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Wednesday, July 29, 2009







Lou Costello's Fractured Fairy Tale







Here’s something I learned from Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo’s Abbott and Costello In The Movies book: A&C signed a five-year deal with NBC in 1951 guaranteeing them fifteen million dollars to do twenty-two half-hour shows on film and four to eight live hour programs during the contract's first year. Over the next four, they would add forty-four TV shows annually, half on film and half live. Now … here’s my question: What did Bud and Lou contemplate filling all those hours with? Material they’d used for Colgate Comedy Hours clicked and led to the rich deal with NBC, but that was mostly burlesque mined since first teaming in the thirties. Gags at Universal had arrived at stale, as were features hosting them, that situation plain to both comedians. Television seems in hindsight to have been the perfect medium for A&C. They still conjured stage patter like no one else. I’d like to have been around for one of their Vegas shows, for I’ll bet these were leagues ahead of anything A&C did in movies. Home tubes were most hospitable to acts needing little more than a backdrop curtain fronted with seltzer-bottles. Complexity beyond that struggled against tiny screens and snowy reception. What if NBC spent some of the fifteen million on fresh writers for Abbott and Costello? Comic minds (Mel Brooks? Carl Reiner?) starting out with rival vid clowns might have given A&C a freshened lease on mirth-making, but could Bud and Lou have transitioned to unplowed fields of comedy, and would viewers have accepted it if they had? Being far removed from live programming of the day (despite surviving kinescopes) robs us of awareness of just how hot the team flashed with TV's beckoning. At that point, it wasn’t necessary for Abbott and Costello to come up with anything new. Home delivery of routines tried-and-true was enough to make them sensations again, but like their meteoric feature rise, it wasn’t built to last. I only have a couple of figures for A&C’s late-model Universal pics, but they must have done alright for continued parceling of them, and the team’s name was sufficient to raise monies for outside ventures permitted under their U-I contract (The Noose Hangs High and Africa Screams as of 1951). Could other teams have finagled loans needed to start and finish a full-length comedy during the late forties/early fifties? The Marx Brothers managed it twice, while Laurel and Hardy had only Euro dollars to back an offshore venture that would be their last. Abbott and Costello got independent-backed work all the way to the end (Dance With Me, Henry) and might have gone on doing so had they remained a team. With such boxoffice capital as they enjoyed in 1951, why shouldn’t Bud and Lou generate Abbott and Costello comedies to call their own?










Bob Thomas wrote in his 1977 team bio that Banker’s Trust fronted cash for Jack and The Beanstalk, a Lou Costello-produced venture to be released by Warner Bros. It was said the latter wanted to do business with A&C, so internal inquiries must have indicated commercial life left in the boys. Costello realized his audience was increasingly kids and planned accordingly. Jack would mimic The Wizard Of Oz and The Blue Bird in all respects but money spent for production values. Its gaudy Super-Cinecolor looked like a Van Beuren cartoon sprung to live action, while singing passages, other than a few by Lou himself, were grindingly bad (Costello personally talent scouted for Jack’s romantic relievers, Shaye Cogan and James Alexander --- neither performed much after this). Bob Thomas says Bud Abbott collected $200,000 as salary against costs of $450,000 incurred by Jack and The Beanstalk. Lou would then receive the same amount for Bud’s production of Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd, to follow within a year. Furmanek/Palumbo offer figures more reliable, to-wit a Jack and The Beanstalk negative cost of $682,580, including $115,000 each for the comedians, leaving $417,742 for the show after A&C's rake-off. Costello for once watched expenditures, as there was more potential profit for him to share in. Stars paying themselves often did so at the expense of what patrons eventually saw. William Boyd’s own Hoppy westerns looked mighty cheap toward the end thanks to monies he pocketed before cameras turned. Lou Costello’s venture lacked surface polish of even their poorest Universal output, which had at least resources of a major studio, even if the best of these were denied A&C comedies. I read of how Jack and The Beanstalk utilized standing sets from Joan Of Arc, a legendary budget-burner shot four to five years previous on rented stages at Hal Roach Studios. For all the pics alleged to have borrowed them, those Joan flats must have gotten pretty threadbare over a seeming decade of low budget re-use.




































