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Abbott and Costello videos: WWII comic relief at its best

Published: Saturday, April 8 2000 12:00 a.m. MDT

Who's on first, What's on second, and Why -- well, it's hard to say why Abbott and Costello emerged as the most popular comedy team in America during World War II.

The answer may be that they weren't as surrealistically alien as the Marx Brothers, as antiquatedly painstaking as Laurel and Hardy or as violently outlandish as the Three Stooges. The duo's lightning patter -- seasoned with slapstick and honed to perfection after four years in radio and vaudeville -- must have been a tonic to war-weary Americans, who perhaps recognized something of the national character in the bossy, fast-talking, post-Depression flim-flam man, Bud Abbott, and his eternal victim, the pudgy and infantile but ultimately unsinkable Lou Costello.Bud and Lou were caricatures of "normal" people in an abnormal era, not improbable human cartoons like such predecessors as Harpo Marx, Stan Laurel and Curly.

Whatever the reason for their popularity, not only did Abbott and Costello essentially save Universal Studios from bankruptcy, but in 1942 the team was the top box-office draw in the nation. From 1940 to 1946, the pair starred in 18 features -- an astonishing output by any measure.

"They truly had an effect on the country's morale," says unabashed A&C fan Jerry Seinfeld. "They were the nation's comic relief."

Seinfeld has even more to say about Bud and Lou in "Abbott and Costello Meet Jerry Seinfeld," an NBC comedy special packed with rare footage that is now available from Universal Studios Home Video in a box set with eight A&C features. The films also are available separately.

Universal has done a wonderful job packaging these VHS releases. The tapes come in classy-looking gold-foil boxes, and each movie is preceded -- as it would have been in a 1940s theater -- by a vintage travelog, a beautiful Technicolor Walter Lantz cartoon featuring the likes of Woody Woodpecker and Andy Panda, and trailers for Abbott and Costello features and such other contemporary Universal pictures as "The Invisible Woman" and "The Bank Dick."

So here is a capsule guide to the eight Abbott and Costello films that have been released to kick off the new "Universal Studios' Comedy Legends" video series.

-- "One Night in the Tropics" (1940) -- Tagline: "Radio's prize nitwits in their first screen appearance!" Premise: Bud and Lou -- as "Bud Abbott" and "Lou Costello" -- are mere supporting characters for Robert Cummings in this romantic comedy based on a novel by Charlie Chan creator Earl Derr Biggers and set in a typical backlot paradise in which the characters spoon on studio verandas in front of rear-projected moonlit bays. Snappy patter: Lou: "Maybe he's over in my hotel suit." Bud: "Not your suit. Your suite." Lou: "You're cute too, Abbott." Words to live by: Lou admits "I'm a baaaad boy" and says of Abbott: "Irksome, isn't he?" Verdict: Irresistible corn, comedy and music for fans of the '40s.

-- "Hold That Ghost" (1941) -- Tagline: "Those fun-atics are at it again! Enjoying a jaunt with a haunt. . . ." Premise: Chuck (Bud) and Ferdie (Lou) inherit a "haunted" tavern. Guests: The Andrews Sisters and the bizarre orchestra leader and vocalist Ted Lewis ("Is eeeev'rybody happy?"). Lou's antics: Breathlessly wheezing with fear at sight of a moving candle. Support: Joan Davis as a professional radio screamer and Stooge Shemp Howard as a soda jerk. Verdict: Better than "Ghostbusters II."

-- "Who Done It?" (1942) -- Premise: Chick (Bud) and Mervin (Lou) are aspiring mystery writers (one of their scripts is titled "The Midget Gets the Chair, or Small Fry") who try to solve a murder committed "live" during an "Inner Sanctum"-like radio broadcast. Lou's antics: Sparring with an ornery drinking fountain. Support: Jerome Cowan, William Bendix and Mary Wickes. Verdict: By returning the boys to their radio roots, this is one of Bud and Lou's most ingenious films -- the inspiration for George Lucas's "Radioland Murders" (1994) and a fiction-bleeds-into-reality predecessor to "Scream."

