Archive for Lou Costello

Why My Low Regard for Lou Costello is Not Just “My Opinion”

Posted in Clown, Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , on August 9, 2017 by travsd

On the other hand, my high regard for the skill of Bud Abbott is a matter of record.

Having re-posted last year’s piece about “When Classic Comedy Died” yesterday and having gotten some of the usual expected chagrined replies, I offer this long-germinating blanket rebuttal.

What you get a lot when you write criticism is the age-old retort that “opinions are subjective” and “that it’s all just a matter of taste.” That is certainly a partial truth, and you’ll find my own defenses of that point of view in numerous writings of mine, including this one on Ed Wood and this one on John Waters. I don’t expect everyone to love these highly idiosyncratic film-makers as I do. I simply champion them and share my enjoyment with others. That said, I’ll also express what has come to be something of a heresy in America: all opinions are not equal. For someone who dares to call himself a professional critic, the weight of his opinion is partly a matter of instinct but also a matter of cultivation.

What does cultivation consist of? It consists of education. I don’t mean a university degree (I don’t possess one, although I did study criticism at the college level). I mean exposure — to as much relevant human culture as possible over as long a time as possible. In the case of comedy film that refers to the work of particular comedians (in their entirety), the work of particular directors and producers and writers and studios (in their entirety), the entire history of comedy film, the entire history of cinema…and THEN everything that’s relevant to THAT: the entire history of theatre, of visual art, of literature, of dance, of music…and THEN, because cinema is a form of cultural expression, everything that’s relevant to that, which essentially means a solid grounding in world history.  And, then, because you are writing as a critic, it also means reading widely the work of the greatest past critics in every artistic field. And, then, if you want to be a truly great critic of comedy, it doesn’t hurt to be an actual PRACTITIONER of comedy, to study and perform it and write it and make it, and to live and work among other professionals within its myriad forms, whether it’s stand-up, or clowning, or acting in Noel Coward. Beyond that, it is helpful to have had the experience of doing all these things over several decades.

To have to done all that is to have the ability to look at something and know –with great assurance — what is possible. I have a better than sketchy awareness of what has been accomplished over the past two millennia in western culture, so I can easily imagine what CAN be done. And thus I have an opinion about what OUGHT to be done. The usual response is a sort of chagrined, infantile, sputtering “How can you say that? How dare you say that?”  My answer is: Well, because I have seen this, this , this, and this. The feeble thing you champion is very sparing in virtues I know to exist and are fully within the ability of an artist to concoct, execute and share. You come to me with the scribblings and caterwauling of toddlers, the makework of yawning time-servers, and you say it is a classic and it is “great” and I tell you it’s not. What do I care what someone who knows less than me thinks? The Village Idiot may laugh at a dog on fire in the middle of the street; does that mean I have to be impressed and respect that opinion? I have been to the Himalayas, trekked through the Sahara, Sailed the Seven Seas. Those who haven’t can call a foothill “Everest”, but I won’t be fooled.

Some people who don’t read very well claimed that my take-down of Lou Costello in my book Chain of Fools was not supported. NOPE. The entire book draws a very careful picture of my idea of what an excellent comedian is and does, what the challenges are, what the criteria for excellence are. And then I go on to point out that Costello does not learn from the wisdom of the artists who had solved the same comedy problems 30 years earlier and does NOT follow in their footsteps. I don’t know that Costello even grappled with the problems, he just blew them off, probably wasn’t even aware that they existed. But they do. Expertise IS A THING. Knowledge and skill EXIST. We now live in a society where those attributes are so disrespected and shunted aside that a man (and I use the term loosely) with neither expertise or knowledge or any other virtue has assumed THE HIGHEST OFFICE IN THE LAND. In the ideal world, pretenders aren’t even worth talking about. In the real world, they attain places of prominence and power and popularity all the time, and so they must be pointed out, exposed, confronted, ridiculed, and whatever else it takes to crack open whatever mass delusion has allowed them to pollute human culture.

