Updated: Jan 11, 2020
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
"Ride 'Em Cowboy" (1942) - Lou Costello and Bud Abbott play peanut vendors on the run from their rodeo show boss and end up at a dude ranch. Abbott and Costello are considered Hollywood's greatest comedy team. They made 28 movies for Universal Pictures and six more with other studios.
“ABBOTT AND COSTELLO: UNIVERSAL PICTURES COLLECTION - 80th ANNIVERSARY EDITION”
Blu-ray, 1940-1955, unrated
Best extra: The 73-minute documentary “Abbott and Costello Life and Legacy”
BUD ABBOTT and Lou Costello first teamed up in early 1935 during a short run at the Eltinge Burlesque Theater on 42nd Street in New York City. But for some reason, it didn’t last and they went their own separate ways. Nine months later they met up again and this time they were a hit.
During the next five years, the comedians fine-tuned their routines, conquering the burlesque circuit and radio airwaves, before signing a one-picture deal with Universal Pictures. In the enclosed 44-page booklet, straight man Abbott says their success came from sanitizing many of their bawdy burlesque jokes. “Most people on the circuit haven’t learned that the old jokes are funnier when they’re cleaned up. We clean ‘em up, and they get laughs. I guess that’s the answer.”
Their first Universal film was originally titled “Riviera,” but after its storyline changed to involve a cruise liner bound for South America, it became “One Night in the Tropics.” Production began in late August 1940, with primary actors Robert Cummings, a Universal contract actor, Allan Jones, and Nancy Kelly. Abbott and Costello were hired as bit actors; they didn’t appear until the 18-minute mark as stooges of Roscoe (William Frawley, better known from “I Love Lucy”) a crooked nightclub owner. We first hear Costello in the distance from a gambling table yelling his trademark one-liner: “Oh, I’m a bad boy!”
“One Night in the Tropics" (1940) - Abbott and Costello run their “Two Tens for a Five” routine with William Frawley, better known as Fred on "I Love Lucy." He plays Roscoe a crooked nightclub owner.
Then the duo swiftly run through the “Two Tens for a Five” routine, firing away for the next 60 minutes with “365 Days – Firing,” “Jonah and the Whale” and a short version of the classic “Who’s on First?” It was reported the laughter from the crew and onlookers during the “Mustard” routine was so loud during first takes, the director had to clear the set. The movie premiered in Costello’s hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, but critics weren’t so kind to the movie, although Abbott and Costello still got high marks.
They ended up with another contract calling for two more pictures at $35,000 per film, with an option for more. Plus, Universal offered them a lucrative side deal of ten percent of the movie’s profits, which was unheard of at that time. During their first full year at Universal, their four films accounted for 25 percent of the studios’ total revenue, which produced 58 movies.
Their second film, “Buck Privates” (1941) was a smash hit. This time the duo’s names were above the title of the film. Production started on December 13, 1940, less a month after the premiere of “Tropics,” with a $233,000 budget for 20 days of filming. Universal's intention was to capitalize on the first peacetime Selected Service draft in U.S. history. The film opens with President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the law that required all men between the ages of 21 and 30 to register for the draft. Their co-stars were the singing Andrew Sisters (Laverne, Maxene, and Patty), who produced 19 gold records over their career. Arthur Lubin, who had directed their first film, returned to helm three more Abbott and Costello films. These weren’t much different from their first, incorporating a number of their classic routines such as “Dice Game,” “You’re Forty, She’s Ten,” and a hilarious sequence with Abbott commanding Costello in a drill routine where the guys enlist to avoid prison time.
"Buck Privates" (1941) - Abbott and Costello play Slicker and Herbie, both sidewalk peddlers hawking neckties out of a suitcase. (2) "Buck Privates" was released on January 31 and became Universal's biggest box office hit in years. (3) The Hollywood Production Code forced the army recruits to wear t-shirts during their medical examines. (4) The Andrew Sisters singing the Oscar-nominated song "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy." (5&6) Abbott gives Costello and three other Army recruits drilling instructions during the classic "Drill" routine.
