Halloween with Abbott & Costello

In honor of Halloween and all things spooky, I thought I’d pay tribute to a pair of classic Abbott & Costello films that combine fright and laughter with great results: Hold That Ghost and Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello enjoyed tremendous popularity throughout the 1940s, especially during the war years. They first teamed in 1936, and quickly made their presence known in burlesque (using only clean material, of course), and then on radio, where they gained nationwide fame in 1938 as regulars on The Kate Smith Hour. By 1940, they had signed with Universal Studios, first as supporting players in the comedy One Night in the Tropics (starring Bob Cummings and Alan Jones). Their career skyrocketed the following year with their first, and probably best, film, Buck Privates. In fact, they made no fewer than four films in 1941, with Hold That Ghost filmed immediately after Buck Privates. However, the success of Buck Privates prompted Universal to order a second military-themed feature, In The Navy, as a follow-up. Bud and Lou also took on the Air Force later in the year with Keep ‘Em Flying (by the way, it’s interesting that they added their hand and foot prints to the cement in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on December 8 of that year, the day after the Pearl Harbor attack!)

Hold That Ghost, directed by Arthur Lubin and released on August 6, gives us Bud and Lou maintaining a high level of energy throughout, but also features the wonderful Joan Davis as Lou’s comic foil. This was her first film as a freelancer after spending time under contract to Fox, and it’s a shame that she and Lou didn’t appear together again on film. Here, she plays Camille Brewster, a radio actress specializing in opening a murder mystery series with her blood-curdling scream each week.

The bulk of Hold That Ghost has Bud, Lou, and Davis–along with Richard Carlson and Evelyn Ankers, in fine supporting roles–stranded in an old, dilapidated inn overnight, due to a rainstorm. The inn was left to Chuck (Bud) and Ferdie (Lou) in the will of a gangster (long story, don’t ask), who had also hid a fortune in cash somewhere on the premises. Rival bad guys also enter the picture in search of the loot, and one of them is found murdered, as if the guests weren’t jittery enough. Just about every room of the building gives Lou and/or Davis cause for fright, screams, and fainting.

Highlights include a hilarious comic tango between the two of them to keep the others entertained over dinner. The sight of tall, lanky Davis and pudgy Costello mixing it up on their impromptu dance floor is priceless. At one point, Lou sends her falling butt-first into a wash bucket on the floor. The bucket was specially built to suit her measurements, enabling it to firmly stay put after she got up and continued her dance.

The two also share the “candle scene,” in which a horrified and speechless Lou watches a candle glide on its own across their table and float upwards as Davis fails to see a thing.

 

In 1948, Bud & Lou again mixed laughs with frights in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, directed by Charles Barton. Universal Studios owned the film rights not only to Frankenstein, but also to Dracula and the Wolfman. So, why not have all three monsters in one film to terrify the comic duo? That’s just what

happened, with Bela Lugosi playing Dracula for the first time on film since his 1931 starring role in the original Dracula. Lon Chaney reprised his most famous role, as the troubled Lawrence Talbot, a.k.a. the Wolfman. And Glenn Strange, who had stepped into the Frankenstein monster’s oversized shoes before, was signed to repeat the role here as well. Add a couple of beautiful women — one innocent (Joan an insurance investigator), one sinister (Sandra, in cohoots with the Count, who puts her under his spell)–and all of the elements are present to create a clever mix of comedy and horror. One reason why the film works so well is that the monsters are played straight (and scary), not as comic parodies of themselves. The laughs are wisely left to Bud and Lou.

The plot has the team as shipping clerks in Florida, who receive crates containing the remains of both the original Dracula and the Frankenstein monster, destined for display at a wax museum, McDougal’s House of Horrors. Lawrence Talbot phones them from London, warning them not to open the crates, which would allow Dracula to revive the monster. But during his call to Lou, a full moon sends Talbot into his tortuous transformation into the growling Wolfman, causing Lou to hang up.

Plot machinations have them all converging on Dracula’s castle, where the Count and Sandra plan to put Lou’s brain into the monster’s head. At one point, Lou pleads to the monster, “Don’t let ’em do it to you, Frankie. I’ve had this brain for thirty years and it hasn’t worked right yet!”

Glenn Strange required several retakes due to his laughing as Lou discovers a third hand.

Bud and Talbot’s attempt to rescue Lou culminate in a frantic chase through the castle–at which point, of course, Talbot succumbs once again to the full moon. The team soon find themselves opening one door to find Frankenstein headed their way, and then running to open another door to witness Dracula and the Wolfman engaged in hand-to-hand combat with each other.