I don’t care if you – or billions of people — “like Lou Costello” or “find him funny”. I’ve never said I don’t laugh at him, by the way, or that I didn’t “like” portions of the boring, ill-made movies he co-starred in. As I say in Chain of Fools, we all laugh at the contortions of idiots all the time in our lives. I am going to ride the subway later today. Inevitably, some real life characters out there are going to make me privately smile. But there are standards in any field. Having watched thousands of movies, read and seen hundreds of plays and novels, and performed myself for decades, my standards for comedy are extremely high. These include:

  1. Physical skill. Chaplin or Keaton or any of the great physical comedians of the silent era could take a pratfall (for example) with laser accurate precision. “You want me to fall? Where should I land? How should I land? You need a backflip? A nip-up? I can land with my ass in this bucket if you want.”  The level of skill is important because it allows us to draw a line between the artist’s intention and the execution. Did he do what he set out to do? This is fundamental for all criticism, and we are talking about criticism, are we not?  Costello has zero chops in this area. In this regard, he never deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with the great physical comedians. He is a great mass of imprecision. He simply lets fly and gravity does the rest. Costello is just randomly fooling around, like a dog or a chimp does onstage when it stops listening to its trainer. But he’s worse than that, because unlike the dog or the monkey, HE DOESN’T KNOW ANY TRICKS. Buster Keaton or Lupino Lane or Al St. John can do a no-hands somersault. What can Costello do? Don’t call him a “slapstick master” if he hasn’t mastered any slapstick!
  2. Acting ability. This is just as crucial in comedy as in drama, at least in any comedy with a plot. This isn’t necessarily an argument for verisimilitude or truth or believability, although in the best comedians even that can be quite funny. But a comedian’s performance, unless he intends to purposely be subversive, is ideally to serve the narrative by responding to plot developments as the character in the story would. As a clown, the responses can and should be exaggerated. But they must purposeful, not RANDOM. Costello’s reactions very rarely match what is called for in the script. Some can, and probably will, argue that he is being subversive. My question would be, to what end? OF COURSE, a case can be made for doing the wrong things the wrong way for the sake of comedy. Harry Langdon, the Marx Brothers? But I KNOW what they’re doing, I know HOW they are being subversive and defying our expectations. Costello makes faces, squirms, flinches, falls down, but not in ways that serve the story, not in ways that mirror human behavior or human experience, but simply as a selfish, scene stealing plea for attention — so it’s neither art, nor craft nor even a good show. He short circuits whatever’s going on, stops the movie cold, shuts out all his scene partners, and makes a direct demand to the audience that they laugh at his funny faces for the sake alone of THAT. By his actions he is telling us not to care about the story, nor even to care about the character he is playing. The only thing that matters, he tells us with his actions, is the gratification, of him, Lou Costello. He acts out like a kindergartner with A.D.D., with neither logic nor coherence NOR intentional illogic or incoherence. He’s just an idiot. Not a comedian PLAYING an idiot. I mean documentary footage of an ACTUAL idiot, fucking around. It’s about as rewarding as laughing at the Titticut Follies. It may be temporarily amusing, but I don’t see where I’m obligated to RESPECT that, let alone EXPRESS respect for that.

Attached to these evaluationary measurements, my reactions to Costello’s comedy are much less like “mere opinions” and much more like objectivity. I am literally MEASURING his films against those of much more skilled comedians (there are many of them). If you like him uncritically, I consider it much more likely that YOUR’S is a “mere opinion” — an unexamined reflex action, an outgrowth of an impression you first formed when you were about four years old. Naturally we love things we first encountered when we were young. Here is a list of mine. I don’t argue that they are all brilliant or classics or that they need to mean anything to anyone else. Some are quite bad; I just happen to love them. So let it be, for God’s Sake, with Lou Costello.

Right?  So this isn’t about “I don’t like Lou Costello.” There are very definite reasons why Lou Costello fails to fulfill his function as a movie comedian on just about every single level. People always come back with “Well, he makes me laugh”. Well he occasionally makes me laugh too, but so can a Youtube video of a pig splashing around in its own shit. That doesn’t cause me to respect him, or call him “one of the greats”, or call his fuckin’ terrible assembly line movies “classics”! Give me a fuckin’ break here!   It depends what you want out of a movie I guess. I don’t want to spend two hours watching a film that’s 70% filler, punctuated with sporadic comedy routines starring a comedian who can neither act nor take a decent pratfall nor even hit his mark. But hey if that’s good enough for you, be my guest! By this measure, I guess Johnny Knoxville is Grimaldi. 

Abbott and Costello: The Horror Comedies

Posted in Abbott and Costello, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2015 by travsd

Today being the birthday of Bud Abbott AND the early days of the Halloween season today we thought we’d do a little post on the horror comedies of Abbott and Costello. And, no, Abbott and Costello Go to Mars is not a horror comedy, it’s a science fiction comedy!

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Hold That Ghost (1941)

The first of A & C’s many spook comedies, a sub-genre much in vogue at the time, and one of the team’s few (maybe the only one?) that doesn’t plug into a pre-existing Universal Pictures horror franchise. The antics aren’t worlds away from the Three Stooges. For musical diversion they are re-united with the popular Andrews Sisters, and Ted Lewis and his band are also on deck. And a supporting cast that includes Joan Davis, Shemp HowardRichard Carlson, and Mischa Auer. 