Amazingly, it was released in theaters six weeks after the cameras began rolling. Critics liked the film and its comedic pair. “Buck Privates” would out gross two Hollywood classics released the same year – “Citizen Kane” and “How Green Was My Valley.” It became Universal’s biggest moneymaker up to that point, and received two Oscar nominations for the classic tune “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and the score from composer Charles Previn. The Andrew Sisters were so successful they appeared in two more films with Abbott and Costello that same year: “In the Navy” and “Hold that Ghost.”
“Privates” features a commentary with film historians Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo who tell plenty of anecdotes like how the Andrew Sisters were paid $12,000 split three ways for their parts, and how a number of scenes were edited or shot differently to pass the Production Code. For example, the army recruits had to wear t-shirts during their medical examines and no needles were to be seen during the servicemen's inoculation shots. The budget was so tight the army camp was constructed on Universal’s backlot along an empty hillside.
During her introduction for the booklet, daughter Vickie Abbott Wheeler says, “I think these Universal films capture their comedy and vitality better than the films they made at other studios. Dad thought so, too. His favorites were the early Universal films: “Buck Privates,” “Hold that Ghost” (1941) and Ride ‘Em Cowboy” (1942).”
Oddly, Abbott and Costello’s were enshrined at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, with their hands and footprints in cement the day after the Pearl Harbor attack. In 1942, movies “Ride ‘Em Cowboy,” “Pardon My Sarong,” and “Who Done It?” outdid the previous year's revenue and the duo were crowned Hollywood’s No. 1 Box Office Stars – topping Clark Gable and Gary Cooper.
Film historian and critic Leonard Maltin calls “Who Done It?” one of their best. It’s the first movie that doesn’t include a musical number, giving the boys more screen time. They play two soda jerks who dream of writing radio mysteries. They pose as detectives when the president of the network is murdered. Highlights include an unpredictable water fountain for Costello and the ad-libbed “Watts Volts” routine. The disc features a commentary with film historian Frank Conniff (“Mystery Science Theater”), who says, “They have great energy… and were new to being superstars.” He points out the murder-mystery doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s a lot of fun. The first routine has Costello making a Limburger cheese sandwich, which most have had a strong odor since Costello delivers the sandwich wearing a gas mask and a nose pen for double protection. “If I laugh a lot it's because Lou Costello’s double takes always make me laugh,” says Conniff.
(1) Costello considers riding a pony at the dude ranch. (2) "Ride 'Em Cowboy" was filmed at two dude ranches within driving distance of Universal Studios. (3) Abbott and Costello hide from the rodeo boss. (4) Singer Ella Fitzgerald makes her first movie appearance singing her hit "A-Tisket, A Tasket."
Before shooting their next film “It Ain’t Hay” based on a short story, the guys went on a War Bond tour and were credited for raising $85 million in only 34-days. But, between spring 1943 and August 1944 they went on hiatus as Lou Costello faced rheumatic fever.
After World War II, Universal teamed them with the studio’s stable of monsters in “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948), which became an instant classic and would influence directors John Landis (“An American Werewolf in London”), Quentin Tarantino and future horror-comedies “Young Frankenstein” (1974) and “Ghostbusters,” (1984), says Palumbo in an additional enclosed essay. The comedy is listed in the American Film Institute’s 100 Funniest Comedy Films of All Time and was selected by the Library of Congress for its annual National Film Registry.
Abbott and Costello play two baggage clerks, who handle a strange shipment, which happens to be the remains of Dracula and Frankenstein. It’s the only time Bela Lugosi reprised his role from the original Dracula films. There’s a cameo from Lon Chaney Jr. as Wolf Man, while Vincent Price was hired to be the voice of the Invisible Man.
Film historian Gregory W. Mank provides insightful commentary, starting with a quote from Lon Chaney Jr., who once said, “I used to enjoy horror films when there was thought and sympathy involved. Then they became comedies. Abbott and Costello ruined horror films and made buffoons out of the monsters.” Mank quickly goes on to say, with respect to the late Mr. Chaney, “You might disagree with him as you enjoy this film.”
Critics and moviegoers have been quite favorable through the years, making it the duos most popular films, and one of that year’s biggest moneymakers. “Plus, it was a great final curtain for the classic Universal monsters of the 1930s and ‘40s… Their exit gave way to the atomic age of giant bugs and aliens,” Mank says.
