I grew up watching Abbott and Costello movies on WOR-TV channel 9, then an independent station in the New York City area. Every weekend one of the legendary team’s movies would be on and I would be glued to the TV set. Additionally, there was the Abbott and Costello Show which aired every weekday afternoon on WPIX Channel 11 just before or right after, I don’t remember which, The Three Stooges with Officer Joe Bolton doing the hosting. As a team Abbott and Costello made over thirty films, eight in two years! I’ve seen everyone, multiple times, some too many times to even remember. Along with “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” and “Hold That Ghost,” one of my favorites is “Buck Privates,” their second film together. The film was released in February 1941, the U.S. was only months away from entering World War II which was already raging in Europe. The comedy duo would soon be among the top box office attractions during the war and were the number one box office attraction in 1942.
Bud and Lou outlasted many of their contemporaries as they moved from Burlesque to Vaudeville to Movies, Radio and finally Television, successful in each and every medium. They first performed together as a team at the Eltinge Theater on 42nd street in New York City which was located in what is now the lobby of the AMC Empire 25.
The team was noted for the number of routines they managed to carry over from their days on the stage. Though extremely popular with audiences Abbott and Costello were never the darlings of the film intelligentsia like The Marx Brothers even though many of their routines were based on clever wordplay like “7 x13 =28,” “You’re 40 and She’s 10,” “Jonah and the Whale,” ”The Dice Game” or their most famous, the classic ”Who’s on First?” Abbott and Costello, unlike the Marxes, were seen as low class. I believe the reason for this was because of where their routines and humor were directed. The Marx Brothers attacked institutions, higher learning, the wealthy, authority and snobs while Abbott and Costello were just two guys trying to get through life, scheming their way, one day at a time. We could accept Groucho as a Professor at a university but Lou could barely hold a job selling ties on the street.
Selling men’s ties on the street is exactly what Bud and Lou are doing in “Buck Privates” when we find them on the run from police officer Mike Collins (Nate Pendleton) and wind up hiding in what they think is a movie theater but turns out to be a military recruiting station. Before you can say, “you’re in the Army now,” the boys are just that. The draft has just been reinstated, war in on the horizon and America’s best are signing up including spoiled rich playboy, Randolph Parker III (Lee Bowman) and his former chauffeur Bob Martin (Alan Curtis). Oh, and to the detriment of the boys, their nemesis police officer Collins is in the Army too somehow quickly jumping up to the rank of Sgt. Also in for the tour is the cute Jane Frazee as Judy Gray, the love interest for both rich boy Parker and blue collar Martin. Capping it off are the fabulous Andrew Sisters, Laverne, Maxene and Patty who light up the screen with a series of numbers including the great “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” later to be revived by Bette Midler. While the film states conscription into the service was recently initiated again, men seem to be lining up to enter the service at a speed suggesting they were giving away free money. The film avoids any mention of the war raging in Europe or the chance of America entering. Instead it focuses on and emphasizes patriotism with tunes like “You’re a Lucky Fellow, Mr. Smith” sung by The Andrew Sisters as the boys going marching off to boot camp.
With so much music, and classic Bud and Lou routines, there is really is not much of a plot in the film nor is there really a need for one. The boys go through training with the adversarial ex-cop, now Sgt. Collins in charge of them. Herbie Brown (Costello) is the typical Costello character, a child/man, innocent/slickster used and abused by his hustler partner Slick (Bud Abbott). Rich boy Parker III acts above it all, thinking his father, a hot shot politician in Washington, will have him out, back in civilian life and in the arms of some luscious ladies quicker than you can say, “Hey Abbott!” Parker and regular guy, Bob Martin both vie for the attention of hostess Judy Martin who slyly though sweetly, make no commitments to either guy obviously enjoying attention from both. When Parker’s father finally does arrive on the scene, he tells his snobby son he thinks time in the military will be good for him, and maybe, even make a man out of him.
Herbie meanwhile is, as expected, the worst soldier in the Army spending most of his time on KP with part time stooge, Shemp Howard. Actually, with these two guys in the Army, it’s amazing we had any chance at all of winning the oncoming war. Through it all Lou Costello is blessedly mischievous and Bud Abbott a slick huckster both trying to outsmart their adversaries and each other.
The film was a huge hit with the audience and made big time movie stars of Bud and Lou. They were the top Box Office Stars in 1942, remaining in the top tier at the box office for the rest of the decade. In 1947, with the war now over, Universal decided to make an alternate universe version of William Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives” a sequel to “Buck Privates” aptly titled “Buck Privates Come Home” with Nat Pendleton recreating his role as Sgt. Michael Collins.
As part of the Universal 100 celebration a blu-ray edition of this film has recently been released which includes the NBC special from a few years ago, “Abbott and Costello Meet Jerry Seinfeld.”
Even though it is seven decades since “Buck Privates” was in theaters and Boogie Woogie music, the military draft, both now things of the past, it is easy to see why this film was such a big hit in its time and remains even today a bundle of laughs. The Abbott and Costello routines remain classic bits of comedy spreading laughs across generations and the music has a rhythm that is as toe tapping today as it was back then.