The boys are substitute waiters at a nightclub, who are fired when Costello accidentally throws some chicken in the boss’s face. Then they get a job at a filling station and somehow wind up in a gangster’s car as he flees from police. The gangster is shot and dies, but he scribbles out a will first, bequeathing an old hotel to them for helping with the getaway (and just to spite his double-crossing colleagues). Unfortunately the lawyer who executes the will works for a rival gangster and assigns a henchman to go with them to the hotel. Joan Davis is quite funny as a radio personality who comes along for some reason. Shemp plays a soda jerk. An exceedingly dull romantic couple comes along, as well.  A terrible thunder storm forces them all to stay in the apparently haunted hotel, which trns out to have been an old bootlegger’s roadhouse. And then….and endless repetition of one or another seeing something scary, screaming and running to tell the others. This happens about 70 times and then some police show up and nab the crooks.

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Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Yeah, I know the title card at the beginning the film says Bud Abbott Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein [sic, i.e., missing an “and” or ambersand], but you know what? You’re fuckin’ retarded if that’s what you call it. Anybody normal calls it Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein if they bother referring to the film at all. This is the first of the duo’s films to match them up with Universal Horror monsters, and as such is a stoke of producing genius, although the word “genius” can’t exactly be applied to the screenplay, direction or performances. The title of the film is a bit of a misnomer. While A & C do indeed meet Frankenstein’s monster (here played by Glenn Strange), they spend just as much time with Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and the Wolfman (Lon Chaney, Jr.). The premise is that the bodies of the former two have been accidentally sent to a wax museum where delivery boys Abbott and Costello encounter them…and encounter them…and encounter them. With some foresight they might have some of this monster power in reserve for future pictures. Nevertheless, the studio and the team had several more monster pictures in them.

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Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949)

This one gets an honorable mention here, as it is not actually a horror comedy. Technically it belongs to the closely related subgenre, the murder mystery comedy! As you saw above, Karloff was not involved in the making of the previous film. In fact he didn’t even see it, although he did help promote it. His last role as the monster had been a decade earlier in Son of Frankenstein (1939). In this Abbott and Costello comedy, he plays a sinister Swami. The plot is that Lou is falsely accused of murder, and Abbott, a hotel house detective, has to clear him.

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Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)

Well, they do and they don’t. The title of this film in some ways promises more than it delivers. It doesn’t for example deliver Claude Rains or even his character from the original crop of Invisible Man films. The scientist in this film is one “Dr. Gray”…the uncle of the girl of a boxer who has been falsely accused of murder. It is the boxer who takes the invisibility serum and provides the familiar spectacle, sometimes rendered as a guy in bandages and sunglasses, sometimes as floating objects. Abbott and Costello play private detectives who help the boxer clear his name. Lou gets scared a lot, and Bud says things like “Why, you’re seeing things!” and “It’s all in yer head!” In too many ways to count, the original film The Invisible Man, directed by James Whale, is much funnier than this movie.

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Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)

Interestingly, though the story of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had been filmed many times, it was not a story associated with Universal Horror (the classic versions were by Paramount and MGM). While the comedy is the usual repetitive stuff, there are several elements that commend it: its atmospheric Edwardian London setting, the presence of Boris Karloff as Jekyll, and cast members like Sid Fields and Reginald Denny.

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Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)

Ironically, think this is a much more entertaining mummy movie than all of Universal’s “serious” mummy sequels combined. It contains much more of what I want from a mummy movie, at any rate…an Egyptian setting, tombs, pyramids, guys in pith helmets and of course a somnambulant, dusty, 4,000 year old fellow walking around wrapped in ace bandages. Most of the “legit” sequels turn out to be set in the U.S. for some odd reason (probably expense) and we get far too little onscreen mummy time. The irony is that in my view Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy is the best of all the sequels to the original The Mummy. That is, until the reboot. Because of its close association with an actual Universal horror franchise, this is the one that most resembles Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. It’s one of the better ones.

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The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959)

We give this one honorable mention because the team had split by this stage and Costello appears in it without Abbott. This one is interesting (in the abstract) because it parodies contemporary 50s horror for the first time as opposed to the “classics” of the genre. Costello  plays a schlub who is forced to marry a girl who has been exposed to radiation and has grown to the size of a building. I have not yet seen this legendary film, but am dying to. It was released after Costello’s death that year of a heart attack.