The boys look cornered, until…?

The stirring, urgent music score enhances the mood, as the team eventually receive help in vanquishing all of the monsters for good. Rowing away from the castle dock to safety, they hear a disembodied voice (Vincent Price) say, “I was hoping to get in on the excitement. Allow me to introduce myself, I’m the Invisible Man.” Bud and Lou dive into the water and let their fight-or-flight responses opt for flight!

Other comedians of classic-era Hollywood made efforts to combine horror and comedy; Bud and Lou themselves later starred in Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, but these films don’t measure up to the two we’re honoring today. If you’ve somehow managed to miss either Hold That Ghost or Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, seek them out, even after Halloween has come and gone.

Thanks to David C. Tucker, author of Joan Davis: America’s Queen of Film, Radio, and Television Comedy for his help with today’s blog.

Until next week…

 

 

 

Little-known Britcoms Worth Seeking Out

Anyone who knows me is familiar with my fondness for British sitcoms. The genre inspired me to write Best of the Britcoms, which was originally published in 1999. Several years later, I updated portions of the text and added seven new chapters, covering programs I had discovered since the original edition hit the bookstore shelves. The revised edition was published in 2010.

There have been still more terrific sitcoms to cross the Atlantic since that revised edition, so I’d like to offer a new list of favorites that I’ve discovered since then (plus one or two that I found just before it went to print). Unfortunately, the flow of high-quality Britcoms on PBS and cable networks has slowed to a trickle in recent years, so I’d advise seeking out these shows on YouTube, Netflix, or any number of other sources–not to mention a good ol’ DVD box set. You may not even need to purchase it–check your local library, which just might have several series on disc waiting for you.

l. to r. : Dougal, Ted, Mrs. Doyle, Father Jack (who can walk, but is usually too inebriated to do so, and prefers being pushed around in a wheelchair).

Father Ted (1995-1998)- A daringly irreverent sitcom by American standards (it was literally “banned in Boston” by the local PBS station, due to protests by Catholic groups), Father Ted features a trio of Irish priests: Father Ted Crilly (Dermot Morgan), his cheerfully imbecilic young colleague Father Dougal McGuire (Ardal O’Hanlon), and the elderly, perpetually inebriated, foul-mouthed Father Jack Hackett (Frank Kelly). They have been exiled to remote Craggy Island, but where they have a knack for indulging in various schemes that can be decidedly less than holy, and which tend to result in the priests inadvertently humiliating themselves in front of their parishoners.

Dougal and Ted rehearse their awful song, “My Lovely Horse,” for entry in the Eurovision Song Contest.

They also have an accident-prone housekeeper, Mrs. Doyle (Pauline McLynn) whose personal mission in life is to serve tea to the residents and their visitors at every opportunity, even after repeated refusals. The series boasts surreal blackout gags, ludicrous dialogue, and an anything-goes comic sensibility that treats many sacred institutions as fair game. But the comedy here is too absurd to cause real offense to anyone with a sense of humor.

The Kumars at No. 42 (2001-2006)- A brilliantly inventive combination of sitcom and talk show, each episode opens in the suburban home of the (fictional) wealthy Indian immigrant Kumar family. The parents have had a full-size TV studio built in their backyard to accommodate adult son Sanjeev’s desire to host his own talk show. In a typical episode, a real-life

Mr. and Mrs. Kumar, Sanjeev, and feisty grandmother Ummi.

British or American celebrity enters the front door of the house, meets the family, and chats for a while before being whisked into the adjoining studio, where an audience of 300 waits for the talk show to begin(guests have included Minnie Driver, Chevy Chase, Donny Osmond, Twiggy, Daniel Radcliffe, and Boy George).

With guest Tom Jones.

The episode continues with Sanjeev interviewing the guest as the Kumar family sits on the studio sofa, peppering the guest with off-the-wall questions, while occasionally tossing casual insults at Sanjeev. This show is a hoot!

Outnumbered (2007-2014)- This series, a sort of Modern Family before Modern Family, follows the day-to-day life of an average married couple, Pete and Sue Brockman (Hugh Dennis, Claire Skinner) and their young children. It is a comedy of amazing realism, due mostly to the fact that the child actors were encouraged to improvise much of their dialogue, rather than follow the script word for word. The three kids, Jake (Tyger Drew-Honey), Ben (Daniel Roche), and Karen (scene-stealer Ramona Marquez), range in ages 6-12 at the series premiere, and keep their chronically exhausted parents forever on their toes with an onslaught of embarrassing or hard-to-answer questions, and frequent refusals to eat their dinner. Their rapport with each other is so natural, you’d swear that you’re eavesdropping on a real (and very funny) family.

