GIANT and THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES
(ABBOTT & COSTELLO'S
BY RICH SCRIVANI
|ABOVE: The publicity for "Little Giant" seems a bit vague, but that's nothing compared to "The Time of Their Lives", which shows Lou in modern dress, kicking Bud!|
Abbott and Costello. Bud and Lou. The boys. How 1940s war-worried Americans must have embraced these two funmakers when they first burst
upon the scene in 1941's BUCK PRIVATES! During the previous year, a financially needy Universal Pictures had signed two radio comedians to
make a trial appearance in an otherwise standard musical comedy called ONE NIGHT IN THE TROPICS (1940). The public reaction to the brash
antics of baby-faced Costello and his hatchet-faced, fast-talking partner led to an eagerly presented long term contract, and their
resulting string of comedies served as the perfect complement to the monster shows that up to then had represented the major cash draw for the studio.
BUCK PRIVATES was such a smash that Universal followed up immediately with a second feature, HOLD THAT GHOST (1941), but quickly shelved it when PRIVATES hit big in order to rush out another service comedy, IN THE NAVY (1941). When these proved as popular as their first, the floodgates were opened, and in the following two years barely a month went by when the boys weren't up there on the screen in a new picture. Titles such as KEEP 'EM FLYING (1941) - another service picture - RIDE *EM COWBOY (1942), PARDON MY SARONG (1942), RIO RITA (1942) (on loan to MGM), IT AIN'T HAY (1943), and HIT THE ICE (1943) all followed the same basic formula; Bud and Lou inject their famous burlesque routines into stories that take them to tropical islands, dude ranches, racetracks, ski resorts, and other colorful locales. Thrown in for box office insurance were the obligatory musical numbers, in the early pictures performed with gusto by the Andrews Sisters, and later on, to name a few, entertainers Ella Fitzgerald,
Marion Hutton, Peggy Ryan and Ginny Simms - all backed up by popular
bands of the day.
Thus was created the standard Abbott and Costello formula, rarely strayed from save for one unique case; the radio station murder mystery WHO DONE IT? (1942) leaned more heavily on the talents of Bud and Lou and offered nary a note of music from any singer, quartet or band. This was an uncommon practice during the first wave of the team's output and wouldn't happen again until 1946. That year saw the
boys involved in two projects very different for them, for reasons not completely clear and not likely to become any less ambiguous as time does its usual job of making clouded events even more enigmatic. But more about that later. The year 1943 saw the Abbott and Costello movie machine grind to a sudden halt as Lou was stricken with his legendary rheumatic fever which made him unable to work from March 3 of that year until November of 1944. And as fate would have it, destiny handed Lou a one-two punch on November 4th with the accidental drowning of his soon-to-be one year old son "Butch", a tragedy that affected the rest of his life. In
remembrance, his wife Anne had a silver bracelet made inscribed with the boy's name. Lou wore it, refused to ever remove it (he saw to that by having it welded in one piece around his right wrist) and if you look closely, you can spot it in just about every A&C film from 1944 on. As aptly put in the book "Abbott and Costello in Hollywood" by Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo, "Much of the little boy in Lou Costello died with his son".
The popular comedy team was back on track again with their first comedy of 1944, IN SOCIETY. Though Edmund L. Hartmann replaced their long time producer Alex Gottlieb, it looked as though they had never been away, Lou looking as youthful and energetic as ever. The vitality and giddy pace of their repartee was not to dissipate for a few years and the echo of the Costello tragedy was nowhere to be seen as the boys flew through a hilarious plumbing disaster scene quickly followed
up by the classic "Fleugel Street" routine (here called "Bagel Street"), providing laughs a mile a minute. It looked as though the Abbott and Costello engine would go on unabated as four productions followed: HERE COME THE COEDS and NAUGHTY NINETIES (both 1945 for Universal), LOST IN A HAREM (1944) and ABBOTT AND COSTELLO IN HOLLYWOOD (1945) for MGM. But as faithfully as 1945 followed the Abbott & Costello hit pattern, the following year would veer from it.
