Monday, July 13, 2015

…just gimme that countryside…

You’ve no doubt noticed that things have been a bit quiet on the blog of late…and for that, I deeply apologize.  As in the case of past absences, there is a long and involved tale explaining my extended disappearance…so I invite you to turn out your lights…that’s right…lights out…everybody… (Okay, it’s really not all that scary…I just got carried away.)

A few days into the month of June, the ‘rents and I received a visit from the real estate broker who’s served as the intermediary in our dealings with the landlord.  The landlord lives quite a ways away from our rented digs in Athens, and so relies on this woman to handle all matters regarding the house.  Well, that’s the official explanation—I’ve long suspected the guy was just an asshole.  He gives new meaning to the term “absentee landlord.”

Or perhaps I should say “gave.”  After exchanging pleasantries in that typical fashion of Southern ladies, the broker drops the bomb on us.  My parents weren’t able to come to an agreement regarding renewal of the lease—they wanted the landlord to assume the financial responsibility for the truly decrepit condition of the outside pipes on the property, which he patently refused to do despite owning the house—and so the broker agreed to let us rent the place on a month-to-month basis since we had demonstrated that we were damn fine tenants in the four years we’d been living there.  Apparently, however, we weren’t that damn fine—she was there to inform us that he had decided to sell the place, and we had sixty days to vacate.

My mother didn’t take this news well at all.  She’s never liked the house from the moment we moved in (or so she says—“Your father insisted we rent this dump”) but she wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about packing up all our shit and relocating…mostly due to the fact that we no longer have the strength or stamina to successfully accomplish this goal.  Nevertheless, we had to go; fortunately for us, my sister-in-law would be in the Athens area to help us find a new Rancho Yesteryear.  My nephew Davis would be spending his first week at summer camp in the North Carolina area, and this allowed Katie to donate her much-appreciated time to find new lodgings.

The new Rancho Yesteryear.
We set our sights on a place in Winterville, Georgia.  Located in a peaceful community that brags about its status as “the City of Marigolds,” it’s about twenty minutes from the old Rancho Yesteryear…and though it’s a bit smaller than the old digs (and sadly, the rent is more) Mom fell in love with the place.  (Particularly since it’s equipped with a fireplace.  Yes, I realize having a blazing fireplace down South is insane, but I never claimed my mother wasn’t crazy.)

We also made plans to be out of the old place by the first of July…because we were damned if we were going to give that essobee any more of our rent dollars.  Sisters Debbie and Kat flew in to perform above and beyond the call of duty, and had it not been for their efforts we’d probably still be in the old place…sitting around naked.  We got most of our crap out on June 30—we even had the guy who moved us the last time return for an encore (he saw me when he came over for an estimate and shouted “I remember you—the guy with the DVDs!”)—and though we technically stayed over an extra day to have a cleaning crew come in and tidy up, the real estate broker did not charge us any extra pro-rated rent.  (For reasons that are still unexplained, the landlord did not allow her to list the house for sale and we kind of think by that point the broker had run out of f**ks to give with regards to the joint.)

Even with the amount of help we received in the move (for which we are most appreciative), things were not always smooth sailing.  For example, we couldn’t take our AT&T U-Verse with us to the new home (even though U-Verse could be real putzes at times), so we had to look for a new television provider.  We went with Dish (only because there was a Dish dish already in the yard of the new place), and not only had problems with the installation (the first guy couldn’t find the house) but learned to our chagrin that they block many of the Atlanta Braves ballgames on the weekends.  (When I called to ask about this bullsh*t, the customer service rep swore to me this was not Dish’s doing.  Apparently she did not think I was capable of researching this issue online.)

The Internet problems were just as bad.  Dish doesn’t offer Internet access; instead they farm it out to…who did not get a glowing recommendation from the guy who finally installed our Dish equipment.  (He didn’t have trouble finding the house.)  The Windstream people left a wireless modem on the carport of the new house, and while I stupefyingly managed to hook up the equipment, they had to send a second guy out to complete the installation because the phone jack wasn’t connected.  (They did not tell me this in the “Hola! We were here while you were out!” note they left with the modem.)

