Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were one of the most successful comedy acts in show business history, but their movies have never been highly ranked by critics. In his landmark 1949 Life magazine essay, "Comedy's Greatest Era," James Agee dismissed them as "semiskilled laborers, at best." Writing in the Reader, Dave Kehr observed, "They never got the hang of the kiddie slapstick Universal assigned to them, and their physical comedy is low, heavy, and graceless." Comedy and cartoon historian Joe Adamson seemed to sum up the prevailing wisdom when he declared the golden age of movie comedy over at the close of the 1930s: "Twenty-five years of brilliant gags, incisive characterization, and dynamic, subversive comedy had come to an end. There was nothing left but disintegration, heartbreak, and Abbott and Costello."
To be sure, the team was severely overexposed, cranking out 36 features from 1940 to 1956 even while starring in weekly radio and TV series. But the impression of Abbott and Costello as artless baggy-pants comedians doesn't do them justice, as you might conclude from this weekend's rare screening of their best picture, Buck Privates (1941), at LaSalle Bank Cinema. Visually they can't compete with comic imagists like Keaton and Chaplin, but verbally they're astonishing, with timing so sharp and rhythms so infectious that the routines seem to leap off the screen. They came up through burlesque, but their core material was the great comic literature of vaudeville, routines they harvested and honed with their longtime writer, John Grant. "Who's on First" is the best known of them, but they're all of a piece, assaulting logic, grammar, or mathematics in a way that makes you wonder if anyone can really understand anything.
Vocal interplay was the key to the act—Abbott and Costello simply sounded funny together, regardless of what they were saying. Not even the Marx Brothers could match their speed and precision. The counterpoint between Abbott's gravelly bark and Costello's childish whine developed on radio, when they were second bananas on The Kate Smith Show, and you can feel its tension all through the hilarious rifle-drill routine in Buck Privates. The scene is a rhythmic marvel, with Abbott shouting orders and Costello wising off in response; at points their argument falls into the marching cadence Costello is so unwilling to execute. The chemistry between them is clear from one of the scene's documented ad libs: "What time is it?" Costello asks, and without missing a beat Abbott snaps, "None of your business!" A similar rhythm propelled the feverish repetitions of "Who's on First." Listening to the two men talk is like watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance.
Adamson was right when he pronounced the age of comic subversion over: Costello, the act's driving force, was politically conservative (he fired Grant during the McCarthy era for refusing to sign a loyalty oath), and he and Abbott were closely identified with the war effort. But their most brilliant material was deeply mistrustful of words and numbers, like the great "7 x 13 = 28," in which Costello proves the title equation to Abbott in a variety of ways (mostly by ignoring base ten). Buck Privates features some of their most vexing illogic. In one scene Abbott asks Costello for a $50 loan, Costello gives him $40, and Abbott persuades him that he's now incurred a debt of $10. In another Abbott asks Costello to imagine he's 40 but in love with a girl who's 10: "You're four times as old as this girl, and you can't marry her so you wait five years. By that time the girl's 15 and you're 45. You're only three times as old as that girl. So wait 15 years more and when the girl is 30 you're 60. You're only twice as old as that little girl. . . . Now here's the question. How long do you have to wait until you and that little girl are the same age?"
Buck Privates was a cheap B movie from Universal Pictures, but it turned out to be the sleeper hit of 1941; today it plays like a time capsule of America on the eve of World War II, opening with newsreel footage of President Roosevelt signing the Selective Training and Service Act in September 1940. Abbott and Costello are street-corner tie salesmen who unwittingly enlist in the army, and the great Hollywood heavy Nat Pendleton (Horse Feathers, The Thin Man) proves an excellent foil as their roaring drill sergeant. The straight story is a democratic morality play about a well-connected playboy (Lee Bowman) who gets drafted and learns to be a team player. It's corny, but Abbott and Costello are perfectly complemented by the close-harmonizing Andrews Sisters, who entertain soldiers with the swinging "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," the lilting "I'll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time," and the patriotic march "You're a Lucky Fellow, Mr. Smith." Real combat was still a year away, and the music and comedy pulse with optimism and exuberance.
Abbott and Costello are long gone, but Universal Pictures marches on, and its latest comedy, the Adam Sandler vehicle I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, is so dire it makes you pine for the days of old-school dedication. In his early hits Sandler played a character close to Lou Costello's, oscillating between boyish mania and worldly wisecracks, and his Happy Madison Productions has always seemed to operate like the little B unit that mass-produced the Abbott and Costello pictures. But in middle age Sandler has been flailing around for a more adult persona, and in Chuck and Larry he plays a cynical operator more like Bud Abbott's character, with hefty Kevin James (The King of Queens) serving as the butt of his jokes. In a topical twist, they play Brooklyn firefighters who pose as a gay couple so they can get domestic partner benefits.
More than anything Chuck and Larry shows just how flaccid American movie comedy has become now that Saturday Night Live has replaced vaudeville as our comedy college. Back in the day a comic could spend months or years traveling from one small town to the next, performing five or six times a night and polishing his material to a mirror finish; now TV sketches are hurled together in three or four days and forgotten even sooner. Like so many other vehicles for SNL alums, the movie aspires to edginess but caters to complacency. Every gay cliche and drop-the-soap gag is rolled out, while Sandler dispenses his usual dirty one-liners. As Chuck, an aggressive ladies' man, he's mysteriously able to score with four knockout women simultaneously. (In this sort of comedy, flattering the star's manhood always takes precedence over getting laughs.)
At the same time, Chuck and Larry refuses to own up to its own homophobia, pulling back periodically for halfhearted and utterly transparent PC gestures (in the climactic courtroom scene, Sandler delivers a wince-inducing homily about how faggot is "a bad word"). The tired vulgarity is even less impressive when you consider that Abbott and Costello developed a stringently clean act while performing between strippers. It may have paled next to the golden age of movie comedy, but even the silver age looks pretty good now.