Whatever was in the wind in 1946 brought about a major change for the team. They made only two films that year, both of them radical departures from their fans' expectations. The first, LITTLE GIANT, was an unmistakable attempt at a comedy in the Chaplin tradition in which the spotlight was trained squarely on Lou. In it he plays Benny Miller from Cucamonga, California, a poor farm boy living with his mother (Mary Gordon), studying via a correspondence course to become a salesman. With the solid support of his girifriend Martha (a sweetly endearing performance by Elena Verdugo), Benny leaves for Los Angeles and through the good graces of his Uncle Clarence (George Cleveland) lands a job at the Hercules Vacuum Cleaner Company. After an embarrassing episode with corrupt sales manager John Morrison (Bud Abbott, who, mistaking Benny for an actor auditioning for the part of Hercules, has him strip in the office to check out his physique) and a
disastrous start as a salesman, Benny leaves for a smaller branch of the company in Stockton, managed by Tom Chandler (also Abbott), Morrison's nicer and more respectable cousin. However even Chandler sees little promise in Benny and instructs his secretary Ruby (Brenda Joyce) to give him his walking papers.
During a night out at the local watering hole, the boys from work con Benny into believing that he can read minds. The gag backfires on them as Benny quickly experiences a surge of confidence and swiftly breaks the company's all-time sales
record for one day. Benny is immediately sent back to the main office only to have humiliation follow success as he becomes a pawn in the hands of Morrison and his wife Hazel (Jaqueline de Wit). Martha pays a surprise visit, finds Benny asleep in Hazel's bedroom, jumps to the obvious (but wrong) conclusion and hightails it back home. Alone and friendless, Benny returns to Cucamonga to find Uncle Clarence, Mr. Chandler, Ruby and Hercules president Van Loon (Pierre Watkins) there
to present him with a cash prize for his record-breaking sales and for good
measure appoint him manager of the Cucamonga branch! Mother and son are reunited, Martha forgives all, a quick pratfall over the bottom half of a dutch door, and "The End - a Universal Picture."
Not much of a story you might say, one that certainly didn't need the usually buffoonery that Abbott and Costello brought to the screen, but on a revisit it's apparent that there's something to be appreciated here. First of all, it's obvious that someone, probably Lou, wanted this change. The boys only work as a team in one short scene in which they reprise their "7 x 13= 28" bit from IN THE NAVY. The routine comes across like an afterthought, as if someone felt that the story
should have at least a smidge of the old formula, sort of as an insurance policy.
Short of this there are only fleeting moments where any "team familiarity" exists between the two. No, this was Costello's moment in the sun, his comedy of pathos, and to some degree in certain instances, he succeeds.
Where he does not succeed is quite probably the fault of director William A. Seiter. Toward the beginning of the film, in a sequence where Benny is graduating (with a degree of B.S.i) via record player, there actually appear to be tears welling up in his eyes in what looks like an attempt at an emotional display of pride. The male chorus singing the alma mater tune for "Record Correspondence School" in
contrast to Lou's emotional, teary-eyed closeup only makes the scene funnier, but perhaps that is what Seiter was going for. Shortly after, maybe 20 minutes into the story, Lou's dejection and sad walk out of his uncle's office when he's denied a job (on his first attempt) doesn't ring true; the film seems to be going for poignancy at too early a moment.
There are a few occasions on which we do indeed feel for Lou's character: The barroom scene in which his coworkers seam him into believing he's a mind reader, playing on his farm boy naivete, stuffing cotton in his ears, blindfolding him and leading him around like a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game. At one point the group asks him about the cows on his farm and have Benny mooing at the top of his lungs.
When they start to laugh, he shoots an uncertain glance at one of the guys, as if half suspicious of what's going on. Costello's performance here is touching enough to make the viewer at least feel uncomfortable for him. In the scene in which Benny overhears Ruby telling an assemblage of Hercules employees about the mind reading ruse, Lou conveys genuine pain when she reaches a particularly embarrassing point in the story, causing the entire room to burst out in laughter. The dissolve to a forlorn Benny slowly wandering down a country lane contrasts
neatly with the urban world in which he has tried to prove himself and adds the correct touch of melancholy. Finally there is a brief but effective sequence in which Benny loses the canary he was bringing home to his mother. The moment is understated, and hits just the right note.
