Thursday, January 25, 2007

Biffle Diffle!

by Geoff Collins

Abbott and Costello? They don't need our help. After so many years of derogatory sniping in standard film histories to the effect that "The Golden Age of Movie Comedy ended in 1940 with the decline of Laurel and Hardy and the arrival of Abbott and Costello", Bud and Lou are being reappraised and their vast output revalued. Even in sleepy old England their Universal features have been reissued two at a time in sparkling new prints, revealing, if nothing else, their superb photographic quality - especially true in the case of Keep 'Em Flying. Details are on Check it out (I haven't!).

After all these years, how do these vintage sausage-factory products hold up? Well, let me explain first that there's a tendency in this country - and it may also be true in the US - for "amusing" e-mails to circulate amongst office workers with too much time on their hands, pointing out the stereotypical differences between men and women. Such junk is invariably boring and obvious. My friend Rosie receives more than her fair share of this stuff and deletes it without even bothering to read it. The "movie equivalent" of this is that women generally don't care for Laurel and Hardy. They prefer romance and escapism; what's the fascination in two unlovely middle-aged men behaving like babies? They get enough of this at home with their husbands!

Without this in mind, Rosie and I sat down the other night to watch Ride 'Em Cowboy. Why not? British television at the moment is especially idiotic; we both enjoy jazz, and I knew that this movie contained the earliest appearance of Ella Fitzgerald; and I hadn't seen it before (although I have a distant memory of watching the chase sequence, an 8mm print projected onto a sheet in a tent at our school sports day forty years ago, with the boys, pursued by Indians, driving their little car into a river. Completely submerged and surrounded by fish, Lou waves a cup around and "has a drink of water". If Keaton had done this, it would be considered a priceless gag. Lou Costello? Not a chance.)

Twenty minutes into the beautiful new DVD print, and I could see that Rosie wasn't happy. I mentioned that I could do without Dick Foran and the silly romantic plot, and she said "I could do without Bud Abbott and Lou Costello!" To be fair, dear readers, it must be said that Rosie's no "stereotypical woman". She appreciates old movies (and really enjoyed Sons of the Desert, which sort of disproves the "women don't like Stan and Ollie" argument). And Ride 'Em Cowboy is far from being Bud and Lou's best - but they made five movies in 1941. How could they all be good? I should have showed her Hold That Ghost.

Included amongst this treasure trove of A and C reissues is a passable, and probably the best available, print of One Night in the Tropics (reissue title sequence, scratchy soundtrack). Bud and Lou's first movie has been seen so infrequently that Chris Costello, in her affectionate biography Lou's On First, completely mis-remembers its content - although she's exactly right about one point: the plot, such as it is, has been completely shot to pieces in order to ram in several A and C routines, including a lamentably truncated "Who's On First". Nevertheless it's pure joy to see Bud and Lou perform even three minutes of this in nineteen-forty. They're young and fresh, and it's frustrating to have to sit through the dire Allan Jones - Nancy Kelly - Robert Cummings plot (I didn't; I used the fast-forward button) before they appear again and give us "Jonah and the Whale" and "Mustard" and the "deductions for lunch hours and holidays" routine.

After his baby son drowned in 1943, Lou's inner warmth seemed to vanish. You can see it in his eyes. For me, Lost In a Harem is almost unwatchable because Lou is so obviously heartbroken, and this is apparent even in the production stills. To borrow a phrase from John Osborne, he was "dead behind the eyes". He was never the same again; the magic had gone, and it's from this point that we get the legend of Lou the sadistic bully, throwing tantrums and behaving like a prima donna. Why else would guest star Errol Flynn, in the Colgate Comedy Hour of January 13 1952, stamp on Lou's leg? By this time all of Lou's little-boy-lost quality had vanished. He shouts his way through the entire thing; Bud is exhausted and subdued, not even bothering to keep Lou on track any more. That sharp classic-straightman discipline just isn't there. God knows what the rehearsals must have been like; Flynn's burst of unnecessary violence, during the "Niagara Falls" routine, is scarcely comedy. It looks more like revenge.

This is why the 1940-42 A and C movies, with all their tiresome, dated faults, are especially treasurable : they capture Lou's happiness before his world caved in on him. Bud and Lou should never be ignored. Even though they didn't originate much of their material (and the Pathe website shows Collinson and Dean performing their routines ten years earlier; Bill and Alfie were On First!) they preserved a vast chunk of American burlesque comedy. Bless 'em.

And incidentally, continuing with our theme of "who originated this routine?", consider this: Lou Costello, on his first, unsuccessful trip to Hollywood in 1927-28, is visible as an extra in the boxing-match audience during the first reel of The Battle of the Century, a sequence lost until the 1970s. Lou, not surprisingly, is the shortest one in the front row, sitting next to the young guy with the open-neck shirt; a comparison of this movie with the slim "Lou in his early twenties" photo between pages 86 and 87 of Lou's On First confirms that it's him. With its satirical swipe at the Dempsey-Tunney "long count" of September 22 1927 - a corrupt referee taking his time to count out Noah Young, but doing a swift "2-4-6-8-10!" when Stan hits the canvas - it's unquestionably a forerunner of Lou's boxing match in Buck Privates, thirteen years later. Did Lou remember this and recycle it? I think so.

Let's argue!

And why is this article called "Biffle Diffle"? Well, you'll have to watch One Night in the Tropics to find out - or better still, use fast-forward. You know it makes sense!

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