there are solid character actors in this movie including matronly Mary Boland as Cynthia's guardian aunt and Leo Carrillo providing the Latin American representation when they arrive in the tropics.
RB: As you probably know if you’re reading this, the movie is mostly known today due to it being the first silver screen appearance of Abbott and Costello, and the film jumps to life whenever they’re on the screen. Now, that’s not to say that they actually have much to do with the plot of the film. They don’t. In fact, their appearances grind what plot there is to a halt, but they’re simply so darn good that it doesn’t matter and you welcome it. There’s an excitement and exuberance to their half a dozen routines in this film that would be lacking from many of their films in just a few short years, and watching Bud and Lou here is irresistible fun. When you consider that just a few years before this, Abbott and Costello were appearing in burlesque theaters, it’s remarkable how quickly their star shot to the top. It was hard won, but a year and a half before, they had made their first appearance on the Kate Smith radio program, and at the time Tropics was released, they were the summer replacement for the Fred Allen show. It’s remarkable that they’d spend the next fifteen years making three dozen movies, have two radio series, a TV show, and countless personal appearances. Looking back today, it’s nearly impossible to refute the argument that the duo oversaturated the entertainment industry, which at least partially led to burnout and diminishing quality over the years. But here, in 1940, they’re on fire and still fantastically funny.
SG: They stand out in their scenes because they’re doing bits they perfected in vaudeville, like “Who’s on First” and the hot dog routine. The way Bud continually scams Lou out of his money is so smooth, that is can be hard to follow unless you're paying close attention, which is exactly what they want. Their routines demand and hold your attention throughout, and when they're over, you can breathe again. The film, originally titled Caribbean Holiday, was “inconspicuous as a money-maker but a vehicle which forecast their popularity with exhibitors and public alike,” according to Motion Picture Herald.
None of the core cast is terribly remarkable, but I don't want to discount them in this film. They work together well to create something more than the sum of the individual parts. The music is pleasant enough, and doesn't take us out of the film the way Jones's musical numbers do in A Night at the Opera. My biggest discomfort in watching him sing to the ladies in this film isn't the music or his delivery. It is the idea of someone looking into my eyes for such a prolonged period of time singing these emotional love songs. Do you have to stare at each other the whole time? Where do you put your hands? You're stuck, forced to pretend to like it with a stupid clown smile on your face while thinking about your escape plan when it is finally over. This seems like a very old-fashioned trope, the idea that it is desirable to be sung to. All girls want a guy to write a song for them, but they don't want them to hold them hostage while they perform it.
RB: You make a point. What struck me while watching the movie was how Allan Jones was essentially the opposite of Abbott and Costello, and it’s his appearance in this film that distinctly keeps one foot in the 30’s. A younger me would’ve described Jones under the distinct terms as the “wet blanket that ruined A Night at the Opera”, and while I go a little softer on him now, and I agree with you that in this film he isn’t THAT bad, that distinction isn’t completely lost on me. Jones’ operatic singing still seems completely out of place here, and while he’s a more likable character than in his duo of Marx appearances, he still just doesn’t fit. Sorry to the Allan Jones fan-club members reading this. Thinking about some of the wartime musicals that Universal made during the war years (such as Moonlight and Cactus, which we plunged into last summer), you can’t help but be shocked at how quickly pop culture changed during WW2. Bud and Lou were the now, and Allan Jones (who would continue to make a few more B-musical appearances for Universal and Paramount) was distinctly old hat. At least that’s how it seems today.
SG: The film premiered in New York at the Fabian theater, preceded by a stage show featuring Lou Costello, Milton Berle, Henny Youngman and J.C. Flippen, with proceeds going to the Paterson Community Chest Fund for rebuilding the local Church of St. Anthony. Can you imagine going back in time to see that stage show? Maybe that's what movie theaters need to do to revive the movie-going experience. If Robert Downey Jr. or Will Ferrell showed up in person to shill the movie they were promoting, they'd have a packed house. RB: It’s worth a shot. Has to be better than the endless parade of Coke commercials. Trade reviews at the time basically agreed that Abbott and Costello were the draw for the film. “Abbott and Costello were really great! The musical numbers weren’t very much” noted the Strand Theatre of Suffern NY. “Abbott and Costello save this one from flopping. Our patrons won’t go for this kind of music” opined Robert Netzel of the Palace Theatre in Crandon, WI.
SG: “You’ll have lots of fun at this one, a breezy musical romance which is loaded with laughs,” wrote Delight Evans for Screenland magazine. Hollywood magazine’s writer called it, “Not a spectacular production by any means, but enjoyable because of its fast tempo.” RB: While One Night in the Tropics was still playing neighborhood houses, Abbott and Costello had already signed a contract with Universal and their next film, Buck Privates was playing the big theaters, and they had a short with Republic playing (Meet the Stars #4). It’s a testament to what cultural juggernauts they were in 1940’s America, and while overall, I cannot give this film more than a three star review, it’s a fascinating cultural touchpoint of where we were as a country, and where we were on the verge of heading. SG: I don't think you should feel bad giving it three stars, because that's what I give it too. Its kind of like a bedroom farce with little A&C intermissions inserted periodically. For a modern audience with a declining attention span, the pacing works well to hold the interest.