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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

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 Slapstick is outdated, he said when Henry was produced at a modest budget of $450,000 in 1956.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 memory 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 fall 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 tribute. Seinfeld was in a position to do right by the boys and get the word out to an enormous viewership ready to trust him 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.


Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for a fine post, John. (I love your use of initial caps: Sad Lou. Sounds like one of his racehorses.) Ralph Edwards saluting only half the team was a lesson learned from his tribute to Laurel & Hardy, when Edwards tried to fit two biographies into a half-hour. The logistical nightmare wasn't forgotten, and Edwards would later salute ONLY Lou Costello of Abbott & Costello, and ONLY Ole Olsen of Olsen & Johnson.

I applaud Bud Abbott's candor when he recounts their squabble in 1945, but I noticed that he isn't really looking AT his partner. He's in his usual straight-man stance, looking more ASKANCE at Costello, so the speech seems more posed and "theatrical" to me than it should be.

I remember seeing a 1957 Steve Allen show in which they did "Who's on First" for the last time on television. They really went into uncharted territory with lines I'd never heard before (and neither had they)...

LOU: He gets whose?
BUD: No, who gets his.
LOU (surprised): How did we get HERE?
BUD (laughing): I don't know, you started this.

And this was after "Dance with Me, Henry!" (might have been to PLUG "Dance with Me, Henry!") so Costello abandoned Sad Lou at least once, reverting to the usual Confused Lou.

9:35 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks Scott. I'm wondering now if anything will ever be done with all those Steve Allen programs from the fifties. I seem to recall some of them being shown on "Comedy Central" years ago, but nothing since. Has anyone seen these turn up, or have any idea if they might be released?

10:27 AM  
Blogger Erik Weems said...

One of the first "hollywood" bios I ever read was on Abbott and Costello (1977 or so). It opened up my 13 year old eyes to how unfunny life can be for movie stars. Their amazing tax troubles also made an impression, to say the least.

Another fine posting at Greenbriar.

2:03 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

That episode of "This is Your Life" is one of the most depressing things I've ever seen. Ralph Edwards should've been ashamed by his near-gleeful recounting of the death of Lou's son. I've never been a fan of A & C, but that that show was really uncalled for.

10:42 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Another fine post, sir!

Lou's cagey Martin & Lewis reference on TIYL was more than just a nod to his and Abbott's primary screen rivals. Dean and Jerry had just officially split, after a year of rancor and juicy press copy, the previous June; hence the larger-than-average audience reaction to the line. The joke, I think, was less a tension breaker than a pointed dig at a rival duo who were still getting ample column space by sniping at each other.

Whatever personal difficulties Bud and Lou had between them, each respected the other's talent up to the end. But what point was there in playing Vegas with the same material they'd used on "The Kate Smith Show" some twenty years earlier? Had Dance With Me, Henry the appeal of Buck Privates - or at least some decent notices - things might've been different.

9:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Y'know, as a kid, I loved HENRY... And I have the DVD. But I've never watched it. I think in this case, it couldn't live up to the memory of it. Although I love A&C's JACK AND THE BEANSTALK, so what do I know? Give me JACK, BUCK PRIVATES, HOLD THAT GHOST and A&C MEET FRANKENSTEIN and I need no other A&C films. Some of them (THE NOOSE HANGS HIGH comes to mind) are okay, but there's nothing in any of them that you won't find in the ones I mentioned. Every once in a while, I get in the mood to watch a Bud & Lou film I haven't seen before, and by the 15 minute mark I'm bored silly. Except for A&C MEET THE KEYSTONE KOPS, but the opening bit is the only good part of that film... Ah, well...

12:23 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

When I was a child in the 70's and when there was no cable television, Abbot and Costello were everywhere. Their TV show was constantly shown (Argentine TV was still black and white) and I always got confused because the dubbing of both their Universal movies and the show was done by the very same voices.

It was confusing for me to watch Abbot (who was always unfunny to me) with and without a mustache and go from one film, in which they used character names, to their show, where they used their real names.

Roberto Di Chiara told me that, up to the 60s their movies were still extremely popular and second run theaters would held periodical marathons of them.

I'm sure that something was lost in the translation. The Mexican dubbing was as competent as usual. But their gags were always unfunny in Spanish.

When TNT Latin America still showed classic films, they would present all of their Universal films as well as their MGM vehicles (with a totally different dubbed version) and the one the made for Warner Bros.

Here, I am trying to be polite and respectful to their fans. However, in History of Film books they have always been considered mediocre, lifting routines from other comedians (done better by them).

Looking back, I never understood their appeal (I still don't) nor how they managed to have an international following. I have the feeling that they were better suited for radio than for movies and television.

