Africa Screams On The Big Screen
Among myriad pleasures of last week's Slapsticon (am I going back next year? --- absolutely) was a 35mm screening of Africa Screams, Bud and Lou's independently produced oddity that has always floated somewhere 'neath the radar of their slicker Universal comedies. For years it's been mired in a PD tar pit and most of what we've seen on video and outlying TV broadcasts has been pretty dire. The eternal question nags: Who's around to care except we who grew up watching A&C on home screens and dwindling numbers that saw them theatrically? Author Bob Furmanek was responsible for rescuing Africa Screams and putting out a high-quality laser disc before those became handier as Frisbees. I spent enjoyable time with him at Slapsticon and learned much about AS and its starring team. Bob (and co-author Ron Palumbo) wrote a book I've recommended before, Abbott and Costello In Hollywood, which is just superb for gathering every detail on their films, and you may rest assured that everything I know about Africa Screams was gleaned from Furmanek's mightily impressive work.
Atop the scarce print shown at Slapsticon was an hour plus of extreme A&C rarities unspooled by historian/DVD producer Paul Gierucki. This is where I got serious insight into the real World Of Abbott and Costello, being footage unearthed from goodness knows where, but riveting for offscreen secrets it reveals, especially about oft-sad clown Lou. Turns out Costello made home movies to a brown turn, using pro editing equipment, 16mm with sound and color ... the works. I love privileged glimpses into Golden Age Hollywood home and family life. Lou's was a beehive of parties, vacationing, and seeming energy he directed toward private pursuits to surpass that spent on movies getting more and more formularized. There was a trip to Europe reel with Costello and extended retinue (relations plus friends of same) frolicking shipboard and at points of touring interest. Lou ad-libs narration here and gags it up as though he were on U-I's lot, but there's much revealed too of priorities in the comedian's life, to-wit a visit to an Italian village where his father studied for the priesthood, in Lou's words. The place looked like home base of young Vito Corleone before Don Ciccio issued orders for his liquidation. I half-expected to see a hay cart pass slowly by as the Costellos made their rounds. Lou's family was clearly strong on the Catholic faith. There's an extended birthday party he filmed for one of the teenage daughters wherein a priest delivers invocation, family and guests bowing heads before the meal is served. Costello's camera sweeps lovingly over buffet tables stacked with goodies and observes dancing that followed the feed. Just priceless stuff. Doting father Lou notes Tennessee-Tall Claude Jarman who's escorting the birthday girl, while star guest Loretta Young manages two entrances.
Feature attraction Africa Screams was an A&C I'd never seen all the way through. It piqued my interest more for not being a Universal pic. Another of those scrounged-up independent projects, this one was done in sixteen days for less than half a million. I'd think A&C were gold in the bank for entrepreneurs looking to break into movies. Feeding off momentum of previous year's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, something of a comeback hit for the team, Africa Screams brought back a healthy $1.5 million in domestic rentals, to which was added $129,000 from a 1953 combo reissue with the Marx Bros. Love Happy. That profitable run (for someone anyway) led to inevitable falling-out (and resulting lawsuits) between the comedians and producing partners the Nassour Brothers, Hollywood having long since bred a culture of mutual pocket-picking. It was no more something new in 1949 than it is past policy now. Whoever's hand was first in the till was bound to grab more than his share. Africa Screams was among first of Abbott and Costello features sold to television, though placement in a terminally obscure package from M&A Alexander (among 18 titles which included little else of note, and nothing more of A&C) translated to few stations buying and even less viewers having access to Africa Screams.
Still there was fun to be had for those few who caught it. Bud and Lou's supporting ensemble might be the best they ever had, background comics bringing their own latter-day cult interest to the party. Shemp Howard has a current following that grows with each thing of his that's revived. Costello was said to have been on guard during scenes he shared with the eventual Stooge. Speaking to which, Joe Besser is one of those you either don't know or would call the funniest man in pictures. Just seeing him once would put most with the latter camp. Besser was a far-back buddy of Lou's to whom the team threw work (largely in their vid series). I'm increasingly struck by how relationships tracked years among comedians who'd met during climbs up and helped each other out upon arrival (for chosen few) at the Big Time. That fraternity had roots in every vaude or Burly-Q house that switched on lights, and I'm sure members understood well how fleeting was success in their will-of-the-wisp profession. Bios are replete with accounts of fortune shared once a comic struck a payload. Bud and Lou evidently never said no to a touch. Would they have gone broke so quickly had there not been an army of less successful funsters dragged along in their meteoric wake?
Precious to me are those jungle movies shot indoors. There's nothing so lush as African foliage spread across a sound stage, fakery raised to levels of art. Bride Of The Gorilla achieved it ... so would Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. I'd rather explore set-bound mock-ups with The Bowery Boys than go on location with Stewart Granger. For devotees of everything but the real thing, Africa Screams brings it all home in terms of phony trees, hauled in dirt, and water by thousands of gallons poured into a river plowed below floor boards. Nauseating to contemplate is necessity of condensed milk being added to get desired photographic effect, which must have raised hellacious stench in an already suffocating barn. Is it a wonder Abbott and Costello sought whatever distractions were handy to keep juices flowing through long days of this? I've read Lou stocked pies and seltzer bottles for impromptu jesting, said custard fights, blown takes, and whoopee cushioning being cause of much delay and added expense. Few productions generated so many blooper outtakes as Abbott and Costello's. Much of this revolved around stooge (are there such unfortunates yet on studio payrolls?) Bobby Barber, hired brunt of what used to be called "practical joking." I've frankly got some issues with the A&C/Bobby Barber relationship. He was variously referred to as a court jester, buffoon, and/or little monkey, having been a burlesque pal of Costello's subsisting on filmland margins. Bobby's function other than occasional chauffeuring was to be ritually victimized by the team, a buffer against tedium of waiting between camera set-ups. Lou in particular took sadistic delight over "gags" he practiced on Barber, even though he was said to love the guy. Hapless Bobby strikes me as a person essentially paid to show up every day and be mistreated. Universal and other employers picked up tabs for said stooging because it was part of the engine necessary to maintain A&C spirits. Once they even turned tables and posed Lou with a dominantly-billed-for-a-day Barber (above). If it's true that the funniest comedy is the cruelest, then Bobby's daily ordeal was surely the biggest howl in town.