Since the film clearly belongs to Costello, with Bud Abbott effectively reduced to the rank of supporting player, it is important to take a look at what Bud does contribute to LITTLE GIANT. In his dual role, which quite honestly could have been cast with someone else, Abbott shows that he could easily carry off character parts had he wished to do so. His timing, the ease in which he works among the other players makes one wish he had had the chance to do more. In every scene he's in. Bud gives a robust performance in what he could have regarded as a thankless part in light of the dominant status of his partner. His two identities work, without the necessity to draw too large a contrast between them. His kind Tom Chandler has just the right moments of gruffness to connect him with his cousin, the surly
and devious E. L. Morrison.
In the only other concession to the old hi jinx, there is a bit between Lou and Sidney Fields (who played their landlord on the Abbott and Costello TV series) at the very start of the picture, emphasizing again the absence of Bud as straight man. The rest of the cast is competent and appealing, most notably Miss Verdugo, whose sweet and perky Martha reappears in the story at just the right times to add a
touch of lightness to the ambience of the big city, a world in which Benny just does not belong. Jaqueline De Wit and Brenda Joyce are reliable, and the brisk dialogue and bouyant pace make it a diverting, if not hilarious, 91 minutes - their longest film.
Critical reaction to LITTLE GIANT was not kind. The New York Times
described it as "sluggish and uneven", the Los Angeles Times called it "confusing", claiming that even when Lou takes a fall, "one doesn't know whether to laugh or cry". It would be silly for me to argue the merits of it as a whole when history has spoken, and while it-'s true that this quiet little affair is no classic, I feel its parts are
superior to the whole, the change in formula a refreshing interlude, and worth another look.
The tepid critical reaction to LITTLE GIANT didn't prevent Universal from trying the new formula once more, this time with far superior results. THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES, released later the same year, not only offered up an inspired story, but fairly sparkled as a ghost tale, and with Lou on the haunting end, a unique situation. In Revolutionary War upstate New York, Bud Abbott is Cuthbert Green-
way, a tipsy and conniving butler on the estate of Tom Danbury. Danbury is a traitor and conspirer with Benedict Arnold. Lou Costello is Horatio Primm, freelance tinker in love with Danbury servant girl Nora (Anne Gillis).
Horatio will soon be able to marry Nora with the help of a letter written by General George Washington, his endorsement lauding Horatio as a true patriot. Cuthbert also has eyes for Nora and has the visiting Horatio locked in a trunk in the stable. Meanwhile Danbury's intended. Melody Alien (Marjorie Reynolds), overhears Danbury's plans to sell out Washington, frees Horatio and the two of them set out to warn the Continental Army. During the confusion Nora is abducted, Horatio's letter taken from her and hidden in a clock. Cuthbert steals Horatio's horse and belongings as Danbury Manor is burned to the ground. En route to help. Melody and Horatio are shot down by American troops who mistake them for traitors.
The soldiers dump their bodies into a nearby well and issue a curse (in a very effective scene): unless evidence proves them wrong, their spirits "shall be confined to Danbury Acres 'til crack of doom". Some 166 years later, Sheldon Gage (John Shelton), a playwright, has the estate completely restored and unveils it to his girifriend June (Lynn Baggett), her aunt Millie Dean (Binnie Barnes), and Dr. Greenway (guess who?), a psychiatrist and descendent of smarmy butler Cuthbert. Also on hand for the appropriate ambience is a psychic maid, Emily (Gale Sondergaard). Horatio and Melody decide to haunt the estate and at the same time search for the letter from George Washington that will prove the little tinker is a patriot and free him from the curse. Once inside, the target of the haunting quickly becomes Dr. Greenway, Horatio actually believing that Cuthbert is still alive ("They say only the good die young!").
Horatio and Melody are unable to find the letter, and the pranks pulled on Greenway eventually make him realize that his ancestor probably did the ghosts wrong, and that amends must be made. A seance is performed in which the ghost of Tom Danbury sends a cryptic message through Emily as to the whereabouts of the letter, in a clock now on display at a New York museum. When the curators
refuse to allow an examination of the clock, Greenway takes it upon himself to clear the family name by "borrowing" it. After a madcap chase with the state police, the letter is recovered and the two ghosts are released from the curse.
THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES, while similar to LITTLE GIANT in its placement of Bud and Lou, couldn't be more different beneath the surface, in the first place, even though the two men spend very little time in each other's company, their relationship here is much more central to the story. Secondly, in this film Bud proves how funny he can be as a solo act, so much so that we don't feel the sting of his
separation from Lou as acutely. Whereas almost anyone could have played Bud's character in LITTLE GIANT, the laughs in this picture come from his being uniquely "Abbott" (his standard advice during the hauntings, "Be calm - be reasonable!" finally driving everyone crazy). There is also a situational closeness here, the comedy has more spirit (pun partly intended) and the boys seem more connected, due to their characters' link with the past.
