Feast and Famine For Bud and Lou
Suppose we begin by quoting some friends on the subject of Abbott and Costello --- "I used to watch them when I was a kid, and thought they were funny then …" --- "Do you really think they’re good?" --- or how about, "Those things don’t hold up for me anymore". Let me hasten to add that I don’t necessarily subscribe to any of these philosophies, though I would acknowledge some mixed emotions about A&C. First, one must weigh in the sentiment factor. I suspect most film fans of my generation share a degree of nostalgic warmth for these comedians --- be it their Universal features, or their fifties TV series (with it’s always at a crescendo of hysteria laugh track) --- as both were television staples at one time. For me, it was a handful of the features that did it. Were he alive today, my father might still recall his own alarmed reaction to my expressions of boyish mirth over the antics of Abbott and Costello when they met the Keystone Kops, and this sixties youngster always had his radar up when one of the Meet the Monsters pics showed up, as that generally promised the bonus lure of Karloff, Lugosi, and/or Chaney. I know boomer fans today who still regard Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein as a near-religious experience, although when I ran it recently for a 34 year-old nephew and his wife, it got nary a chuckle. Just kind of laid there. If we can no longer maintain, or even acknowledge, our one-time appreciation for Abbott and Costello, then what’s next? Will we someday renounce Chaplin … Keaton … Laurel and Hardy? Old age may indeed be a desolate place where nothing seems funny anymore. For the meantime however, I’m still willing to express a certain fondness for the boys, if for no reason other than the fact they're so fascinating as individuals.
Two nagging questions that have haunted me. (1) Did Bud really ask fans to send him fifty cents, or a dollar, or whatever, when he was down and out? (2) Was Lou really a tyrant and mean to Bud? Alright, first the begging story. I found an old interview on line, and it’s dated 1960, very soon after Lou died, and Bud’s flat on his uppers. Yeah, he admits he’s busted, thanks to a punitive IRS, but damnit, that reporter misquoted him when he said Bud wanted handouts from fans. Sure, things are bad, but he’d never sink to that --- and anyhow, the few hundred bucks the fans did send weren’t enough to make a week’s payment on that tax bill, but thanks anyway. The scribe portrays Bud as a bitter old man. Well, you’d be bitter too after spending much of the war criss-crossing the nation, at your own expense, to sell bonds and support Allied relief efforts. I thought Bud and Lou got a raw deal when I first read about that some forty years ago. If anything, I’m even more sympathetic today, having enjoyed taxpayer status myself for a number of decades. Poor Bud. There was never any doubt that he was a nice guy … but what about … Lou? If you read Bob Thomas, or see that incredibly lame TV movie with Harvey Korman and Buddy Hackett, then you know Lou was a monster, a lout, a sawed-off little bas --- well, let’s not belabor it. Daughter Chris Costello tells a different story, and yeah, she’s talking about Daddy, but I still tend to tip the scale a little in her direction. Maybe it was seeing Abbott and Costello on This Is Your Life that did it (available on DVD). That’s an incredibly moving and dramatic episode. The segment when Bud comes out, and this is shortly before the split, is just one of the most heart-rending moments on television. It’s like this hapless guy wants so desperately to get his old partner back, but you can tell it’s hopeless. Lou’s very subdued throughout. Maybe he was brusque around the set, but this is proof he was a devoted family man, and what he did for various charities is still pretty awesome. No, I don’t care what anybody says. Lou was alright. God knows the loss he suffered with his son and that swimming pool is enough to get him a pass from me, no matter what else he ever did. That, plus the fact that he’s a great talent, and I dare say if most of us had been around in 1941, we’d have no doubt called Buck Privates the freshest, funniest thing on the face of the earth.
Here are the boys doing what they really did best --- raising money for the war effort. And here they also are --- gambling at cards between takes (of Hit The Ice) in a game that might just as well have been called "Easy Come – Easy Go", as that’s how their respective fortunes went from the moment they hit the movie big-time. Was it boredom on the set that made them so reckless with money? Lou certainly looks bored here, doesn’t he? And they both seem pretty zoned out with Governor Whatzit of California as he drones on with a thank-you speech they must have heard at every whistle-stop throughout the war. We do like the little photo feature of Lou’s kitchen antics just before he and now pig-tailed peekaboo girl Veronica Lake do their butter and egg auction. Wonder if high bidder Mrs. Julia Green of New York could possibly be alive today? She must have had a neat story to tell her own boomer kids years later as they sat watching A&C on the telly. One can imagine the comedic donnybrook that ensued when the boys put their own wardrobe on the bidding block --- look at that gallery of screwballs on the dais --- Bert Wheeler, Lee Tracy (don’t let him on the balcony!), and genial big oaf "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom. Between their war work and raising funds for the Lou Costello Jr. foundation, the two comedians no doubt assured their place in Heaven, and to think, much of this took place after Lou had been out a year, flat on his back with rheumatic fever! Great troupers in their glory days --- and both would finish in IRS imposed bankruptcy. But for all they’d done here, couldn’t the tax boys have gone a little easier?