Comedic Jekylls and Hydes
What might Abbott and Costello have accomplished had they used their boxoffice power toward more creative ends? Top ten status on exhibitor polls suggests freedom to experiment and vary the formula, but Bud and Lou cared more about that good life stardom conferred than enhancing their on-screen artistry. Instead of developing material, they played cards. Every distraction was catered to. Ad-libbing tolerated on an Abbott and Costello set would likely have been verboten for Laurel and Hardy at Fox or The Marx Brothers in their later Metros, yet imagine what these comedy teams could have achieved had they enjoyed the latitude Bud and Lou were given. A&C’s single gesture toward creative control seems to have been their insistance upon two offbeat features in which they were more or less split up, Little Giant and The Time Of Their Lives, but was that really an effort toward better picture-making, or just a means of getting a vacation from one another? Lou’s antipathy as regards Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein makes you wonder what he might have preferred in its place. What works in A&C comedy is probably the result of lack of preparedness, and the audience’s sense that much of their stuff is random. According to co-workers, this was a near right assumption. My sense of Abbott and Costello is that they preferred a stage to motion pictures. With early television, the pair very nearly got back what they’d missed since burlesque days in the thirties. Movie slapstick was a commonplace wherein any number of comics surpassed A&C’s experience and expertise, but with regards verbal patter, these two had no peer. Who’s On First is still a miracle of timing and delivery. Skits on The Colgate Comedy Hour were but flimsy preambles to well-honed routines excavated from theatrical trunks, much of it new to home audiences who’d ignored their Universal features over the last six or seven years. Were any adults still going to see Abbott and Costello in the early fifties? The absence of singers/bands suggest a capitulation to the simple market demands of juve matinees, and it seemed the boys were falling down more and talking less. By the time things got round to Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Lou couldn’t even approach a door without plunging through it. I don’t wonder that the team preferred TV work (their own series as well as the Colgate shows --- both running strong by 1953). Universal contract starlets shunned the A&C unit for its perceived kiddie ghetto standing, but worse still was an oversaturation of the team resulting from an ancillary market taking off after the war that promised to have quite an impact on viewing habits among both viewers at home and audiences in non-theatrical environments.
Realart’s heavy schedule of Abbott and Costello re-issues were in direct competition with the team’s new releases in the early fifties (much as would be the case with Jerry Lewis in the sixties), so much so that Universal was obliged to emphasize All New legends they now attached to posters (including the one shown here for A&C Meet J&H). Realart had leased much of Universal’s backlog for a ten-year period beginning in 1946, and exhibitors were happy to pay their minimal rentals as opposed to higher terms imposed by U-I. After all, when it comes to Abbott and Costello, who cares if the show is old or new, since one was virtually indistinguishable from another. United World was a subsidiary of Universal that sold 8 and 16mm movies to home viewers under the name Castle Films. Abbott and Costello were ideally suited to fill these eight-minute souvenir reels, their routines being compatible to shorter lengths and overall plot being of no real consequence. Once you bought a Castle Film, you could do what you liked with it. Ownership was outright. Boomer kids encountered Abbott and Costello at birthday parties, public libraries, church bazaars … wherever someone could plug in a tabletop projector and go to work. All this was just one more stream of revenue Bud and Lou wouldn’t drink from, as they (initially) got nothing from Castle Film sales. A lawsuit filed in 1952 was finally settled in their favor, but by the mid-fifties, a combination of Realart and Castle, plus their own increasingly weak product out of Universal, made Abbott and Costello seem an over-saturated product, if not a quaintly old-fashioned one. Rurals and grindhouses continued using them. Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (that's Lou with director Charles Lamont, by the way) found new glory at a small Vernon, Florida theatre in September, 1958 --- My best grosser in Vernon was not "3:10 To Yuma" nor "Operation Madball"… It was this reissue of an old Abbott and Costello. They laughed long and loud. They whooped and hollered and rolled in the aisles. Well, why would manager I. Roche lie? --- though it’s hard to imagine anyone rolling in the aisles over Bud and Lou’s dispirited antics this time out. Maybe that crowd had something to do with it, as we know from experience how contagious audience laughter can be. Universal was at least considerate enough to withhold their features from television for at least a year or two beyond the dumping date chosen by other studios, for it was 1958 before Screen Gems (U-I’s lessee for most of its pre-48 library) began penetrating markets with A&C oldies. Later comedies with the team (including Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) made it to television via packages from Seven Arts (starting in July 1963), but were split up among mainstream Universal titles. Consequently, your local channel might run Lost In Alaska five times, but Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein not at all (mine did!). It was July 1971 before MCA finally packaged all their Abbott and Costellos into a dedicated group of 29 features, the leases with Screen Gems and Seven Arts having run out. By this time, most exposure for comedies this old (and in black-and-white) would be on independent UHF stations.