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And check out my other book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

On Straight Men, Comedy Teams and Belated Props for Abbott and Costello

Posted in Abbott and Costello, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2015 by travsd

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Some thoughts I’ve been kicking around about the great movie comedy teams and the role of the straight man…

The genesis of this train of thought was a revelation I had the other day (probably an obvious fact to some of you) about what makes the Abbott and Costello movies unique and a way in which they excel (if perhaps don’t completely succeed). Their films are perhaps the most successful attempts to integrate a certain kind of old-style verbal two-man comedy act into a feature length narrative. This is simultaneously faint praise (when you come right down to it, there were very few other attempts) and high praise (what they attempted was darn nigh impossible.)

When I say the attempts were rare, I mean they were rarer than you think. I am talking about something very specific. There were many kinds of comedy teams in vaudeville and burlesque. One of the most common had its roots in the minstrel show.** This was the comedy duo or double act which paired a sillier comic with a straight man or feeder, a guy whose job was to do the set ups for the punchlines delivered by the comic. The original straight man was the Interlocutor in minstrelsy; the End Men were the comics. In the two man act, the straight man became a specialty unto itself. The straight man is like the puppet master, the Power Behind the Throne, a magician who skillfully and selflessly directs the audience’s attention onto the comic, and (truth be known) even cues them when to laugh. Bud Abbott was considered the very best of this species of creature in burlesque. Both vaudeville and burlesque were full of these kind of two man acts, hundreds of them. But very few of them made it to movies. People often lump other comedy teams in with them and speak of them in similar terms, but I think it’s important to make some distinctions so that you can see what’s unique about Abbott and Costello.

Most of the successful and famous comedy teams in films were actually NOT of the type I am describing. Most don’t have a guy who is a simple “feeder”. He is not a straight man in that sense. You might more accurately call him the “straighter man” than the straight man. Both the members of such comedy teams are funny. They have distinct characters, and one of the pair is slightly less silly. But he’s not a feeder. In Laurel and Hardy that person is Oliver Hardy. In Wheeler and Woolsey that person is Bob Woolsey. In Hope and Crosby, that person is Bing. In Carney and Brown (heaven forfend) that person is Wally Brown. With Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly, it’s Thelma. And so on, through the years. In Laverne and Shirley, it’s Shirley. Both members of the team have fleshed out, funny characters. They are comic actors in stories, not just joke tellers. Yes, they deliver jokes, but not for their own sake, in a routine. The main thing is the story. Of necessity, one of the pair is slightly straighter, but in no sense is he or she just a feeder.

Integrating into a story a vaudeville team with their pre-established rhythm of pat routines is quite a different thing. Who are these kinds of teams, with this kind of straight man? There were hundreds back in the day, but because of this hurdle, very few made it into movies so you’ll only know a few of them. Jay Brennan of Savoy and Brennan was that kind of straight man. Accompanist Ted Shapiro played the role to Sophie Tucker. Bob Hope was straight man to a Dumb Dora character named Honey Chile (and later on tv to countless comedians). Frank Fay was straight man to his stooge, Patsy Kelly. Ted Healy was straight man to his Three Stooges (and I have a heretical theory that they would have made better movies together if he hadn’t dropped them).

Every ventriloquist plays the straight man to his dummy. Thus Edgar Bergen, in addition to his many other gifts, was one of the great straight men of all time. (NOTE: he’s in many movies. How many does he star in?).

George Burns and Gracie Allen were in films throughout the 1930s, but ALWAYS as parts of ensembles. They weren’t expected to carry a 90 minute or two-hour picture themselves, because no one could figure out what to do with George. In their last one Honolulu (1939), they separated the two completely. (The half-hour sit com format suited them best).

And the Marx Brothers had a great straight man. And contrary to what people usually say, it WASN’T Zeppo! Most of the time, Zeppo was more like a vestigal, underused juvenile. On only a couple of occasions on film is he a straight man in a comedy routine. More often, GROUCHO plays straight man to CHICO, in select scenes in their first six or seven pictures. But notice, once MGM began privileging plots over comedy, those sections of their films evaporated. And later of course, Groucho was straight man to his many contestants on You Bet Your Life. Basically all hosts of variety shows, talk shows and game shows play straight men to their guests.

In all these cases, the straight man is just feeding lines: “No, what IS black and white and red all over, Mr. Bones?”

Then there are two interesting vaudeville teams which lacked a straight man but were nonetheless dependent on artificial routines, thus making it just as hard to integrate them into a plot. Clark and McCullough were surrealists like the Marx Brothers. Interestingly, Paul McCullough was not a straight man, but a stooge, but since Bobby Clark was such a ham, the role wound up just as thankless. They never made it out of two reel comedy shorts as a team, and McCullough’s early suicide prevented possible future exploration. And then there are the Ritz Brothers, whose stock in trade was eccentric musical numbers. Like Burns and Allen they were usually employed best in large ensembles — how do you make them the heroes? They’re essentially a three headed insect!