But the biggest clusterfudges involved our trash and sewer.  We had to contract trash pickup to a private concern because we now live south of Pixley, and on the first day of collection they drove right by the house.  (I thought at first that I didn’t get the cart and all our crap down to the curb in time…but when they passed us by the second week without taking the refuse I had to call the trash people and inform them of their mistake.  To their credit, the guy who came out to collect our garbage was quite nice and most apologetic.)

Then the pizza de resistance.  Saturday, July 4th, sewage-y water starts backing up in both the tub in the main bathroom and the shower stall in the smaller bath off my Mom and Dad’s room.  It’s brackish, smelly water, filled with leaves…and it would have to happen on the freaking Fourth of July; we call our new landlady, who tells us she’ll have her guy out to look at the problem as soon as he returns her call.

So we couldn’t use the plumbing for nearly two days, and staying in a hotel while the crisis abated was out of the question because we had already done that due to a similar problem that occurred during the last two days we spent in the old house.  (We were inches away from saying “this is not our problem” but we felt it wouldn’t be right when the cleaning people came in.)  You haven’t lived until your eighty-three-year-old father is having to squat waste solids into a trash bag-lined bucket, which he then stored in a closet located on our new carport.  Mom and I eventually had to take Dad’s “deposits” to a dumpster at a nearby Golden Pantry—whose manager graciously agreed to let us dump our trash during the Great Trash Abandonment Crisis.  (We now refer to the carport enclosure as “the dookie closet.”)

The landlady had to send “her guy” out because the new house is equipped with a septic tank.  The septic tank guy mentioned to us that he had told Landlady of a troublesome pipe that needed replaced in April (which turned out to be the reason for the July Fourth backup) after ruling out that the problem was caused by some torrential rains that fell during the days of our move.  The pipe was replaced, but at the risk of making a horrible pun that woman is officially on my sh*t list.  (I might be able to control my bowels but asking elderly people to do so is outrageous.)

These are just a few of the highlights of our moving adventure.  We’re gradually returning to a sense of normalcy, and though I wish our problems with both Dish and Windstream weren’t a continual headache both Mom and Dad are quite happy at the new Rancho Yesteryear.  (There’s a stand down the road that sells farm-fresh produce, and the ‘rents are positively giddy with the vegetables—Dad: “These tomatoes taste like tomatoes!”)  I’ll miss living in the Classic City (what can I say—I’m a city boy), but I suspect our new adventures in Hooterville will provide much wacky fodder for the blog.

At any rate, I hope to resume normal blogging here soon at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  Thanks for your patience during the unplanned leave of absence.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Guest Review – A Day in the Life of Dennis O’Keefe: Raw Deal (1948), The Fake (1953) and The Diamond Wizard (1954)

By Philip Schweier

Over the Memorial Day weekend, I took the time to watch a trio of crime thrillers, all starring Dennis O’Keefe. O’Keefe was a minor leading man in Hollywood who started out as an extra in the early days of talkies. He climbed through the ranks, also appearing on radio, and transitioned into television in the 1950s and ‘60s.

First of the films that I watched was Raw Deal (1948), in which he co-starred with Claire Trevor. O’Keefe plays Joe Sullivan, serving a stretch in prison on behalf of crime boss Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr). Coyle arranges to bust Joe out, but only in the hope that Joe gets gunned down by the authorities. Joe’s girl, Pat Cameron (Trevor), is waiting with the getaway car ready. With the cops hot on their heels, Joe and Pat head to the apartment of Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt), who works for the law firm working on Joe’s release. It seems Ann has developed a bit of a crush, and Joe intends to use it as leverage for help in getting out of town.

Traveling with two women enables Joe to squeak past the law and head for Crescent City, where he expects to meet up with Coyle, receive $50,000 that he’s owed, and head to South America. But Pat quickly notices Anne’s growing attachment, and begins to wonder how loyal her criminal boyfriend really is.

The film features a number of narrow brushes with the law, as well as a young Whit Bissel as the subject of a separate manhunt. Realizing he’s been betrayed, Joe decides to settle his score with Coyle before leaving the country.

Raymond Burr plays the part of crime boss Coyle to perfection. His sadistic nature slowly gives way to growing paranoia, as he fears Joe come gunning for him. Between Coyle’s growing anxiety, and Pat’s increasing jealousy, the film is an emotional thriller leading the audience to wonder how matters will eventually resolve themselves.