As was often the case, selling trumped producing for effort and energy. To make a picture is one thing, but to go out on the road on a hectic trip to help bring it to the attention of the public is something else again, said Exhibitor magazine in its coverage of the team’s twelve-city tour. Jack and The Beanstalk brought Lou Costello back to hometown Paterson, New Jersey for a premiere momentous beyond rewards to be found in his movie. There were Lion’s Club and Chamber Of Commerce socials to attend, plus checks for varied charities given higher profiles via their acceptance by Abbott and Costello. I wonder what became of all the scrolls and plaques received along the thousands of publicity (and philanthropic) miles (in this case 8,000) these comics traveled. When A&C appeared at your podium, it hardly mattered that their picture wasn’t much good. Ten years of stardom had made indelible brand names of both, and you really get a sense of what that celebrity (and now personal contact) meant to home-folks surrounding Bud and Lou during the Jack tour. As to rental figures, Jack and The Beanstalk collected $1.4 million domestic and $1.1 foreign, more than Abbott-produced Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd, which realized $1.2 million domestic and $892,000 foreign. Warner Brothers seems to have gotten overall better revenues out of A&C than Universal around that period, as U-I’s Abbott and Costello Go To Mars took $1.0 million in domestic rentals and Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde stopped at $979,000 domestic. Lou Costello was said to have "owned" Jack and The Beanstalk, which I assume means the negative, so did his estate allow it to slip into the public domain after an initial twenty-eight years of protection? I’d like to know what became of the negative itself, as what survives on present-day DVD is a port-over of Bob Furmanek’s laser-disc'ed 35mm print, which is striking in its SuperCinecolor, with original sepia opening and closings. That LD for Image is actually the preferred presentation of Jack and The Beanstalk, being loaded with extras unique to the disc, and unlike the DVD, acknowledging Furmanek's effort in presenting it.
























I scoured YouTube, without success, for an oddball little subject that used to turn up on American Movie Classics back when that was a network worth watching. It was an inside Hollywood filler produced, I think, by Coy Watson, Jr. A Google search reveals these were made in 1949-50 (called Hollywood Reel) and featured stars engaged in offscreen hobbies and activity. One featured Stan Laurel judging a children’s swim meet. Another segment had Lou Costello showing off … what was it … an icemaker he’d invented? I remember being impressed. Too bad it’s twenty years since seeing it. Did Lou come up with something revolutionary that he never got credit for (or maybe never filed proper patent on)? I’d imagine ongoing royalties on the world’s first icemaker would pay higher than a hundred years of prat-falling in movies, but chances are better I’m just uninformed as to history of icemakers and who initially developed them. It’s just nice to think it might have been Lou Costello. The licking his reputation took (and like Joan Crawford’s, prevails to now) began with publication in 1977 of Bob Thomas’ Bud and Lou, a bio later revealed to have been largely the impressions of soured agent Eddie Sherman, who’d been fired/rehired and generally knocked about by the boys throughout most of their (high) commission-generating careers. For those couple of seasons needed to demolish A&C’s image (mostly Lou’s), there was this book and a scurrilous 1978 TV-movie based on it, also titled Bud and Lou. The one-two punch derailed Costello’s standing as a comic artist and demonized him personally. A persuasive rebuttal came from his daughter Chris in a 1981 memoir. I just read Lou’s On First again and am satisfied Costello got a bum rap from re-imaginers who clearly profited from hoisting him down (Chris got quotes from A&C co-workers who hadn’t spoken before, or since). Indeed, the 70’s might have been about the last decade wherein one could score meaningful publication/movie deals bleaching the bones of Golden Age stars. Three decades further on, it isn’t likely anyone will strike gold in those fields again.

22 Comments:

Blogger Christopher said...

.."its gaudy super Cinecolor looked like a Van Beuren cartoon sprung to live action.."LOL..I knew there was something it resembled.
I'm not a big fan of A&C comedy but I enjoy their films overall for their casts and slick productions and they were by and large,good to the last.One of my favorites is one of their last,A&C meet the Keystone Cops..partly because one of the first 8mm Castle films I ever got ,for Christmas,was the "Hollywood and Bust" condensation

9:52 PM  
Anonymous Eas Side said...

