Sunday, December 01, 2013

Film Classics of the 20th Century

So far in this series, we've looked at That Darn Cat!,  Cactus Flower,  Family Plot, House Sitter,  and Outrageous Fortune.   Film classics are the films that grab you, even on repeat viewings, especially on repeat viewings.

movie montage

The comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello started out in vaudeville, moved on to radio, film and television.  In 1933's Flying Down to Rio, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were teamed for the first time and they stole the show -- even though they were the supporting act.  Supporting act Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis stole 1949's My Friend Irma out from the leads.  Like those successful teams, Abbott and Costello were supposed to be an element of 1940's One Night in the Tropics but walked off with the film.

The comedy team would make 36 films -- One Night in the Tropics through Dance With Me Henry.  One of their films that qualifies as 20th century classic is 1942's Who Done It?


Mervyn (Costello) and Chick (Abbott) are soda jerks ("We just took this job yesterday") who aspire to be radio writers.  They work right next to the radio network GBC, it's why they took the soda jerk jobs, in the hopes that they'd be able to sell their material to GBC employees that stop by.


They explain that to Juliet Collins who's the secretary to the big wig running GBC, Colonel J.R. Andrews (Thomas Gomez).  Abbott explains to Costello that Juliet's their best shot at breaking into the business so "you've got to make a play for her."

Costello: Chick, she ain't pretty.

Abbott: Oh, what's that got to do with it?

Costello: It's got a lot to do with it.

Abbot: You're crazy.

Costello: Oh, I've seen better heads on malted milks.

Fortunately, Juliet can give as good as she gets such as when Costello declares he's her Romeo and she shoots back, "I like my Romeos king size."

Even more fortunately, she's played by Mary Wickes.  Wickes made her mark in many films -- three with Bette Davis (The Man Who Came To Dinner, June Bride and Now, Voyager), White Christmas, The Music Man, The Trouble With Angels (and the sequel Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows), The Spirit Is Willing, Postcards From The Edge, Sister Act (and the sequel Sister Act 2: Back In The Habit), Winona Ryder's Little Women.

Here, she leads the strongest supporting cast Abbott and Costello had in a film -- a cast which includes stand out performances by William Bendix (Detective Brannigan) and William Gargan (Lt. Moran) as cops after Abbott and Costello and Walter Tetley as an elevator operator who repeatedly tricks and torments Costello (asking him, for example, if he has change and then trading him two dimes for a nickle).


Along with Wilkes and other strong supporting players, the film zips along in part because everything doesn't come to a standstill for a musical number -- as is sometimes the case in their other films.

The boys show up for a broadcast of the nightly serial Murder At Midnight.  During the live broadcast, Colonel Andrews is killed.  Abbott convinces Costello that if they can solve the murder, they can get on the air.

At one point, as they're investigating, it's noted the Colonel died when "10,000 volts went through his body." And Costello asks, "I beg your pardon?"  The reply is, "He got 10,000 volts."  This leads to a word play exchange on watts/what and volts/votes.

Bud Costello: That's enough to elect anybody.  He should be president.

Lou Abbott:  Nah, not that kind.

Bud Costello:  What kind?

Lou Abbott:  Volts.

Bud Costello:  That's what I said.  He got 10,000.

Lou Abbott:  You know what volts are?

Bud Costello:  They're what?

Lou Abbott:  That's right.

Bud Costello:  What'd I say?

Lou Abbott:  Volts are watts.

Bud Costello: Go ahead and tell me.

Lou Abbott:  You just said it.

Bud Costello:  I just asked you to tell me what I said, what'd I say?

Lou Abbott:  Volts are watts.

Bud Costello:  Votes are what?  

Lou Abbott:  Yes.

Bud Costello:  I'm asking you, what's volts?

Lou Abbott:  That's right.

Bud Costello: Don't try to twist me.  Now what are you talking about a dialect?

Lou Abbott:  Watts, watts, watts!

Bud Costello:  What, what, what, what?

Lou Abbott:  Volts.

Bud Costello:  What's votes?

Lou Abbott:  That's right.

Bud Costellow:  Well go ahead and tell me.

Lou Abbott: Well, that's it.

Bud Costello:  What are the votes?

Lou Abbott:  That's right.

Bud Costello:  I'm asking you.

Lou Abbott:  Watts are volts.

Bud Costello:  What?

Lou Abbott:  That's right. 

Bud Costello:  Next thing you know you'll be telling me, "What's on second base!"

That's actually one of two jokes noting the duo's famous Who's On First? routine.


Abbott explains the cops want them for posing as cops and the murderer wants them because they have the evidence (a glove).  And finding out who the murderer is will involve Costello joining an acrobatic team (and crashing through the stage floor), bickering with a telephone operator, taking to the roof of the radio building and more.



It's a funny film, a very funny film, and great to see one of the screen's finest comedic duos doing slapstick, verbal routines and one liners with flair and ease.  Stanley Roberts, Edmund Joseph and John Grant wrote the script.  Erle C. Kenton, who'd just directed Abbott and Costello in Pardon My Sarong, directed this follow up.

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