This year marks the 80th anniversary of one of the classic film comedies of all time, Abbott & Costello’s Buck Privates. It deserves to be remembered — even praised — for a number of reasons.
It was the first of Hollywood’s wartime musical comedies. Filming began in late 1940, taking advantage of the nation’s preoccupation with the newly instituted draft. Hitler’s armies were trampling across Europe at the time, and already at war with Britain and France. In early 1941, it appeared inevitable that America would enter the conflict, and Buck Privates served as the first — and arguably best — of Hollywood’s many pep rally-style musical extravaganzas.
Abbott & Costello had become a favorite act in burlesque (even though they never used racy material), and that led to their big break on radio, as frequent guests on The Kate Smith Show.
In 1940, their first film appearance, in Universal Studios’ One Night in the Tropics, was designed to provide comic support, although stars Bob Cummings and Allan Jones actually did a fine job themselves in keeping the romantic comedy light, amid a convoluted plot. But the film does pick up considerably whenever Bud and Lou appear to perform several of their popular routines, including a truncated version of “Who’s On First?”.
One Night in the Tropics failed commercially, but Universal was happy enough with Abbott & Costello to sign them to a multi-picture contract. Remarkably, the team released four films in 1941 alone, beginning with Buck Privates.
Filmed in just under a month, beginning in mid-December of 1940, Buck Privates was the first of the era’s hyper-patriotic musical comedies, happily bringing out the stars, stripes, uniforms, and precision marching of eager draftees. It also set the bar exceptionally high for subsequent films of the genre. After all, here was country’s hottest comedy team reaching the peak of their stardom, along with the immensely popular Andrews Sisters on hand to sing four classic songs. Even the film’s subplot goes down easily enough. A romantic triangle between two competing recruits — one a spoiled rich kid (Lee Bowman), the other his ex-valet (Alan Curtis), and the girl they’re both after (the adorable Jane Frazee), is a cut above the usual filler between comedy scenes and musical interludes. Frazee even gets to sing a song, too.
But it is Abbott & Costello’s film, and they make the most of their first starring vehicle, bringing in their trusted writer, John Grant, to incorporate their strongest stage routines into the plot. This was also the first of five A & C films directed by Arthur Lubin.
As the film opens, we first see the team hawking neckties on the sidewalk outside an army recruiting office. Bud, as Slicker Smith, plows through his fast-talking sales pitch while Lou, as Herbie Brown, shills. An angry cop (Nat Pendleton) chases them into the recruiting station, and, before they know it, the boys have unwittingly signed up for the service.
Buck Privates treats us to pure Abbott & Costello from the first reel to the last. One early scene, a dice game on the train headed for basic training camp, stands as one of the funniest comedy scenes they — or any comedians — ever filmed. As Bud cleans out his friends in a dice game, Lou wanders in, wanting to learn how to play. Sensing an easy mark, Bud explains the rules and lets Lou roll the dice. But Lou has beginner’s luck on his side, or so it seems, until he begins bandying about slang expressions for the craps game that a true novice wouldn’t know. An exasperated Bud suspects he’s being hoodwinked, but can’t be sure. With each roll of the dice, Lou shouts, “Let her ride” and “A Little Joe!” only to have Bud rough him up with increasing frustration. The perfect timing of their exchange is brilliant.
This scene is followed by a drill routine at the camp, in which a befuddled Lou fails miserably at marching — and even standing at attention — while Bud barks his rapid-fire orders.
The film includes several more such set pieces between the two as it rolls along, such as a variations of old burlesque sketches, including “Go Ahead And Sing.” In this, Lou decides to play his radio quite loudly in the barracks late one night, prompting his sergeant (Pendleton again) to burst in and angrily order the radio switched off. As soon as he leaves, Bud provokes Lou to turn it on again, which he does. Of course, the sarge returns to give Lou a good pummeling as Bud quietly sits by. It’s only after the sarge leaves when Bud again convinces his pal to turn the radio back on. This happens several times in succession, leaving poor Lou a mess at the hands of his irritated sergeant.
Bud and Lou work smoothly and with great energy throughout Buck Privates, confident that their tried and true material would work just as well on film — if not better — as it had on radio and the stage. And, it should be said, students of comedy would do well to appreciate Bud Abbott’s brilliance as a straight man, even as they enjoy Lou’s more obvious skills as the put-upon comic. Indeed, when we enjoy a scene of fast-paced patter between the two, we’re often laughing at Bud without even realizing it.
As for the Andrews Sisters’ contributions, their songs served the film perfectly, and some have remained popular tunes to this day. “You’re A Lucky Fellow, Mr. Smith” sets the stage in the first few minutes, as draftees march and sing through a train terminal on their way to boot camp. “Apple Blossom Time” and, of course “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” are the two stand-out numbers, while the rousing “Bounce Me Brother with a Solid Four” ignites some swinging Lindy hop dancing at the camp’s canteen. None of the subsequent A & C films boasted such an impressive and enjoyable roster of songs.
The reviews were enthusiastic upon the film’s release on January 31, 1941. The New York Times declared that “any foolish notions that training for war is basically a grim business have been largely dispelled. If the real thing is at all like this preview of Army life — with the Messrs. A & C dropping gags once a minute and the Andrews Sisters crooning patriotic boogie-woogie airs — well, it’s going to be a merry war, folks. For Buck Privates is an hour and a half of uproarious monkeyshines.”
The film was an instant hit at the box office, too. It was made for about $180,000, and took in more than $1 million in ticket sales by mid-summer.
In retrospect, it’s surprising how much of a head start Buck Privates had on the other wartime musical comedies that followed. America would not officially enter the war for nearly another year, in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But by then, Bud and Lou had already made and released their military follow-ups to Buck Privates. In The Navy (with its musical refrain “We’re in the Navy, watchdogs of liberty…”) and Keep ’Em Flying were filmed and released in quick order. In fact, the second picture the team actually filmed in ’41, Hold That Ghost, had its release date delayed, allowing In The Navy to serve as a more suitable follow-up to Buck Privates.
And, in a bit of irony, the ceremony in which Bud and Lou placed their hand and footprints in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre took place on December 8, the day after the Pearl Harbor attack.
The rest of Hollywood didn’t begin cranking out most of its major patriotic-themed productions until mid-1942. Private Buckaroo, featuring a cast of comic actors plus the Andrews Sisters and Harry James, was released in late May of that year. Stage Door Canteen, crammed with cameos by dozens of stars, wasn’t released until June of ’43. This Is The Army, based on the Broadway show from the previous year (and featuring Kate Smith’s famous rendition of “God Bless America”), and Reveille with Beverly starring Ann Miller, were also 1943 releases. And a pair of Kay Kyser vehicles, Thousands Cheer, and Around the World (fictionalizing the exploits of Kyser’s band on its tour for the troops), were released in ’43 as well.
But Buck Privates started the trend. In a way, it also completed the trend, with the 1947 sequel Buck Privates Come Home, in which Bud & Lou attempt to adopt an orphaned French girl and hide her (at her request) on their way back home after the war. Of course, many more musical comedies set during or after the war were to follow. But as the horrors of war raged on two fronts half a world away from each other, Abbott & Costello proved to the be the perfect clowns to help Americans cheer, laugh, and even dance their way — if only for ninety minutes at a time — through what has been called our last “noble” war.
Until next time…
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