In The Fake (1953), O’Keefe is on the right side of the law, playing insurance investigator Paul Mitchell, who has been assigned to protect a masterpiece of art by da Vinci while it is on loan to London’s Tate Gallery. There, he meets Mary Mason (Coleen Gray), the daughter of an impoverished painter.

The da Vinci is under scrutiny due to the thefts of two other paintings, both of which were replaced by forgeries. Mitchell follows one lead after another as attempts are made to steal the da Vinci, beginning at its arrival in England. Meanwhile, he also continues to pursue Mary Mason. This romantic endeavor that is complicated when it appears her father may be involved in the art thefts.

As capers go, it’s enjoyable without trying too hard to be more than it is. It hardly ranks high on anyone’s list of mysteries, especially when one stunningly obvious clue seems to escape the notice of Mitchell and his cohorts. But it benefits from having been filmed on location in London at the Tate Gallery. Also, segments of Mussorgsky's “Pictures At An Exhibition" are used for the musical score, providing not only irony but a cheap source for music cues.

O’Keefe is once again in jolly old England for The Diamond Wizard (1954), this time as U.S. Treasury Agent Joe Dennison. He’s trailed a gang of thieves who’ve stolen a million dollars from a U.S. Treasury vault. Upon arrival, he discovers his case intersects with that of Scotland Yard Inspector McClaren (Philip Friend), who is investigating the disappearance of Dr. Eric Miller (Paul Hardtmuth), an atomic scientist. They compare notes, and Dennison discovers Miller has secretly been creating bogus diamonds, either willingly or under coercion. Their combined investigation evolves into a police procedural, as Dennison adapts his American methods to British sensibilities, while he and McClaren compete for the affections of Dr. Miller’s daughter, Marline (Margaret Sheridan).

Both The Fake and The Diamond Wizard were produced by British studios (Pax Films and Gibraltar Films, respectively), though perhaps due to its American leads, they have a more American tone. According to the IMDB, O’Keefe is credited as co-director on the Diamond Wizard, and co-authored the script under the pen-name Jonathan Rix.

While none of O’Keefe’s films stand out as exceptional thrillers or film noir, they’re pleasant diversions for those that haven’t seen them before.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

GetTV Theatre: Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960)

In 1949, Columbia Pictures brought Willard Motley’s 1947 novel Knock on Any Door to the big screen in a feature film directed by Nicholas Ray.  It’s the story of a young juvenile delinquent named Nick Romano (John Derek) who’s accused of killing a cop at point blank range and the attorney who agrees to take his case (against the advice of his law partners), Andrew Morton (Humphrey Bogart).  Door has its admirers and detractors; I’m fond of the movie as a Bogart fan, and it’s long been of interest to those cinephiles who consider themselves members-in-good-standing in the Nicholas Ray cult (it’s kind of a precursor to the director’s classic Rebel Without a Cause [1955]).  (Not the strongest film Ray ever directed…but I’d watch Door again over A Woman’s Secret [1949] any day of the week.)

Motley’s third novel (published in 1958) was a sequel to Knock on Any Door, and was released by the same studio eleven years later: Let No Man Write My Epitaph examines the troubled history of Nick’s progeny (also named Nick, and played by James Darren), a son born out of wedlock by one of Romano’s girlfriends, played by Shelley Winters.  Sadly, mom Nellie and Nick, Jr. reside in the same West Hamilton neighborhood in the Windy City, and the prognosis of the younger Nick making something out of his life does not look positive.  But the kid has a loving surrogate family, made up of former jurist Bruce Mallory Sullivan (Burl Ives); Flora (Ella Fitzgerald), a saloon chanteuse; cabbie Max (Rodolfo Acosta); ex-pugilist “Goodbye” George (Bernie Hamilton); prostitute Fran (Jeanne Cooper); and amputee-newshawk Wart (Walter Burke).

