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Thursday, July 22, 2010

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.


Anonymous Malcolm Blackmoor said...

I don't have a point that's interesting, sensible or informative but just wanted to say that Africa Screams was one of the first films I remember seeing, and I think that it was in the Cardiff Park Hall Cinema, which later became The Park Hall Cinerama and has been for very many years an open air car park.

6:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, John. I envy you for getting to see Abbott and Costello in 35mm.

Africa Screams was one of the few of theirs I never saw on television during my teenage years in the 70s (the others were the three MGMs and Dance With Me, Henry). Washington DC independent Channel 20 had a package that included all the Universals, plus Jack and the Bean Stalk and Abbott and Costello Meet Capt. Kidd. These were always worth a second or third viewing as they cycled back, because Channel 20 would randomly substitute reels that I had not seen before (at the expense of others shown last time, of course). And I stayed home "sick" once from school (not typical of me) so I could catch an afternoon showing of The Noose Hangs High, well worth playing hookey for!

I did not catch up with Africa Screams until the early 90s, I guess, when a friend gave me one of those awful one dollar vhs transfers. Given the amazing cast, I was a bit disappointed, but your post makes me want to give it another try. I have the version put out on dvd by the Roan Group, to whom I gave my business because of their flawed (but much better than anyone else's) release of Dixiana.--Mark H.

12:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, a slight correction--Shemp Howard was not an "eventual Stooge" during Africa Screams' (presumably 1948) shooting--he had replaced Curly as the third Stooge in 1947. (I realize you are purposely not up on Three Stooges minutiae.) --Mark H.

12:42 AM  
Blogger Paul Castiglia said...

If there's a Top 10 list of movies where the cast (and their energy and obvious fun they had filming) trumps the story, "Africa Screams" would be one it. But then I'd venture we could say that about most of the classic comedians and their films... comedies may be the only films where you can totally justify a deficit of story to a near-surfeit of gags ("Horsefeathers" or "Blockheads" anyone?). I've found that to be the case with most of the films Abbott & Costello independently produced - they really tried to up the laugh quotient and put great supporting players in there. I'm thinking primarily of "Africa Screams," "The Noose Hangs High" with Leon Errol, Joseph Calleia, Fritz Feld and Mike Mazurki and yes, even the much-maligned "Abbott & Costello Meet Captain Kidd" with Charles Laughton as the famed buccaneer (I quite like that one, although I seem to be in a small crowd). In these indy productions there's something about the energy on the set - the performers themselves having fun - that comes across on screen and (I think) is infectious with an audience. Fun stuff. Plus here in "Screams" you get Shemp and Joe Besser - what more could you ask for?...

8:16 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

"Hapless Bobby strikes me as a person essentially paid to show up every day and be mistreated."

As was nearly EVERY employee of a supermarket company I worked for years back.

8:38 AM  
Blogger Bob Furmanek said...

John, thank you very much for your kind words. One of the highlights of Slapsticon was getting to spend time with some old friends, and meeting many new ones. I thoroughly enjoyed the time we spent chatting and I look forward to doing it again next year!

The restoration of AFRICA SCREAMS was truly a labor of love for me. I funded the 35mm preservation out of my own pocket nearly 20 years ago, and it was great to finally see it on the big screen with such an appreciative audience.

Unfortunately, as with other PD films which I've restored (Devil Bat, Scared to Death and Jack and the Beanstalk) once you put a clean copy out there, anybody can copy it. The Roan release of AFRICA is taken directly from my laser disc transfer. Oh well.

3:16 PM  
Anonymous Bill Luton said...

Interesting article as always John and made me even want to see Africa Screams though I've never figured out the appeal of A&C. Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers, the 3 Stooges yes....A&C no (same with Martin & Lewis). Wonder if this divide on comedy team appeal is common?

6:24 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I just had to comment on today's banner of the Universal sales team and their "less than glittering" lineup. The looks on those poor men's faces (now that their dismay is 44 years in the past) are hilarious. Talk about a picture being worth ten thousand words (many of them, no doubt, four-letter)!