And so we begin to see what Abbott and Costello (and their producers, writers, handlers) began to accomplish in their films: an integration, an uneasy grafting of such routines into plots. It’s imperfect. Properly speaking, neither member of the team actually has a character, just the faintest of pencil outlines. And normally the plot is non-comical and exceedingly dull. But it is a kind of stepping stone, and given the nature of the team and their experience (delivering five minute verbal comedy routines) kind of miraculous. Martin and Lewis took it a step further, treading a line somewhere between Abbott and Costello and the likes of Wheeler and Woolsey or Hope and Crosby. (They were helped along by the fact that their comedy routines weren’t based on verbal, dialogue based jokes but revolved around Lewis’s bizarre physical antics). But — and here’s what’s instructive — later, similar teams failed. Watch Allen and Rossi in The Last of the Secret Agents (1966) or Rowan and Martin in The Maltese Bippy (1969).

Credit where credit is due! I won’t concede what many seem to claim, that Abbott and Costello are somehow “geniuses”. But you do have to acknowledge that they got farther than just about anybody at solving a certain comedy/ story problem, and so deserve their cherished niche in the film comedy pantheon.

(I have a solution, a secret solution about how to solve the problem, by the way, but I prefer to try to demonstrate it in practice sometime rather than spill it here. Essentially, Shakespeare solved this 400 years ago. And if you think there’s not lowbrow comedy in Shakespeare, look again).

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

The Abbott and Costello Show

Posted in Abbott and Costello, Burlesk, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Italian, Jews/ Show Biz, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , on October 2, 2013 by travsd

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Today is Bud Abbott’s birthday. Those who really know me know I’m a huge fan of Abbott, and, um, less enthusiastic about Costello (see previous post here and my section on them in Chain of Fools). Today it occurred to me that rather than go negative as in the past I would offer up — not a backpeddling but a clarification.

My criticisms of the team are about their movies. When I was a kid, an Abbott and Costello movie was something one watched when it was raining outside and there was nothing better on the other two channels. And then I would do something else while the movie was on, and then wander away from the tv long before it was over. Am I starting off on the wrong foot? It’s okay, this paragraph is over.

Where Abbott and Costello truly excelled — and I use that word with no hedging or qualification — was television.  They were terrific on variety shows where they could do the old burlesque routines and improvise and generally cut up. And they (and their writers and cast) were SUPERLATIVE on their sit com, which ran from 1952 through 1954. This show has been on several lists of 100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time” — I could sign on for that, absolutely, without reservation.

Directed and produced by old silent comedy vet Jean Yarbrough, shot at the old Hal Roach studios, the show had a kind of magic to it, as the team juggled very simple plots about trying to pay the rent on their shabby apartment, with classic burlesque routines. The universe stretched from old time vaudeville stereotypes like Mr. Bacciagalupe…to the bizarre spectacle of middle aged  Joe Besser playing an obnoxious child named “Stinky”…to the hilarious Sidney Fields as their grumpy landlord and foil…to a chimp named Bingo who was dressed just like Costello. Writing for the show was one of the last jobs of comedy veteran Clyde Bruckman.

The show’s half hour format made for a lean mean comedy machine, equivalent to an old time comedy short, a format much more appropriate to the team’s broad comedy…no padding with romantic subplots and musical numbers, or dreary scenes with scheming villains. If only their movies could have been more like this! Here are some classic scenes from the show:


For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out more about vaudeville and burlesqueconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Max Baer: Jethro’s Boxing Dad

Posted in Hollywood (History), Sport & Recreation, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on February 11, 2011 by travsd

Heavyweight champ Max Baer, whose heyday was the 1930s, made appearances in late vaudeville as well as Hollywood films, including The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933) with Myrna Loy and Walter Huston, and (alongside his boxer brother Buddy) in the 1949 Abbott and Costello film Africa Screams. Half Jewish, he was much loved (along with Joe Louis) for being a foil to the Nazi boxer Max Schmeling. But his best remembered legacy today is probably his son Max Baer, Jr. who played “Jethro” on the Beverly Hillbillies with Buddy Ebsen. The elder Baer would not live long enough to see that come to pass. He passed away in 1959.

Now here’s Baer and Joe Louis being interviewed by that famous sports journalist Lou Costello:

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please consult my critically acclaimed book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other fine establishments.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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