This sequential series of cast photos (left to right) shows how the children grew into young adults in the seven years between the series first season and its last. There was sometimes a gap of two years in between seasons (punctuated by Christmas specials), and some fans of the show were shocked, and not especially pleased, to see the precocious kids all grown up in the later seasons.

The IT Crowd (2006-2010)- Just as The Big Bang Theory in the U.S. made science geeks lovable, The IT Crowd did so in the U.K. But the members of this tech support team, whose office is relegated to the basement of a large London corporate headquarters, spend as little time troubleshooting computer problems as possible.

Katherine Parkinson, Richard Ayoade, Chris O’Dowd.

Roy (Chris O’Dowd) answers most inquiries with his standard reply, “Did you try turning the computer on and off again?” in hopes of dismissing confused office workers. Moss (Richard Ayoade) has a twisted sense of logic that can be interpreted as either brilliance or stupidity (usually stupidity).  Jen (Katherine Parkinson) is technically their boss, but spends more time trying to avert or solve crises between them and the rest of the employees, as well as the company’s insane CEO.

Moss somehow fails to notice an office fire.

And when they do try to solve problems, things always go from bad to worse, proving that they’re not nearly as brilliant as their job description implies. Graham Linehan, co-creator of Father Ted, again gives us characters who manage to get themselves deeper and deeper into absurd situations–both at work and elsewhere–that never end well.

Miranda (2009-2013)- Comedian Miranda Hart plays a more socially and physically awkward version of herself in this daffy sitcom, which she created and co-wrote. She runs a gift shop cluttered with novelty items

l. to r.: Sarah Hadland, Patricia Hodge, Miranda Hart, Tom Ellis.

that amuse her to no end, even if most of her customers leave empty-handed. Her best friend/employee, Stevie (Sarah Hadland), is a petite blonde who shares the same warped, childlike wavelength as Miranda, and, despite their frequent spats, the two remain loyal to each other above all else.

Mother is not known for her subtlety.

Miranda’s meddlesome mother (Patricia Hodge) is forever trying to find her a potential husband, even though Miranda has a hopeless crush on Gary (Tom Ellis), the owner of the restaurant next door. In time, their friendship blossoms into a romantic relationship. In each Miranda episode, Hart breaks the “fourth wall” (a topic of one of my earlier blogs) to speak directly to us, nearly as much as she speaks to the other characters within the scene.  And, best of all, her propensity for taking pratfalls and indulging in other bits of physical comedy–including untold instances in which she inadvertently humiliates herself in public at the worst possible moment– keep the show energetic and hilariously funny.

So, do yourself a favor and look for these programs. You won’t be disappointed.

Until next week…

The Funniest Writer You’ve Never Heard Of

I haven’t come across a great many writers in my life who actually make me laugh out loud when I read their work, although I’m sure there are several I just haven’t read yet who would send me into fits of laughter with their words.

I’ve already singled out Neil Simon in a previous post as my comedy writing hero, but his work is really meant to be performed, and his words spoken aloud, rather than read (although the comic brilliance of his dialogue can also be appreciated when seen on the printed page, which is how I first became familiar with many of his plays).

Another favorite is S.J. Perelman, whose comic essays and short stories in The New Yorker and other magazines throughout the 1930s and ’40s have been collected and published in book form for decades. His absurdist puns and wordplay can also be found in the screenplays he co-wrote for two Marx Brothers films, Monkey Business and Horsefeathers.

S.J. Perelman

Having already committed every line of those films to memory, I searched for and found a collection of Perelman’s written pieces in my high school library during my senior year. I sat down and was soon cackling loudly like an idiot as I read. I almost got thrown out for disturbing my fellow students, who were desperately trying to sleep.

So, as a writer myself, I’ve always aspired to write dialogue like Neil Simon, and prose like S.J. Perelman. Not much to ask, is it? I’ve got such a long way to go, and I’ll likely never get there, but I haven’t given up yet. The joy (and frustration) lies in the effort.

I now add to this short list the name Stephen Leacock. Why doesn’t that name ring a bell, you wonder? Why haven’t you seen him interviewed on TV, perhaps as a guest on a late-night talk show? To begin with, he died in 1944. And, he was Canadian (not that either factor is reason to relegate him to obscurity).

