June 21, 2018
Buck Privates – US, 1941
If Arthur Lubin’s Buck Privates demonstrates anything, it is their studio’s confusion over how to make an Abbott and Costello movie. This sentiment is somewhat understandable, seeing as how the comic pair had built a following based less on a heartfelt relationship than individual comic bits in which one confused the other, took advantage of the other, or reacted to the other’s immature comments. Also different was the way they responded to arguments. Unlike Oliver Hardy, whose disagreements with Stan Laurel often ended in smiles and a reaffirmations of their mutual love for each another, Bud Abbott’s often end with him becoming physical with Lou Costello and caustically saying, “What’s the matter with you?” It’s hardly a relationship that one could describe as predominately warm.
The pair had two choices. The first was to continue doing what brought them to the dance in the first place. That would mean relying on established comic gems and continuing their rather acerbic interactions. This is the strategy they employed in their first film, One Night in the Tropics, and it had worked out well for them. The other was to build their films around characters that had an established relationship and a back story. To do this, their gags would have to fit their characters and the situations they found themselves in, a daunting task in some cases, but one that would have made the two of them the central focus of their own films.
Though it’s impossible to say who ultimately made the decision, Universal Studios or themselves, there’s no question that the less challenging of these two options was adopted. The result of this is a film that is far too similar in structure to One Night in the Tropics. In the film, Abbott and Costello play Slicker Smith and Herbie Brown, street peddlers of cheaply-made ties and, apparently, former performers. Early in the film, they try to elude the police by ducking into what they think is a matinee. It turns out that the theater is being used as a draft center, which leads to a clever bit of confusion over the difference between draftee and drafty. Soon the two of them are off to basic training, where they must contend with a sergeant that has it in for Herbie.
The set-up has comic potential, and had it been allowed to develop fully, I have no doubt that it would have produced a comic gem. However, the film quickly shifts focus, and once again, Abbott and Costello are relegated to playing supporting roles in their own movie. Instead, the audience is asked to care about a young pampered rich playboy named Randolph Parker, III (Lee Bowman); his ill-treated former employee, Bob Martin (Alan Curtis), and Judy Gray (Jane Frazer), the woman they both fall for. This story line produces zero laughs, and in an 85-minute movie, there simply isn’t adequate time to tell both a romance and a slapstick comedy adequately. As a result, the film jumps awkwardly between disconnected moments of slapstick and scenes spotlighting the love triangle and the developing maturity of Bowman’s character. As for Abbott and Costello, their characters neither grow nor find love. The ending gives them yet another gambling gag before marching them off toward a glorious future as members of the U.S. army.
I didn’t care much who wound up with Jane in the end. It might have made for an interesting film had it been separated from the antics of Abbott and Costello. Interspersed, however, the story line is a bit distracting. When you pay to see an Abbott and Costello film, you want to actually see Abbott and Costello. You don’t want a half-completed story of maturity and love that reaches an inconclusive ending because it has elected to make both of its male leads decent human being. Perhaps that is why the film ends with Jane marching off with both men on her arms. Sure, they have both achieved the same status in her eyes, but then what? Having said this, I did find Parker’s arc mildly interesting. He makes understandable mistakes, suffers the consequences, and learns lessons as a result. I just wish he’d been given more screen time and that his feelings for Jane came across as real rather than rushed and convenient.
One reason the film is worth watching is for its potential to introduce modern audiences to the greatness of the Andrew Sisters. Just why this acclaimed group is hanging around an army boot camp is anyone’s guess, yet when they are on screen, the film comes alive. Like Abbott and Costello, they bring energy and style to the film, especially when they break into their seminal hit, Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, and the film’s Lindy Hop dance numbers are truly breathtaking. Keep an eye out for their bandleader, who alternates between conducting and putting on some impressive moves.
Buck Privates was a massive hit upon its release, grossing over $4 million, according to Wikipedia. It further established audiences’ appetite for all things Abbott and Costello and was nominated for two Academy Awards. Time has a way of diminishing our appreciation of some of yesteryear’s comedy, and I have a suspicion that some of Abbott and Cosello’s gags will not be met with as much enthusiasm as greeted them in 1941. I didn’t find the film’s gambling scenes all that humorous, yet I still appreciated some of the scenes in which Abbott plays tricks on Costello. Also, Costello’s boxing scene, which owes a bit to Chaplin’s in City Lights, is still a hoot. As for the love story, it was a tad bit more interesting than the one featured in One Night in the Tropics; it is also more grounded in reality and contains a number of sweet, sentimental tunes. All of this means that I liked just enough of it to give it a positive review. (on DVD as part of Abbott and Costello: The Complete Universal Pictures Collection)