May 17, 2018
One Night in the Tropics – US, 1940
Lou Abbott and Bud Costello are the best part of their debut film, One Night in the Tropics. However, saying this is like saying a picture on the ceiling of a dentist’s office is the best part of a root canal. Sure, it might be slightly humorous and distract you momentarily from the spider-like hands floating and poking around your mouth, but it never completely makes you forget the main reason you are there. And with One Night in the Tropics, you are there to enjoy a movie in its entirety, no to only chuckle every ten minutes at clever dialogue that adds nothing to the film’s narrative or moves the film forward.
In the film, Abbott and Costello play variations of their stage and radio characters, which by then had gained them a notable degree of fame. They are referred to by their last names and can’t seem to get through a scene without breaking into one of their routines that audiences at that time were no doubt fully familiar with, such as “Who’s On First?” and Jonah and the whale. Critics and regular viewers liked what they saw so much that the comedic duo was rewarded with a motion picture contract and eventually 10 percent of the box office gross of their films, a concession that was utterly unheard of at that time. So, the film was good for them; it just wasn’t a good film.
One Night in the Tropics, a remake of a 1919 silent film of the same name, is the story of four people in a bit of a love rectangle. First, there’s Steve (Robert Cummings), a wealthy playboy who is so in awe of a woman named Cynthia (Nancy Kelly), that he finds himself staring into space and repeating the phrase, “Oh, Cynthia” incessantly. The two are engaged, and they would be on their way to wedded bliss were it not for the fact that Steve is also being pursued by a singer named Mickey (Peggy Moran). She utters one of the film’s best lines when she tells Steve, “A man who lives a double life shouldn’t have two phones.” Finally, there’s Jim (Allan Jones), an insurance salesman who boasts of never have lost money on a policy. And he’ll sell policies on almost anything. Early on in the film, he soothes Steve’s nerves by creating a policy just for him known as love insurance. If Steve doesn’t walk down the aisle, Jim’s firm is on the hook for $1 million.
The film is meant as a comedy, yet its main narrative produces very few real laughs. Steve is such a daft bumbling fool that it’s hard to believe that anyone – let alone two women like Cynthia and Mickey – would fall for and eventually compete for him. An early scene in which he crashes into a series of people fails to produce much in the way of giggles, and his interaction with Cynthia’s aunt Kitty (Mary Boland), in which she shakes her head at and makes discouraging comments about his date of birth, feels forced.
The only two that come out relatively unscathed are Moran and Jones. Their characters both have sharp wits and an uncanny knack for mild deception, and a better film would have put the two of them in scenes together and just let the banter fly. Here, they are mostly kept apart, and even when they are onscreen together, their interactions are constrained by a script determined to sap them of all of their natural compatibility. This is done in service of putting them with characters that a wiser script would have recognized were just not quite right for them.
William Farley, who later played Ricky and Lucy’s neighbor Fred in I Love Lucy, plays the owner of the nightclub where Abbott and Costello are employed, and he does as well as he can with the role. The movie also includes a number of musical numbers, the only memorable one of which takes part during the film’s finale and which, for the life of me, I can not understand the purpose of. The others are impressively sung, yet they still did nothing for me. For example, Moran’s character sings a slow number about kissing the man she loves. It’s fine for what it is, but I felt her character would have instructed the band to play something much more tantalizingly up tempo and then stood in front of Steve shimmying. That would have been much more in keeping with her character.
One Night in the Tropics, therefore, is one of those films that are important for reasons that have nothing to do with their quality or lack thereof. It brought a legendary comic pair to the silver screen, and for that, it will always have a place among film buffs and viewers discovering them for the first time. Sadly, it just doesn’t have much else going for it. Well, other than Peggy Moran. I find myself wondering what else she appeared in. (on DVD and part of Abbott & Costello: The Complete Universal Pictures Collection)