Leacock was born in England in 1869, but his family moved to Ontario when he was six. He spent much of his adult life as an academic, receiving a doctorate in political science and political economy at the University of Chicago, and spent many years as chair of the Department of Economic and Political Science at McGill University in Montreal. He began writing humorous fiction pieces to supplement his income, and in the early 20th century, became one of the most popular humorists in the English-speaking world.

I first became aware of his existence as I read an interview with Jack Benny for The Marx Brothers Scrapbook in the early 1970s, back when I was trying to satisfy my voracious appetite for all things Marx Brothers. While reminiscing about briefly touring with the brothers during their vaudeville days, Benny included this story:

“I would often pass Groucho’s dressing room. Sometimes I’d hear him laughing so I assumed he had company. Well, each time I passed I would hear him laugh and this went on in a couple of cities but I recall it started in Winnipeg. I became curious and the next time I passed and heard him laughing I knocked on his door. I figured that if he was laughing he couldn’t have a dame in there. So I go in and there he is alone reading a book. So I said, ‘How can you sit here alone and laugh at a book?’ ‘Well, Jack,’ he said, ‘I’m reading one of the funniest humorists I have ever come across. A fellow named Stephen Leacock. I’ve got with me the first book he wrote, titled Nonsense Novels, which you should read because once you do you’ll never stop wanting to read Leacock.’ I read the book and from then on I read every humorous book Leacock ever wrote. Groucho was right. He is the funniest humorist I have ever read. Sure there are others, Twain, Benchley, Perelman. But whoever I’ve liked they have always been second to Leacock. Groucho didn’t realize it but he made a big contribution to my life because ever since that time in his dressing room I’ve been reading Leacock. It’s a shame more people don’t know of him.”

For some reason, even I failed to pursue this writer, who had received such praise from two of the world’s greatest comedians. But his name stayed with me, if only in the deepest recesses of my mind.

Recently, while at my local library’s book sale, what did I happen to find but a 2005 reprinting of Nonsense Novels (originally published in 1911). It’s a collection of ten short stories, each story parodying a different style of fiction: the ghost story, detective story, shipwreck story, etc. and I couldn’t wait to read it.

My verdict? Groucho was right. Jack Benny was right. Leacock’s absurdly comical stories, his wordplay, and his talent for leading the reader to think a sentence is going one way before suddenly jumping in another direction–much like Perelman–had me nearly choking with laughter (and in public, too). Sure, there are a few words and phrases referring to everyday life of over a hundred years ago that aren’t as familiar to us now, but other than that, the book could have been written in the present day, by a writer who doesn’t pull his comedic punches. He demonstrates how you have to be quite clever to write something quite silly, which he does with wonderful consistency (I won’t attempt to quote just a sentence or two here, out of context; that wouldn’t do his writing justice).

Leacock isn’t easy to find on library or store bookshelves these days, but I did find a few collections of his work listed on Amazon.com.  Nonsense Novels was actually his second publication, the first being Literary Lapses in 1910, a collection of pieces he had written for various Canadian and American magazines. There is still a lot of his comic genius to discover–for me, and I hope for you too!

Until next week…

From The Goldbergs to The Goldbergs

Yes, it’s true, many television viewers of the Jewish persuasion tend to partake in the curious pastime of gleefully identifying the actors on any given program who happen to be Jewish; pointing them out, and beaming with pride, as if we had some influence on their success. I don’t know where all of this pride comes from. Personally, I’m more interested in looking at the history of Jewish TV characters, because in doing so, we can see their existence as a deliberate creative decision by a writer, rather than celebrating an actor’s ethnic identity by mere chance of birth or upbringing.

So, for no compelling reason, I recently began going through my mental Rolodex (or, for you younger readers, my mental data base), expecting to recall a pitifully small number of Jewish characters–i.e. lead or supporting regular characters–scattered throughout the TV dramas and comedies of the past 70 years. After all, Jews make up only about 2% of the U.S. population, so why expect any higher proportion of them in our TV shows? It could be argued that, because of the preponderance of Jewish writers, directors, and producers working in television, we’d see far more Jewish characters than we do. That’s never been the case, however, for a myriad of reasons I won’t go into here.

But I’ve managed to remember several characters who may have slipped through the cracks; some wore their ethnic identity on their sleeves, while others pretty much just happened to be Jewish, and never made much mention or fuss about it–just like in real life. So, here’s the list (you’ll notice I’m deliberately leaving out people like Jerry Seinfeld, who played himself on his show. What was he going to do, suddenly portray himself as a Mormon?).