8:17 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I wonder how many of those Universal salesmen were around to "admire" the 1967 Universal line-up.

The mid-sixties was a time when, to me, a Universal western feature looked like TV's THE VIRGINIAN and everything else released theatrically by Universal resembled TV's IRONSIDE or McHALE'S NAVY.

11:56 AM  
Blogger 42nd Street Memories said...

Joe Besser was also one of the Three Stooges, bridging the gap between Shemp and Joe DeRita, in the final Columbia shorts in the late 50s.

7:38 AM  
Blogger Tom Ruegger said...

Have long enjoyed "Africa Screams." yesterday, caught up with an A&B I'd never seen before: "The Noose Hangs High" (on TCM). I always thought it was a western--boy was I surprised! A very loose movie. It feels like a lesser work -- with a sizable chunk of patter material lifted from "One Night ion the Tropics."

How off-topic can I get!

6:22 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dear John,

Regarding "Africa Screams", I never owned a copy, but I once rented the laser of the movie that I think you're referring to, which was an excellent transfer as I recall, and also had a very large section of outtakes. I can't remember anymore, but it seems there were outtakes from more than just the featured film. I DO remember thinking that Costello came off boorishly in a lot of them, often cluelessly barreling on with off-color language in spite of some obviously discomfited actress (for example) transfixed in the same shot with him. Such were the priveleges of superstardom, and still are. You don't contradict the sacred monster! Of course, I don't want to dislike Costello, because I grew up being enchanted by his permanently arrested development, and his frequent flashes of real comic genius both in terms vocal and physical. Even that is a matter of taste (and what isn't?) My wife is one of those gals who cannot bear A & C, L & H, the Three Stooges, the Marx amazes me. And, take my word for this is you can, she's one of the funniest, cleverest gals I've ever met. Maybe that's why! I have to confess that a lot of the 'schtick' and routines of our favorite movie comedians has aged irregularly (I want a better word, but I'm 'blocked'.) I'll always love all these guys, but I'm confessing I can see why a more contemporarily-focused person might not connect anymore. Of course, I can't wait to see what people 60 years from now think of Will Ferrell, if anything! Yeah, or the Judd Apatow-type comedies. I'll never know, but...I don't think it will be pretty.

I still remember seeing Costello on the cover of a TV Guide-clone that was furnished with our weekly Sunday newspaper on the west coast, having to do with his appearance on an episode of the immensely-popular TV show "Wagon Train". Then, in what seemed like only a week or two later, I heard from my mother he'd died! Mind you, I was only about six years old, but I already knew who he was from reruns of "The A & C Show" I saw daily. It was a very early example of muted grief felt for the passing of a movie icon. I had a buddy who'd once had the excrutiatingly-enviable experience of having seen the elusive "A & C Meet Frankenstein", and boy, did he rub it in! FINALLY, in 1963 or 1964, local channel 2 (CBS) scheduled it on Halloween. I had to juggle getting into my annual costume/disguise with watching this classic, AT ALL COSTS! It was one of those memorable occasions of total fulfillment, where the yearned-for object of desire surpassed your expectations. I could not believe how good it was, versus what I'd hoped for.

I still have a soft spot for "A & C". I could kick myself over one thing. I had a job at Universal for several months late in 1977. One of the older makeup artists working there was named Abe Haberman. It wasn't until much later, after I'd been obliged to move on and work in other venues, that I belatedly discovered that Abe had been assigned the A & C films quite frequently by Universal makeup department head Jack Pierce. He was then presumably requested by the duo to do outside films like "Africa Screams" as well as "A & C Meet Captain Kidd" (with the great Laughton), and "Jack and the Beanstalk". How I wish I'd known, for I would have pumped Abe for stories! I didn't even know that Abe had worked under my idol Jack Pierce for so many years, during my stint right down the hall from him at Universal ca. '77. Damn. Ignorance is seldom an ideal state!

I also enjoyed the entry about Robert Siodmak, very much, and will look forward to Part Two. I don't know how you think of these subjects, much less where you find all the terrific illustrations! Mind-boggling.


12:14 PM  

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