“A happy combination both for chills and laughs. The comedy team battles it out with the studio’s roster of bogeymen in a rambunctious fracas that is funny and, at the same time, spine-tingling.” – Variety Magazine
The success lead to three monster movies: “Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man” (1951), “Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1953) and “Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy” (1955), the team’s last film for Universal Studios after a 15-year career.
"Who Done It?" (1942) - Abbott and Costello hear the scream during the live radio broadcast and pose as detectives after the murder of the radio network president.
All films were scanned in 2K (1.38:1 aspect ratio for the first 26 films and the final two in 1.85:1), with varying degrees of cleanup and natural film grain. The best of the butch, with excellent sharpness and grayscale from highlights to shadows, include “Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “Abbott and Costello Go to Mars,” “Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain,” “Lost in Alaska” and “Little Giants.” A good dozen or more are only a notch down from the top tier in clarity, while only six have issues with sharpness and some form of digital noise reduction. Those include the first two films “One Night in the Tropics,” “Buck Privates,” “Hit the Ice,” “The Naughty Nineties,” “The Time of Their Lives” and “Mexican Hayride.”
Still, Universal and Shout! should be applauded for their efforts.
The collection features the original mono soundtrack on all 28 films. The sound hasn’t been restored and its quality varies from heavy hiss and rumble during “One Night in the Tropics” to lesser amounts on the other films. Audio still has enough fidelity for respectable dialogue and music separation.
The new documentary “Life and Legacy” features interviews with Lou Costello’s daughter Chris, who says her father had a deep passion for Charlie Chaplin and modeled his career after the master actor. As a child, he mimicked Chaplin and won a lookalike contest at 12-years-old, says Ron Palumbo, co-author “Abbott and Costello in Hollywood.”
When Abbott and Costello became movie stars, Chaplin returned the praise calling Costello the “best comic working in Hollywood.” In the mid-1920s Costello made his first trip to Hollywood hitchhiking from New Jersey. Once in California, he worked odd jobs at several studios, doing stunt work and a bit part in a Laurel and Hardy silent. He didn’t make it as an actor and ended up in Missouri, where he got his first burlesque comic job.
"Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948) - (1) Lon Chaney Jr. plays Lawrence Talbot who turns into the Wolf Man. (2) "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" was selected No. 56 with the American Film Institutes 100 Funniest American Movies Of All Time. (3) Abbott and Costello play Chick and Wilbur, two baggage clerks, who handle a strange shipment, which happens to be the remains of Dracula and Frankenstein. (4) Bela Lugosi reprised his role as Dracula. (5) Glenn Strange plays the Monster, originally played by Boris Karloff in "Frankenstein" (1931).
Palumbo tells the story of how Bud Abbott became a straight guy. In the early 1920s, he was running a cut-rate tab show. The act was doing badly, so he fired the straight guy and took over the role. The straight guy – the setup man – normally got a higher percentage of the salary, since the weight of the act was on his shoulders, controlling the tempo and if it failed it was on him. “Without a great straight man, you don’t have a great comic,” Costello’s daughter says. “They were like brothers. When they fought, they were like siblings and they loved like siblings.”
Another featurette, “Film Stories,” runs 50-minutes, and is narrated by film historian James L. Neibaur, who highlights the complete 28 Universal film catalog. It also features a number of co-stars such as Dick Powell (“In the Navy” 1941), Ella Fitzgerald singing “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” (“Ride ‘em Cowboy” 1942), Lon Chaney, Jr. (“Here Come the Co-Eds” 1945), Henry Travers (“Naughty Nineties” 1945), Marjorie Reynolds (“The Times of Their Lives” 1946), Marjorie Main (“The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap” 1947), Boris Karloff (“Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff” 1949 and “Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” 1953), and Margaret Hamilton (“Comin’ Round the Mountain” 1951). There are also nine commentary tracks and a carryover featurette hosted by Jerry Seinfeld.
This Shout! Factory 80th Anniversary Edition 15-disc box set will guarantee weeks of sidesplitting laughter, making it one of 2019's best box sets and a perfect gift for the whole family.
— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer
(1) Lawrence Talbot with Wilbur and Chick. (2) Dracula comes out of his casket. (3) Wilbur is being held in a pillory, with plans to transplant his brain into the Monster. (4) Dracula wheels the Monster into the lab.