The audience gets a glimpse of Nick’s childhood at the beginning of Epitaph (young Nick is played by Michael Davis), and then the film fast-forwards to his high school years.  Like his father, Nick often has difficulty staying out of trouble…and hopes his occasional lapses into juvenile delinquency won’t deter him from his dream of becoming a musician (Nellie has worked in a number of clip joints in order to support her son and pay for piano lessons to boot).  Sullivan, a disgraced judge who’s descended into an alcoholic haze, uses his connections to secure a patron for Nick in the form of lawyer Grant Holloway (Philip Ober), whose daughter Barbara (Jean Seberg) takes a shine to Nick.  However, Nick’s career plans are threatened by his mother’s involvement with Louis Ramponi (Ricardo Montalban), a hood whose flower shop is merely a front for his real business: dope peddling.

The theme of how environment can dictate the direction of one’s path in life is explored in Epitaph as it was in Door; Door emphasized how Nick, Sr. was a good kid from the slums (lawyer Morton hails from a similar background, which is why he agrees to take Romano’s case) who just never got the breaks in life.  The ambiguity of the two films, however, is present in the suggestion that one’s genes may be the triumphant winner in the fifteen-round bout of Nature vs. Nurture.  In Door, Nick, Sr.’s father was previously on trial for a self-defense killing (Bogart’s Morton botched that trial—resulting in the man’s death while he was still behind bars—which is the second reason why he defends Derek’s Romano), and that seems to suggest that the males in the Family Romano are predisposed to run-ins with the gendarmes.

Epitaph (at least the movie version—it might be different in the novel, which I have not read) also commits a couple of glaring continuity errors in the course of its narrative.  Nellie Romano continues to believe that Nick, Sr. was innocent of the cop’s murder in Door, forgetting that Romano eventually confesses to the deed while on the stand.  (One could argue, of course, that Nellie continues to blindly believe in Nick’s innocence regardless of what the facts dictate.)  The character of Holloway is referenced as the public defender in Nick, Sr.’s trial, but I don’t remember the senior Romano having any other lawyer but Morton in Door (again, it’s possible they changed the name of the Holloway character from the novel).

Aside from these nitpicks—and the casting of twenty-four-year-old James Darren as a high school student (yes, I know he was under contract to Columbia, but really—“Moondoggie” as a teenage hood?)—Let No Man Write My Epitaph is a most worthwhile movie, a film whose unavailability on DVD is a crime in itself (I thought it had never been released on home video at all but this Amazon listing proves me wrong).  Its disappointing box office performance might be the reason Epitaph has slipped through the cracks, but my advice is to resist all that hooey; the supporting cast alone is worth the price of admission.  Several people around the Internets describe this feature film as a “film noir”…but apart from the crime angle, it’s stretching the definition a bit.  It’s more of a social drama, with an interesting theme of redemption and an admirable portrayal of how people from disparate elements of society can effectively band together to form a surrogate family.

The big casting “get” in Epitaph was Shelley Winters, fresh off her Oscar triumph for The Diary of Anne Frank (1959).  Winters gives a great performance, but she was also instrumental in convincing the filmmakers that James Darren, Burl Ives, Jean Seberg, Ella Fitzgerald and Bernie Hamilton be cast in their supporting roles.  (Shel also wanted George C. Scott to play the part of the sebaceous pusher ultimately essayed by Ricardo Montalban…but she came up short on that score.)  Singer Fitzgerald gives one of the truly impressive performances in Epitaph, as a heroin-addicted saloon singer (the scene where she begs Ives for the needed money to get a fix is quietly effective).  I also admired Hamilton’s turn as the ex-boxer, though I was sort of uncomfortable in that his efforts to save Darren’s Nick from a gang of street punks resulted in his return to the pokey (there was a law on the books at that time that being hit by a prizefighter constituted “assault with a deadly weapon”).

Burl Ives’ performance as the down-and-out Judge Sullivan is a marvel.  The winner of a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Big Country (1958), Ives was responsible for an impressive string of performances in its wake including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (though technically released before Country) and Day of the Outlaw.  His character possesses a nice sense of melancholy in that he’s pined for Winters’ character for many years; I didn’t even mind too much that his presence suggests if only single mom Shelley could land herself a man everything would be hunky-dory.  In addition, I enjoyed spotting TDOY fave Percy Helton (as the man who runs the flophouse where Ives resides) and Frank Sully, not to mention Dal McKennon (as a court clerk) and Francis De Sales.

