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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

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?


Blogger Kevin K. said...

I used to watch the A&C show when I was a kid, primarily because my older brothers did. But even then, I put A&C on the same level with the Bowery Boys -- low rent big mouths with bad jokes. Yet I liked the Three Stooges. Go figure.

One of the reasons why I love Laurel & Hardy is the obvious love they have for each other. A&C, on the other hand, are filled with mutual contempt and mistrust -- which might have spread into their personal lives as well. But to give the guys their due, nobody has ever done "Who's on First" better than them. Certainly not Korman and Hackett in that TV movie.

7:45 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

i meant to add in my previous post...

I saw that "This is Your Life" episode, too. My main memory of that, other than Costello's pain at the memory of his son's death, was Ralph Edwards' delight in rubbing salt into his wounds. He was excited to recount the story and the devastation it brought Lou and his wife. It was at that point I decided Ralph Edwards was evil.

8:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sometimes I get "in the mood" to watch an Abbott & Costello picture, but that mood usually wears off about 10 minutes into the film. Still, as you mentioned, BUCK PRIVATES is a gem, and MEET FRANKENSTEIN is a classic. I recently saw THE NOOSE HANGS HIGH, and that's quite good too, and JACK AND THE BEANSTALK is a guilty pleasure. To follow up what the previous poster said, Kid Gravy, who loves L&H and the Stooges, doesn't care for Abbott & Costello because "Abbott is mean to Costello." "Well, Moe is mean to Curly and Larry and Shemp," I pointed out. "Yeah, but they're not real people." So kudos to Bud 'n' Lou for being "real people". I guess.

11:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Man, east side, your comment about Ralph Edwards is spot-on. I have a lot of trouble with "This is Your Life" for that very reason--Edwards' phoniness and nastiness.

The one episode I love is "This is Your Story," the Caesar/Reiner/Nye/Morris spoof from "Your Show of Shows."

1:38 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

If anyone's interested, Paterson NJ is celebrating Lou Costello's 100th birthday this weekend.

I wouldn't call Ralph Edwards "evil" - I think he was respectfully sombre during the unfolding of "Butch" Costello's sad tale. It's a major part of the A&C story. Was it bad taste to bring it up? Perhaps, but that's the kind of thing that series did. The most famous episode was probably the one on Lillian Roth, which brought her struggle with alcoholism out in the open. It created enough interest in her that a movie was made of her autobiography, "I'll Cry Tomorrow."

To get back to Lou, my favorite moment of that "This is Your Life" is when Bud starts reeling off his prepared speech about how their friendship almost ended ("Lou, I'm glad we came to our senses"), and Lou interrupts with "I'm glad neither you nor I could sing" - a direct reference to Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, who split just a few months earlier.

1:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have become too sophisticated to appreciate A&C, L&H, Chaplin, Keaton etc. Do we expect our comedians to be foul-mouthed in order to make us laugh? I hope not.

I have noticed that of late there has been a lot of releases of Keaton's work on DVD amongst others so I hope this means that we are interested in watching these comedians. It would be a very sad day indeed if we stopped laughing at these immortals.

9:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved watching Abbot and Costello movies on TV when I was younger. They seemed to show them on TV all weekend long.

As for This Is Your Life and its subsequent parodies, a rather disturbing one that resides in my memory is Jim Henson's version featuring Guy Smiley presenting a tree stump with furniture that was made from its branches.

9:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Recently I attended a theatrical screening of "The General," complete with organ accompaniment. It was just about a full house (in the old Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, MD, now managed by the AFI). The many children in the audience were in stitches--it was a wonderful feeling to hear them laughing so happily at Keaton's antics.

11:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I show Keaton, Chaplin, Marxes, Our Gang, L&H, Lloyd, Langdon, etc. to the kids: they love 'em.

1:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mention of Bert Wheeler in the article prompted me to write. I'm just discovering the films of Wheeler and Woolsey, and am really enjoying them.

It's a shame that they're virtually forgotten these days, certainly in the UK - I don't think a single one of their films has been shown on TV here in my lifetime (and I'm 43!). Thank goodness for the Internet and R1 DVDs!

7:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Au contraire... I recall laughing when Lugosi had a reflection in the mirror! Actually, I don't think you need to worry about Chaplin, Keaton, Our Gang, and L&H. They've all held up well and I get loads of laughs from all of them (when they are available to be seen). The real concern for these classic comedies is that they'll never be seen by the younger generations. Keep up the good work! - 34 Year Old Nephew

8:55 PM  

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