One thing needs to be understood - TIME OF THEIR LIVES is a good film, regardless of comparisons to LITTLE GIANT or any other Abbott and Costello film. It works on its own merits due to a strong story and solid characters. We are immediately involved with Horatio and Melody, as we would be with any innocents trapped in a prison, yearning to be reunited with loved ones. It also has the benefit of a strong director in Charles T. Barton, in his first of many films with the team, the most notable being his fifth outing with them, 1948's ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN.
Barton always showed a strong flair for the supernatural, and his agility with it was reponsible for TIME OF THEIR LIVES' most memorable sequence, the seance. The moment when Tom Danbury's voice issues forth from Gale Sondergaard's mouth (accompanied by Milton Rosen's eerie music) is as chilling a moment as could be found in any of the studio's horror pies of that decade. Lou
even pays a nice tribute to his new director early in the film via an inside joke when he excitedly tells Nora that "At Barton's Barn, I had a brush with the British".
Lou Costello proved, happily for him but not so much for Bud, that he was a viable act on his own, not that he ever worked completely solo; most of his best stuff without his partner was done with one substitute or another. When he wasn't providing a pratfall or broad hysterics, he was usually reacting to abuse from an Abbott proxy. In HOLD THAT GHOST he had a secondary partner in commedienne Joan Davis. In WHO DONE IT? there was William Bendix. The "Bagel Street" routine in IN SOCIETY provided him with a number of partners, as did the "Crazy House" dream sequence in 1942's RIDE 'EM COWBOY. The list goes on and on. What was driven home in the two 1946 films was that Lou
didn't always need Bud as a counterpart.
While fans of the team would pine for the old days, it must be pointed out that though the spotlight was more squarely on Lou, Bud Abbott also was a very competent actor and capable of being quite funny without Lou. This is by no means an argument in defense of solo work, but witness Bud's performance in this ghost fantasy as he is relentlessly bedeviled by the invisible Costello, making it his turn
to experience uncanny events with nobody to believe him. There's something refreshing about the shoe being on the other foot for a change! Bud's restraint in his reactions plays well here (as compared to LOU'S over the top histrionics in their other pictures), and just as Lou romps comfortably through the show on his own. Bud again fits in very neatly with the rest of the cast and proves again that given the chance, he might have become a solid character actor. Of the two films in which the team was "broken up", TIME OF THEIR LIVES is clearly superior, and works best.
There is a theory, perhaps overrated, that the reason for making two films of this type was the result of the well-publicized feud of 1945. According to the account given in "Abbott and Costello in Hollywood", Lou fired one of three maids who worked for him, and Bud hired her to work in his home. When Lou asked Bud to fire her, he refused. Both men admitted that the reason for the fight was silly,
due to, in Bud's words, "stupid pride".
In an interview I conducted for Scarlet Street Magazine, Christine Costello and Bud Abbott, Jr. both felt that the scripts had nothing to do with the feuding. The
truth behind this, as of this writing, remains unresolved, but my feelings are that the events are somehow connected. Why would Universal, a studio always in shaky financial straits, have risked a new approach with a comedy team whose pictures with their old approach had played a major part in saving them from bankruptcy? In my opinion, this could happen only if pressure was put on them from someone with
some hefty leverage, and that someone would most likely have been Lou
LITTLE GIANT and THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES form an intriguing
"intermission" in the film careers of Abbott and Costello. The former is a partly successful attempt by Lou Costello to reinvent himself as a Chaplinesque semi-tragic figure, in which what does work is the quality of its cast and script. It is certainly worth a revisit, for at its core is a gentle and winning charm. Where it fails is in its attempt to break out Costello as an act on his own. He would have to
wait another ten years for that, succeeding primarily in a few television dramas and some appearances on The Steve Alien Show.
LITTLE GIANT remains a diverting experiment, carried off with efficiency. TIME OF THEIR LIVES is a strong, whimsical, and undeniable gem of a film fantasy, a winner at the box office and loved even by those not entranced by the talents of Abbott & Costello.
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