The Goldbergs – This light comedy series, featuring a Jewish family living in a Bronx tenement, had been a radio favorite for twenty years before making the move to TV in 1949. Star Gertrude Berg wrote every episode herself, totaling about 10,000 scripts in all.

Room 222 -Principal Seymour Kaufman (Michael Constantine), the harried principal of L.A.’s fictional Walt Whitman High School, oversaw the various crises among students and teachers from his somewhat world-weary perspective.

Bridget Loves Bernie – Most critics and viewers hated the stereotypical portrayals of Irish (Bridget’s) and Jewish (Bernie’s) families, despite the strong cast. It was a product of its time, premiering shortly after Norman Lear’s All in the Family changed sitcom history forever.

Valerie Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern.
  • Rhoda – Mary Richards’ friend on The Mary Tyler Moore Show got her own spinoff in 1974, becoming the first Jewish lead character since Molly Goldberg herself.

Barney Miller – The even-tempered Barney (Hal Linden) and his aging colleague, Detective Phil Fish (Abe Vigoda), added a subtle dash of Jewish attitude to the detective squad of New York’s 13th precinct.

The Wonder Years – WASPy Kevin Arnold had a best friend in Paul, who sometimes had to opt out of play time to do his Hebrew school homework, and whose bar mitzvah was the focal point of one episode.

Hill Street Blues – Down & dirty undercover cop Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz), known to subdue fleeing suspects by biting them into submission, often had to interrupt his arrests and paperwork to field phone calls from his complaining and protective mother. On the other end of the spectrum, Lt. Henry Goldblume (Joe Spano) specialized in hostage negotiation.

Cagney & Lacey – Television’s first female detective team worked under their boss, Lt. Samuels (Al Waxman) and alongside Desk Sgt. Coleman (Harvey Atkin). In one curious but amusing scene during the show’s run, Samuels and Coleman are seen having a brief chat solely in Yiddish, without the benefit of translation.

L.A. Law – In a season 2 episode, Stuart Markowitz (Michael Tucker)  overhears the hostess of a party spewing anti-Semitic remarks about him and Jews in general. He interrupts to ask, “Has a Jew ever done anything to you personally to fill you with such hatred? When the woman says no, he walks over to her china cabinet and topples it to the floor, replying, “Now one has.”

Brooklyn Bridge – A multi-generational Brooklyn family in the 1950s sought to balance Old-World and contemporary American lifestyles in this series by Gary David Goldberg (Family Ties).

Taxi – Judd Hirsch basically plays Judd Hirsch in just about everything he does; here in the guise of New York cab driver Alex Rieger.

Northern Exposure – Young New York doctor Joel Fleishman (Rob Morrow) was “sentenced” to serve as town doctor in remote Cicely, Alaska, to pay off the state’s student loan for his med school tuition. His fish-out-of-water experience included cultural clashes of various kinds with the locals.

The Nanny – Oy, vey, talk about brash, loud, clichéd New York Jews, i.e. nanny Fran Fine and her frequently visiting–and kibitzing– mother and grandmother. But it was co-created by its star, Fran Drescher, who knew of what she spoke.

Law & Order – Grouchy District Attorney Adam Schiff (Steven Hill, who refused to stay late on the set when the Sabbath approached on Friday nights) spent his brief scenes with his subordinates grousing about avoiding negative headlines and striking plea deals.

The West Wing – Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) and Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) often offered their perspectives on past atrocities and current world events, as only they could.

Will & Grace – Returning to the air after eleven years, neurotic Jewish New Yorker Grace Adler (Debra Messing) was/is prone to wondering if her upbringing was responsible for some of her issues in adulthood.

Warehouse 13 – This engaging and quirky sci-fi series featured Artie Nielsen (Saul Rubinek), as caretaker of historic artifacts with supernatural powers, and who had earlier in life as a spy changed his name from Weisfelt.

The Goldbergs – Coming full-circle in a way, this is a different Goldberg family than that of the early days of network TV, this sitcom wanders back and forth throughout the 1980s in suburban Philadelphia, as seen through the eyes of the youngest family member, Adam (Sean Giambrone), who must deal with a mom who literally, and physically, suffocates him and his siblings with love.

What is the point of this list? I’ve been wondering that myself. But I’m a pop culture historian (it says so on my homepage), and I thought, with the new TV season here, it would be a good time to take a look at this ever-so-thin slice of television history.

Until next week…