You're right about that Coy Watson short. The way it's presented, it sounds like Lou invented the first ice-making machine. It's such a weird concept, though, that I wonder if it was just ballyhoo.

8:01 AM  
Anonymous Laughing Gravy said...

To me, if you've seen BUCK PRIVATES, HOLD THAT GHOST, and MEET FRANKENSTEIN, you've seen all the A&C you ever need to see... except that BEANSTALK is a true guilty pleasure for me, a rotten movie that I love. I first saw it on TV when I was maybe 7 or 8, and it couldn't have been the first A&C movie I saw, because I remember being disappointed that "that mean guy" was going up the beanstalk with Lou. In any case, I will still sing "I Fear Nothing When I Am In The Right" whenever things are going badly for me; it's my personal "High Hopes".

9:07 AM  
Blogger Toby Roan said...

Where was all this info when I was working on the Roan Group DVD?

10:59 AM  
Blogger Ray Faiola said...

I first saw BEANSTALK at the Larchmont Playhouse in 1962. They showed a color (I assume SuperCinecolor) print and I loved it. Soon afterwards, it became a black-and-white perennial on WOR's MILLION DOLLAR MOVIE (although WOR had previously premiered the film in color when they were still running 35mm prints). Over the years, the film has remained one of my favorites. I actually like the song score (James Alexander is a better singer than actor, to be sure) and I LOVE Heinz Roemheld's musical score, especially the chase finale. The film has a community theater feel to it, what with Joe Kirk, Hank Mann and Bill Farnum dressed up in cheesy costumes. But let's remember - this is as LOU would have DREAMED it! And Costello was no Cecil Beaton!! Anyway, this is the type of film that should be looked to for enjoyment, particularly for kids, and not for timeless classic comedy. Bud and Lou obviously had fun with it, as they did with CAPTAIN KIDD, and my childhood would have been much the worse had JACK AND THE BEANSTALK not been a part of it.

11:23 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Christopher, I laughed like crazy at "A&C Meet The Keystone Kops" when I saw it on television as a child. Were more of us actually introduced to it as "Hollywood and Bust"?

East Side, I want Lou's icemaker to be the real thing!

Gravy, that remark about "the mean guy" following Lou up the beanstalk was an interesting reaction. I wonder if lots of kids didn't generally respond that way to Bud's screen character.

"The film has a community theater feel to it" YES, Ray! Why didn't I think of that?

4:41 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Yeah, it always struck me as odd that Lou Costello's partner was basically Keenan Wynn.

6:30 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

Well now I'm kinda anxious to see this Jack and The Beanstalk again to see what all the hoopla is about..A&C don't make me laugh like Feilds or Laurel and Hardy or The Marx Bros. do but I generaly enjoy all their films,except,oddly,the MGM films and some of the ones that don't have "Abbott and Costello" in the title...if its Universal!..its gotta be good
I forgot to mention how much I loved that Banner that you posted awhile back,of the couple at the Drive-In and the gal snapping beans..Looked like something my parents or kin would have done..Take yer Chores to Picture show!

11:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why did It take so long for "A&C....Beanstalk" to be available to TV in color? Incompatibility between SuperCinecolor and Eastman stock?

2:24 PM  
Anonymous Benson said...

Interesting how a lot of "adult" entertainers (in the old sense of the word) were reclassified as kiddie fodder. You note that Lou Costello responded to it with this film. The 3 Stooges were still playing to grownups when they finished their Columbia shorts; it seems they began playing to their younger audience only after TV began running the shorts like cartoons.

Both Tarzan and the Universal monsters devolved to kid-friendly thrills and chills after their initial A films; a good chunk of the western genre went the same way.

What's curious is that Laurel and Hardy, the most childlike slapstick comics, never aimed directly at that audience (Is Babes in Toyland with its boogie men really a kiddie film?). Even their final features, with one exception, barely acknowledge the existence of non-adults.