Abbott and Costello merely used Jekyll and Hyde as a hook to further their Meet The Monsters series. Boris Karloff reprised a mad science template he’d called upon numerous times (though not so recently as of 1953). That Westmore mask was donned for publicity, as shown here, but I wonder if Karloff ever stood before a camera in the Hyde guise. Why impose upon this man in his sixties when any number of stunt artists could slip the rubber over their face and bound over backlot rooftops (in fact, one of them broke an ankle doing so)? The only authentic spoof on Jekyll and Hyde would come from Jerry Lewis, and his would emerge the masterpiece of such travesties. The Nutty Professor is so good you can’t believe JL made it. That’s been said before, I know, but look at those others he did. How did Jerry all of a sudden wake up to a concept so clever as this, and why hasn’t he managed such an inspiration since? Every writer has one great story in him/her, and the Professor is Jerry’s. Everything right about his staging, direction, and design is here. I was stunned by that Technicolor when it unspooled at the Liberty for a 1966 reissue, a late date for catching up, though neighbor kids had told me how fine this one was. Paramount actually bought the back cover of Famous Monster’s 1964 yearbook for promotion, which I’ve shown here primarily because it’s the only time I ever saw this particular ad style published anywhere (and, correct me if I’m wrong, the only occasion on which a major studio bought space in FM!). With those references to previous J/H enactors (Barrymore, March, Tracy), you’d almost think Paramount marketing customized the page especially for FM readers, which I’m inclined to believe, as I couldn’t locate any mats in the pressbook resembling it. Query --- who’s Buddy Love supposed to be? Another subject flogged to death elsewhere, but I’ll venture he’s a composite of Rat Pack ethos Jerry was said to have deplored (at least then). Though Buddy ended up resembling Jerry himself, I wouldn’t think the man could have harnessed self-awareness to lay bare such a corrosive off-screen persona before an unknowing audience (bearing in mind that 1963 devotees didn’t necessarily know Jerry as we do now). As to speculation Hyde/Love mirrors Lewis’ former partner, he actually seems more Frank than Dean, but just who in Jerry’s show-biz orbit behaved so cruelly as this? Were there multiple Buddy Loves running loose backstage in Vegas or between shots on movie sets? Reading post-mortem bios surfacing over the last decade or so, I’d venture to say yes, there were plenty. Lewis brought them too close for his audience’s comfort. I know fans that grew up with Jerry who draw the line on The Nutty Professor, for Buddy Love’s nastiness has way too much ring of truth about it. All the more credit to him for refusing to soften that alter-ego, for it would have been easy to hone off the edge and still realize the rentals ($3.3 million, his best but for The Bellboy).
They filmed at Arizona State University. Big band Les Brown, once renowned, entertains for a 1963 class of undergrads during a prom night that all but stages a jitterbug rally in its backward retreat toward those 40’s sounds Jerry loved. He was down on a pop culture fast going to hell, and said so to reporters who’d listen. No kid of his would go to the theatre and watch lesbians (was he thinking of Walk On The Wild Side or The Children’s Hour, both in recent release at the time?). Permissive movies were imprisoning families in front of their televisions --- is this what Hollywood wanted? Buddy Love wows ‘em at the Purple Pit when he gives out with That Old Black Magic, a standard with a beard a mile long, but look at the "students" he’s crooning to --- all thirty if they’re a day --- I even glimpsed Dave Willock, Jimmy Ellison’s old army sidekick from 1943’s The Gang’s All Here! Hindsight prefers Les Brown to the spectre of a Duane Eddy backing Jerry, but little of this serves the cause of verisimilitude. Actually, that music is what I like best about The Nutty Professor. Re-using Victor Young’s beautiful Stella By Starlight as a principal motif was inspiration itself. As a kid, I wanted a record of that title theme. Lush scoring was on its way out by 1963. More power to Lewis for keeping the sound alive long after others had abandoned it (and I’m reminded as well of David Raksin’s fine work on The Patsy --- you can forgive Jerry anything for having at least utilized his talent). I can’t speak for others, but the rapturous series of dissolves with Stella Stevens at Kelp’s classroom door is one of the most perfect weddings of music and visuals I’ve ever seen. I always run it back several times during each viewing (thank you, reverse tracking!). Would that Jerry Lewis were still (at least) arranging scores for movies … how much happier I’d be. As to selling his work, this man lived and died with grassroots exhibition. Both of them faded about the same time. Jerry went out with The Nutty Professor on a grueling 25-city tour jammed into a 44-day schedule, doing a live show (with the band he brought along) at every stop. No one stumped for the product like Lewis. Nearing forty when he split with Paramount (amidst lawsuits and recriminations), the once indestructible wickets champ faced an industry stripped of Code protections he’d relied on, and a family audience he’d depended upon. Jerry’s attempt to beat back the tide with a string of "G" rated movie theatres bearing his name was dismissed as reactionary. He’s spent the last four decades cussing the dirty movies he says put him out of business, as though Hollywood itself had fallen under the influence of (now several) generations of Buddy Loves.