Directed by Philip Leacock, a British filmmaker who had had recent U.S. success with Take a Giant Step (1959) and The Rabbit Trap (1959); he works wonders with Robert Presnell, Jr’s (Man in the Attic, A Life in the Balance) adapted screenplay.  Admittedly, I’m more familiar with Leacock’s work on the small screen; he helmed any number of classic episodes from the likes of Route 66 and Gunsmoke, as well as made-for-TV efforts such as When Michael Calls (1972) and The Daughters of Joshua Cabe (1972).  (Please don’t judge me.)  Epitaph is considered one of Leacock’s best films, and if you’ve not seen this movie—and your cable system carries the digital channel GetTV—I urge you to catch this one this afternoon at 4:30 EDT.  (There will be encore showings on June 14 [7:30am EDT], June 18 [1pm EDT], June 27 [9:35am EST] and June 29 [10:35am EDT].)  AT&T U-Verse unfortunately doesn’t carry GetTV (boo hiss), but I was lucky to be able to see Let No Man Write My Epitaph (it’s been on my must-see list for many years) thanks to Cindy Ronzoni at GetTV—many, many effusive thanks to her.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon 2015: The Abbott and Costello Show

This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon (May 25-28) hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association.  Click here to check out this blogathon's complete schedule.

The release in 1948 of what many fans consider to be their finest and funniest motion picture—Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein—signaled a return of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello to the yearly top ten tally of box office film stars.  The duo didn’t stay there for long, however; by 1952 they would be replaced by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as the country’s most successful movie comedy team—and in hindsight, it was probably not too disappointing for the verbal slapstick duo.  For despite their incredible film success, which really began with their second film, 1941’s Buck Privates, the two men didn’t have a great deal of either affection or patience for the moviemaking process.  Stories are legend about their boredom at how time consuming working on a set could be, and they often passed the time with epic poker games and prank-pulling.  “’When do we come and what do we wear?’” reminisced the immortal Buster Keaton about the duo’s approach to movies during his days as an MGM gag writer (in a clip from the documentary Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow).  “Then the day they started shooting they find out what the script’s about.”

It would be the new medium of television that would bear responsibility for the comedy team’s renewed vitality in their performances, particularly when Abbott & Costello became part of the permanent rotating group of weekly hosts on The Colgate Comedy Hour.  Performing on live television reminded Bud & Lou of their glory days on the burlesque stage, and most comedians will no doubt agree that hearing the appreciative laughter of a live audience is far more stimulating than doing the same routines in front of a jaded movie crew who’ve probably stopped laughing after the third take.  Surviving kinescopes from that era show both men having the time of their lives (to use one of the titles from their classic film oeuvre), and their success on the small screen would lead to one of the most popular syndicated series in the history of the boob tube: The Abbott and Costello Show.

The premise of The Abbott and Costello Show was disarmingly simple: Bud and Lou played themselves, a pair of unemployed actors who lived in a rooming house run by the apoplectic Sidney Fields, also playing himself.  Fields was a crony of the duo from their radio days; he often performed on the program (in addition to supplying much of the writing, since his background was in burlesque as well) as various characters with the surname of “Melonhead,” which he continued occasionally on their TV show as well.  A hallmark of Fields’ radio interactions with Costello would be a routine in which Sid easily takes offense at Lou’s innocent suggestions, and no matter how much the comedian tries to be diplomatic his comments he’s unable to appease the angry Fields (below is a similar snippet from the TV episode “The Birthday Party”):

LOU: Mr. Fields…you are invited to my party…
FIELDS: You’re finally inviting me…you want me to bring a present, huh?
LOU: Look, Mr. Fields—a lot of people are bringing presents…you don’t have to bring me no present…
FIELDS: I see…everybody brings a present…you want me to come empty-handed…people should look at me and say, “Sidney Fields is a cheapskate”…huh?  “Sidney Fields is nothing but a broken-down, dirty tramp”—is that it?
LOU: Look, Mr. Fields—you don’t look like no tramp…you look nice…
FIELDS: I don’t, huh…my feet are coming through my shoes…my elbows are coming through my sleeves…
LOU: Yeah…and your head is coming through your hair