4:33 PM  
Anonymous Ray Faiola said...

When I was at WCIX-TV in Miami we booked JACK AND THE BEANSTALK from Gold Key in color. They sent us the standard B&W print. We threatened to sue them and, at that point, they apparently made a reduction negative from the color foreign release print they had among their holdings. As far as I know, that was the first time J&B was shown in color on television. Subsequently, rental companies like Welling Motion Pictures were sent color prints. I have an LPP 16mm print made from the Gold Key negative with restored sepia Warner sections I made from a B&W print.

4:58 PM  
Anonymous Laughing Gravy said...

I seem to recall reading somewhere that Lou's icemaker went bust because you couldn't shut it off - it just kept making ice, like Homer Price's donut machine. Feasible for a 24-hour restaurant that was always busy, but for nobody else.

My son Kid Gravy, when he was maybe 7 or 8, told me he didn't like Bud Abbott because he was "mean" to his partner. I said, "the Three Stooges are mean to each other and you like THEM." He retorted, "Yeah, but they're not real."

10:04 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Gravy, I think Little Gravy might just have said something profound ...

As to Lou's icemaker, could his situation be any worse than ones we now have with bursting lines and a flooded kitchen result? I stopped using one for fear of that.

Ray, I never knew there were 16mm prints of "Jack" with the B/W sections in sepia. You've got something rare there.

2:55 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

I was suddenly, forcibly reminded of your very interesting article just the other day while driving with a friend through an area of the San Fernando Valley called Tarzana. I suddenly noticed a street called "Woodley". I think Bud Abbott lived there. "Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd" (a film I have liked since childhood, chiefly because of Laughton), is signatured as a "Woodley Production". I also remember my father pointing out to me when we'd be driving down Sunset Blvd., as a kid, what had formerly been The Lou Costello Building, an office building he owned, where if I'm not mistaken, that televsion spot was filmed. I believe it's now (and has been for years) The Playboy Building on the corner of LaCienega and Sunset.

You reminded me again of a story. Boy I went all through school with, named Donald Ackerman, was staying with his parents at The Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. Lou Costello was appearing there. This had to have been close to the end. Said that one day he sees Costello by the pool. Goes up to get his autograph. Donald told me everytime he'd try to talk to him, Lou would yell "Awww, shut up!". Donald said his timimg was incredible. Lou obviously also adorded children. Probably why we all identified with him at that age.

R.J.

1:22 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Great stuff, RJ. I do remember the "Lou Costello Building" figuring into that icemaker segment. I think Lou had it set up in the lobby.

Wonder who lives in Bud's Woodley house now ...

2:56 AM  
Anonymous Greg said...

One of the most interesting facts in "Bud and Lou" for me was the story of the benefit for the Lou Costello Jr. Youth Home where Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were on the bill. Supposedly, Jerry Lewis and Bud Abbott teamed up and did "Who's On First" How I would love to see that performance!

6:18 AM  
Anonymous Bob Furmanek said...

Many thanks for acknowledging my work on both the book and the laserdisc. Many people have copied that transfer, but none have given credit to the source. I appreciate your kindness!

Bob Furmanek

3:02 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon writes about an encounter with a make-up artist who worked with A&C:

Hi John!


I'm still not too certain about posting at your site. I apologize for constantly falling back on the email alternative!


I just wanted to say that when I worked at Universal Studios in 1977, which was still a pretty active lot, doing up to two or three films and several TV shows, then, I met a lovely older man in the makeup department, Abe Haberman, who it turned out had a long history with A & C. Abe dated back to the day when Jack Pierce was the head of makeup at Universal, and he was often assigned the A & C pictures. When the duo went off the lot, later on, to do things like "Jack and the Beanstalk", which you've so nicely profiled, Abe was there, too.


Abe probably worked for various studios over the years, but he came back to Universal frequently. For example, he was one of the three key makeup artists on the evergreen (well, so far!) "The Munsters", handling Yvonne DeCarlo's makeup, with Carl Silvera doing the elegant work on Fred Gwynne, and the famous Perc Westmore (older brother of then-department head Bud Westmore) doing the makeup on Al Lewis.