Had they made two-reelers instead of features, their films could have been much better.

10:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a 9-year old sitting in the State Theatre in 1956 watching Dance With Me Henry, I was oblivious to much of Abbott & Costello's world--back then the only thing I saw them in was their TV show--which was quite funny, even today--because it is strictly routines, much like a two-reeler. Dance With Me Henry evoked a feeling of boredom back in '56....I recently saw it again, and still didn't like it.

A&C Meet Frankenstein probably was their best work, but when one thinks of modern pre-packaged corporate entertainment from TV, the Universal features A & C did were just that--homogenized blather that made lots of money back in the 40s and early 50s. In the annals of classic comedy, A&C will have their place, but far down the ladder from Keaton, Lloyd, Hope, Marx Brothers and even the 3 Stooges.

EC Toledo

9:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back when I was little, in the sixties, I thought that Abbott and Costello were both living and still made movies.My mother was the one who told me that Costello had died.I was also suprised to learn that Stooges Curly and Shemp were dead.And when Boston's Ch.38 ran "Invisible Woman" with Shemp, I mistook Ed Brophy for Curly, thinking I was seeing a Stooge "Special Guest" vehicle.

11:39 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Erik, it is amazing how punitive the IRS was with Bud and Lou, especially after the millions they raised for the war effort. How soon we forget!

East Side, that business of Edwards exploiting the death of Lou, Jr. is surely the all-time low for him. It must have sickened Costello to have to sit still for it.

Nice points, Michael. I wonder if A&C could ever have had another hit, however many more tries they might have made. Time and fashions in comedy had surely passed them by (as a team), though I do still think Lou could have clicked as a character player, if his ego would have allowed for that seeming demotion.

Gravy, I guess it'll never be the same for us watching A&C as adults, but their personal lives and still great verbal bits do still engage me, and sometimes that's enough to get me through their films.

Radiotelefonia, I cannot imagine watching this team with dubbed voices. Yipes! Glad I never had to ...

To both Anonymous, no doubt A&C are homogenized blather to a large degree, but for me at least, they are fascinating homogenized blather!

12:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I just read this as an addendum to your Marx post. My father said he used to see them, back in the 40's, in Las Vegas, losing virtually thousands at the gaming table. He also pointed-out to me a a building once, on Sunset, which he said was named on the front, "The Lou Costello Building", in honor of it's landlord/owner. (It's now, if my memory's correct, and has been for many-years, The Playboy Building). "They just thought that The Big Money would never stop", Dad told me. It stopped.

Eddie Cantor, in his later years, was writing a column for a little throwaway paper in Beverly Hills (which I think I delivered for a while), reminiscing about his experiences and accomplishments, and his colleagues in the business, with priceless-memories. He devoted, I recall, a long-column to them once, and talked in some detail, of how in "their glory years", when they were pulling-down big money at Universal, each tried to out-do the other in "ostentation" -- if one bought an office building, the other would have to buy a BIGGER office, if one opened a restaurant in the Valley, the other opened a bigger one, and race-horses, yachts, so-forth. I saw a little evidence of this as a child, when "Dino's Lodge" a relatively modest, tasteful-looking watering-hole on Sunset -- which you'll doubtless recall served as the front for the opening of "77 Sunset", and very-popular at that time, was suddenly (and very briefly) "challenged" in its' supremacy by a large, gaudy night-spot opened by Jerry, down the street at the corner of Sunset & Holloway, decorated with large drawings of Mr. Lewis on the facade. Jerry was then the King at Paramount. The nightclub quietly-folded, within a very-short time. Dino's Lodge held-steady.
While it's possible that now, looking-backward, Bud & Lou are more a matter of "nostalgia" than any inherent "greatness", what they did accomplish was often surprisingly good, and they both definitely have their well-deserved place(s) in history.

7:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The bottom line on Abbott and Costello is:

Lou Costello was rightfully credited by none other than Charlie Chaplin as the best comedian working in films at that time. He was right. Nobody was better at physical comedy. The icing, though, was that he was just as good at verbal humor. The films were products of their time, and to be honest, I watch them very often, and with glee. Hope was the best of the solo comics, but he didn't have Lou's physical gifts.

On the other side of the coin, Bud Abbott, to my estimation (and that of others) was the greatest straightman to ever trod the boards.

Those attributes alone lead me to believe that Abbott and Costello deserve an honored place alongside the greats.

(From Nick Santa Maria....professional comedy performer/writer for 35 years.)

2:08 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

No argument from me, Nick. I think A&C are great and vastly underrated. I find it easy adjusting to the times in which their films were made, as I'm frankly more simpatico with the forties (and surrounding) eras than with the present one!

2:22 PM  

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