-- "Pardon My Sarong" (1942) -- Premise: Algy (Bud) and Wellington (Lou) are Chicago bus drivers who wind up on a South Sea island where the natives are not only restless but built (and played by "the Saronga Dancing Girls"). Guests: The film begins with the Four Ink Spots "dishin' out some solid jive," followed by the incredible dance routines of Tip, Tap and Toe. Lou's antics: Coconuts fall on his head, a crocodile bites his butt and he gets speared in the bottom by a swordfish. Support: William Demarest and veteran villain Lionel Atwill. Verdict: Makes "Gilligan's Island" seem like "Robinson Crusoe."

-- "Hit the Ice" (1943) -- Premise: Flash (Bud) and Tubby (Lou) are would-be news photographers mistaken for Detroit hit men who wind up at a fancy ski resort with bank robbers. Guests: Johnny Long and His Orchestra ("Hey there, picklepuss, get with the clarinet/ Mr. Thumbs, beat those drums") and Ginny Simms, who yodels "The Slap-Happy Polka" and sings "I'd Like to Set You to Music." Lou's antics: Mishaps involving a Murphy bed and a fire ladder. Words to live by: "Pack that grip!" Support: Sheldon Leonard as a gangster and Mantan Moreland in a cameo. Verdict: Lou at absolutely the top of his form.

-- "The Naughty Nineties" (1945) -- Premise: Dexter (Bud) and Sebastian (Lou) are riverboat entertainers who get mixed up with gamblers. Lou's antics: the finale finds him dressed as Little Eva for a production of "Uncle Tom's Cabin"; meanwhile, writer Felix Adler recycles much of the same material he offered to the Three Stooges, including the routine in which a feather-stuffed pot holder is cooked into a layer cake. Snappy patter: Bud and Lou perform the entire six-minute "Who's on First?" routine -- you can actually hear crew members laughing off camera. Support: Henry Travers and Clarence Muse. That's What They Say in Tunica, Too: Riverboat gambler Alan Curtis rationalizes: "Nobody asked them to come here. We just set up the tables and they fight for seats. They crowd in to give us their money." Verdict: Even for a comedy, that is one fakey-looking escaped bear!

-- "Here Come the Co-Eds" (1946) -- Tagline: "A Colossal Carnival of Campus Cuties!" Premise: Slats (Bud) and Oliver Quackenbush (Lou) become caretakers at a college for women. Guests: The immortal "Phil Spitalny and His Hour of Charm All Girl Orchestra featuring Evelyn and Her Magic Violin." Lou's antics: He swallows a pair of dice, so people shake him and then check the results through an X-ray machine; he wrestles 'The Masked Marvel' and participates in an otherwise all-girl basketball game against a professional team, The Amazons. Snappy Patter: Lou: "I really don't like dancing because it's nothing but hugging set to music." Woman: "What don't you like about it?" Lou: "The music." Support: Lon Chaney Jr. as chief caretaker 'Strangler' Johnson.

-- "The Time of Their Lives" (1946) -- Tagline: "What a predicament for chubby Lou -- he's a ghost, all right!" Premise: Lou plays Horatio Prim, "an excellent tinker and a true patriot" during the Revolutionary War who is mistakenly shot as a traitor along with an equally innocent woman (played by "Holiday Inn's" Marjorie Reynolds). The ghosts are forced to haunt the upstate New York mansion where they were killed until Horatio is able to make contact with a modern-day psychiatrist, played by Abbott. Snappy patter: Wise-cracking Binnie Barnes to spooky housekeeper Gale Sondergaard: "Didn't I see you in 'Rebecca'?" Verdict: Bud and Lou barely interact, but this is one of their most innovative, intelligently scripted and entertaining films.

For more information, check out www.universal studios.com.

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