I wish I'd taken the opportunity to talk with Abe at much greater length. It's ridiculous how backward, or shy, I now think I must have been in those days, even though I was in my mid-20s! Not a 'kid', in other words. Ah, well. It was a privelege to know Abe. I last saw him, then in his 90s I believe, at a tribute arranged by Scott Essman for makeup artist Dick Smith, at the Beverly Garland (yes indeed, THAT Beverly Garland) Holiday Inn in North Hollywood in (I hope this is nearly right!) 1997 or '98. Abe spoke mainly about Jack Pierce that day, who Scott knew was one of Dick's early heroes. Harry Thomas was there, too, also reminiscing about Pierce. Abe lived a long and as far as I could tell, happy life. I hope so. It took a lot of wonderful craftsmen (and craftswomen, of course!) to make the films we all enjoyed so much in the previous century. Many----most, I think----are not even known, by the general public or even film buffs. That's nothing more than they expected, but, it's worth remembering that those sets didn't build themselves, and the wonderful musical scores were played by fantastic musicians, and the costumes were often hand-sewn, and to be sure, small armies of makeup artists and talented hairdressers readied our favorite demigods and -goddesses in those magical years.


Craig

4:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

RICHARD FINEGAN said...

John;
I have all of those "Hollywood Reel" shorts that were on AMC recorded on various video tapes. As I excavate through various boxes of tapes and locate the Lou Costello one I will be glad to make a copy for you.
I have not done much research on that series lately, but while AMC was running them (early 1990's) I logged the titles and stars and whatever else I could learn about them from other (pre-internet) sources...which wasn't much.
Here's some of what I have logged:
AMC ran 18 different films in this series which was called "The Erskine Johnson - Coy Watson Hollywood Reel" They all appear to be from 1951, were produced for ABC-TV, and were originally 15 minutes each. Perhaps several were compiled together as a 15 minute short in their original format. AMC ran each one separately, and each was only about 2 to 4 minutes long.
AMC's 18 different films had 6 different titles. These are the titles and stars of the 18 that were on AMC:
"At Home":
Andy Devine
Paul Henreid
Mercedes McCambridge
Carmen Miranda
Edward G. Robinson
Roy Rogers
Chill Wills

"Close Ups and Long Shots":
Stan Laurel

"Havin' Fun":
Lloyd Bridges
Yvonne DeCarlo
Luise Rainer

"Hobbies":
Jon Hall
Ronald Reagan with Nino Pepitone

"News":
Gene Autry

"On the Boulevard":
Lou Costello
Kirk Douglas
Dale Evans

And with no episode title that I have logged:
Elsa Lanchester

Others who were in episodes not shown on AMC:
Helen Ferguson
Ruby Keeler
George Raft
Mack Sennett (with Chester Conklin and other former Keystone Kops)
Dinah Shore
Gloria Swanson
Marie Windsor

There was some fun stuff in those films! Someone should release them on DVD. Who knows who else may have appeared in unseen episodes that we'd love to see.

-- Richard Finegan

9:25 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

This is great info, Rich! Thanks very much for supplying it. I remember seeing the Costello, Stan Laurel, and Kirk Douglas segments. I believe the Laurel piece is somewhere on You Tube ...

12:23 PM  
Anonymous Lee said...

My father has told me that he had been a fan of Abbott and Costello at one time, but by the early-mid 1950s was getting pretty tired of them, what with the pair being on television regularly, a steady stream of both new and old movies turning up at theaters, and racks of 8mm Castle Films extracts from their features on sale at department stores. "Too much Abbott and Costello doing too much of the same material again and again and again," was his usual comment.

1:30 PM  
Anonymous Shawn McGill said...

I,too, remember seeing that Erskine Johnson reel about Costello's ice machine, and when searching for it today, which is how I eventually found this blog.

I have been unable to find anything of that series beyond one short clip of Carmen Miranda lounging around her pool.

If Mr. Finegan ever did, in fact find and post any of those old clips, especially the one about Lou and the ice machine, I would LOVE to see them!

6:44 PM  

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