Abbott and Costello Wind It Up
I recall crying at the end of Dance With Me, Henry when I was ten. Hadn’t seen it again until yesterday, and was mystified as to what could have moved me to tears in 1964. Was Lou Costello’s proposed new direction the right one after all? Slapstick is outdated, he’d said when Henry was produced at a modest budget of $450,000 in 1956. This was a serious part. Lou looked to character playing for his future, with or without Bud Abbott. His performance in Dance With Me, Henry indicates Costello had little further need for a teammate. No one’s idea of a good comedy, Henry does point the way toward a revitalized career Lou might have enjoyed had not premature death in 1959 intervened. Pied Piper Costello leads dancing children in that final scene I spoke of. Would he have done the same for Disney in live action sixties comedies? Possibly by then he’d have tamped down the Sad Lou he projects to occasional excess in Dance With Me, Henry. Watch this final pairing with Abbott (if one could even call it that) and you know the split is imminent. There’s not much interaction between them, and no verbal sparring to evoke memories of happier days. With physical comedy largely withheld in the bargain, Dance With Me, Henry gets by (or doesn’t) on gagging of a sort too genteel for once rambunctious Bud and Lou. It took writers pretty jaded to salt an otherwise kid friendly story with two murders, and why put Costello on the receiving end of so much abuse from played straight gangsters? There’s discomfort felt here similar to when Harpo Marx was beaten by thugs in the unhappy Love Happy . Stress and peril blend well into comedy, but recipes overdone leave a distinctly sour aftertaste. In Dance With Me, Henry, Lou is adoptive father to orphan kids for no reason other than making him more sympathetic and less the punch bag and falling downer of Universal yore. Teenage foundling Gigi Perreau assumes soprano duties once the domain of Gloria Jean, but since when did girl singers belong in A&C’s universe, other than The Andrews Sisters? Jumpin’ Jive walked hand in hand with Bud and Lou in better times. Now Costello’s berating a rock n’ roll hep cat for music little different from that which backgrounded the team’s antics a decade before, all of which leaves him hidebound and out of touch with the very audience Dance With Me, Henry seeks to entice.
The title made little sense then. Less now. There’s no Henry in the film, but there was an R&B platter of that name covered in 1955 by songstress Georgia Gibbs which went to Number One. As Dance With Me, Henry wasn’t released until December of 1956, any commercial assist via the tune was negligible, and perhaps knowing that, the feature barely plugs it. The photo shown here is from a dream sequence in which Costello leads an orchestra featuring Gigi Perreau, the title number recurring as humorous counterpoint to her vocals, but none of this made it into the finished print. Much of Dance With Me, Henry takes place at a Kiddyland park specially built for the film, nostalgic for those who remember such places thriving during the fifties and sixties at many drive-ins where this movie would have played. There were in fact numerous bookings for Dance With Me, Henry, 18,076 in fact, equal to most "A" releases United Artists handled and surpassing a number of them (to compare, Sweet Smell Of Success had 9,322 bookings and The King and Four Queens 17,671). Domestic rentals for Dance With Me, Henry totaled $573,080 and foreign was $360,000. Contrary to its reputation as a wickets loser, chances are Abbott and Costello’s final feature went into profit. By 1961, it was playing television. Lou would be surprised while filming Henry’s trailer by the studio arrival of Ralph Edwards, there to escort both comedians to a broadcast of This Is Your Life in November 1956. Instead of celebrating the team, as had been the case two years earlier with Laurel and Hardy, it would be Costello alone in the spotlight, his life drama and many charitable acts being ideal fodder for Edward’s lachrymose intrusion. Unknown to all of us … you were hiding an aching heart, he oozes. We’re going to hear about that tonight. Lou looks apprehensive and beyond what by then must have been a fairly sustained level of annoyance with Bud. The split that would come weeks later in Las Vegas has its unspoken genesis here. From the near pleading inflections of his speech to Lou, you sense Abbott’s apprehension as well. We let a molehill become a mountain, he begins as Costello looks down with little expression. Lou, I thank God we came to our senses. But had they? At this point, Costello expresses joking relief that neither you nor I could sing, a reference to the team of Martin and Lewis, whose up-to-the-minute comedies were mopping the floor with A&C. He’s clearly uncomfortable with his partner’s emotional recounting of conflicts past, but Abbott presses on. Today our friendship seems all the more precious to me because we almost lost it forever, through foolish pride. For what this reveals of Abbott and Costello on the virtual eve of their break-up, it may be the most effective scene they ever played together.
Lou used other partners to recreate some of Abbott and Costello’s burlesque routines on The Steve Allen Show after the team broke up. He did a General Electric Theater and an episode of Wagon Train in a bid for recognition of serious thesping talent he’d previewed in Dance With Me, Henry, but death at age 52 insured his legacy would remain firmly affixed to team efforts he'd made with Abbott. Their comedies played heavily in theatrical reissue during the fifties and more so on television in the sixties. Universal copied the Robert Youngson model and compiled The World Of Abbott and Costello for April 1965 release. Haphazard clips from the best and worst of their features were sweetened (or soured, judging by most viewers’ response) with smart-alecky narration by Jack E. Leonard. Business was tepid with a mere $189,000 collected in domestic rentals. This was a particularly egregious figure when compared with MGM's take from concurrent Laurel and Hardy’s Laughing Twenties, a far better merchandised package that ended with domestic rentals of 1.2 million. Were Abbott and Costello’s routines too familiar from TV, or had Universal simply bungled its campaign? The old features were all over various packages for syndication. Until July 1971, stations couldn’t purchase the A&C’s as a set. That year's offering of twenty-nine titles included The World Of Abbott and Costello and would provide opportunity for fans of the team to finally see all the ones they’d missed over the past ten or so years of broadcast. A latter-day champion for the comedians was hotter than hot Jerry Seinfeld, whose willingness to host a 1994 special on A&C insured prime-time placement on NBC, giving Bud and Lou their biggest single audience (twenty million plus) since the old Colgate Comedy Hour days. This was actually a worthwhile and sincerely felt documentary. Seinfeld was in a position to do right by the boys and get the word out to an enormous viewership ready to trust his word as to what was funny. Would that other major (contemporary) names come forward on behalf of vintage performers! Universal included the special in Volume Four of its Abbott and Costello Franchise Collection. Most of the team’s features are available on DVD; Rio Rita, A&C Meet Captain Kidd, and It Ain’t Hay being the only three I can think of among the missing.