In the first season of the show, Fields not only played his landlord self but other relatives in the Fields family—who turned up from time to time whenever Abbott & Costello were in search of work.  (Fields made no attempt to disguise his dual roles, simply slapping on a moustache or cheap toupee to maintain the “deception.”)  Much of the show’s comedy revolved around Bud and Lou’s tenuous housing situation: the two men were constantly in arrears as far as their room rent was concerned, with Fields threatening to evict the duo at every turn.  Fields was also the series’ most prolific scripter; he’s credited with twenty-five of the total fifty-two episodes telecast, demonstrating his encyclopedic knowledge of burlesque comedy.

Also among the supporting cast was actress Hillary Brooke…playing Hillary Brooke.  (The Abbott and Costello Show did not set any records for casting originality.)  Hillary was essentially Lou’s love interest, and though her regal bearing and accent suggested that she was a Britisher by birth, Brooke actually hailed from Astoria, NY (she cultivated a British accent in her early show business years to set herself apart from her blonde competitors).  She first worked with Bud and Lou in their 1949 comedy Africa Screams, and would later reteam with them in Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952).  Because the first season of the TV show was filmed at the legendary “Lot of Fun” (the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, CA), it was no doubt a nice working arrangement for Hillary since she was also appearing semi-regularly on the Gale Storm sitcom My Little Margie, on which she played the high-class Roberta Townsend—frequent girlfriend of Vern Albright (Charles Farrell).  Brooke appeared on Bud and Lou’s program only in its first season, though she does have a cameo in a second-season episode, “In Society,” in which she helps Mike the Cop out of a pair of handcuffs.

“Mike the Cop” was Officer Mike Kelly, and played by one-time movie Green Hornet (and occasional Roy Rogers sidekick) Gordon Jones.  Jones had played a bad guy in Bud & Lou’s underrated The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap (1947), and on their TV show acted as the boys’ nemesis: a lunk-headed cop who was always threatening to run Costello in on some charge, though Mike may have been the only policeman on the force dumber than Lou.  Mike was easily excitable, which made him the perfect foil, and Jones was fortunate to continue on in Season Two after several of the series’ regulars got their pink slip.

Two of those regulars were Joe Besser and Joe Kirk (a couple of Joes).  Besser played “Stinky Davis,” a malevolent brat clad in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit (it was intimated that Stinky really was a child, though he didn’t fool much of the audience) who was the bane of Lou’s existence (“I’ll harm you!”).  Besser had also worked with the duo in Africa Screams, stealing that movie with a scene in which he runs back and forth with a glass of water as Bud and Lou are engaged in discussion; when asked why he keeps interrupting, Besser replies in that memorable whine of his: “Oooh, my tent is on fire!”  (They recreated this gag in one of the first season episodes, incidentally.)   The other Joe was actually Costello’s brother-in-law; Joe Kirk (who also had appeared on the team’s radio show) played Mr. Bacciagalupe, an Italian vendor whose line of business would change according to the demands of the episode—in some installments he was a greengrocer, in others a baker.  Kirk divorced Lou’s sister in 1953, which might explain why he didn’t stick around for the second and last season.

Also discharged from Season One was Bingo the Chimp, first introduced in “The Politician”…and whose subsequent surge in popularity resulted in more episodes being based around the Simian-American, who functioned as Costello’s pet (he even wore an outfit similar to Lou’s).  The scuttlebutt has it that Lou didn’t particularly care for Bingo, and the animal may have sensed the animosity because he up and bit his co-star on the set one day…oblivious to the fact that it may not have been in the best interest of an ambitious chimpanzee to antagonize the actor who owned a large piece of the show.  Like Hillary, Bingo also made a cameo appearance in a second-season episode once he had been dismissed: he does a brief roller-skating turn in “Cheapskates.”

Other performers who appeared on The Abbott and Costello Show’s first season included several of the duo’s close cronies: Milt Bronson, Joan Shawlee, Murray Leonard and Bobby Barber, to name a few.  (Barber was a longtime member of the A&C payroll; his official title was “court jester,” supplying the pies-to-be-thrown and other prankish items used on their film sets to keep the hi-jinks at a suitable level so that Bud and Lou could perform.)  The show’s first season also featured a number of thespians who had previously appeared on the team’s radio program: Elvia Allman and Iris Adrian, for starters. 

Fans of The Abbott and Costello Show generally consider the series’ first season to be the strongest.  It wasn’t much more than a peg to hang their classic burlesque routines on, to be honest: “Jail” features the “Slowly I Turn” bit (also known as “Pokomoko” or “Niagara Falls”); “The Army Story” cribs a lot of material from Buck Privates; the highlight of “The Charity Bazaar” is the “Lemon Bit,” which the team also performed on occasion on The Colgate Comedy Hour.  In “The Haunted House,” Bud, Lou and Hillary have to spend a night in the titular dwelling according to the details of a will…and wouldn’t you know, here’s the “Moving Candle” routine from Hold That Ghost (1941).  “Peace and Quiet” gives the boys all the room they need to perform “Crazy House” (though in this instance it’s more like “Crazy Hospital”).  And before you ask, they get around to their most famous piece of material—“Who’s on First?”—in “The Actors’ Home.”

But there was an endearingly loopy insanity about the program’s first season that attracts fans even today—Bud and Lou inhabited a world in which crooks and sharpies lie in wait around every corner, and women would walk right up to Lou for no reason and slap his face (“How dare you look like someone I hate!”).  The show made no attempt to ground itself in reality; the team would often emphasize the theatricality of the program by appearing in front of a theater curtain and commenting on the events that had transpired in “breaking-the-fourth-wall” fashion.  There was even a running gag involving an unidentified “card girl,” who would come out with a large card listing the other performers who would be appearing in the episode…and concealing Lou’s face in the process, much to his annoyance.

Since the first season had pretty much chewed up most of Bud and Lou’s repertoire, the second season (which abandoned the jaunty opening titles, featuring scenes from such A&C movies as Keep ‘Em Flying [1941] and In Society [1944]) reconditioned itself into a more traditional sitcom, and saw veteran scribe Clyde Bruckman hired to pen many of the episodes.  Bruckman is a most enigmatic figure in the world of comedy; he worked alongside such greats as Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and W.C. Fields…though the jury is out on how much Clyde actually contributed to their films, since those comedians already had clearly defined screen personas.  Bruckman was considered radioactive where employment was concerned; two of the studios who availed themselves of his services, Columbia and Universal, were on the receiving end of lawsuits from Lloyd because Clyde had a habit of reusing old material from Harold’s films…and many others as well.  (Let me just state that if recycling classic gags was a crime—our comedy prisons would be filled to capacity.)

So while not as popular as the inaugural season, Year Two of The Abbott and Costello Show is of interest to comedy fans because Bruckman’s contributions are so easily recognizable from previous laughter excursions.  An installment like “Killer’s Wife” is basically a refashioned Hugh Herbert two-reeler—any of them, to be honest.  The same can be said for “Private Eye,” which appropriates many elements of Columbia’s “scare” comedies.  “Car Trouble” reworks the Buster Keaton short Nothing But Pleasure (1940), while “South of Dixie” borrows heavily from The Three Stooges’ Uncivil War Birds (1946).  The premise of “Honeymoon House” is that Lou has put together a pre-fab cottage (with help from Bud and Mr. Fields) for his fiancée (Karen Sharpe), unaware that his rival (Danny Morton) has sabotaged the project by painting over the actual numbers.  (Any resemblance to the classic Keaton two-reeler One Week [1920] is purely coincidental.)  Veteran comedy writer Jack Townley also contributed to the second season output; he was responsible for one of my favorite episodes, “Amnesia,” in which Bud manages to convince Lou that he’s been married to a woman for three months to keep him from actually walking down the aisle with an unknown correspondent from the Lonely Hearts Club.  The actress who plays Lou’s “wife” is Adele Jergens, who “de-glams” from her usual attractive persona to play a rolling-pin-wielding harridan.  (Hey—I like Adele.  So sue me.)

All fifty-two episodes of The Abbott and Costello Show were directed by Jean Yarborough, a journeyman who worked with Bud and Lou at Universal in the 1940s (Here Come the Co-Eds, The Naughty Nineties) and the 1950s (Jack and the Beanstalk, Lost in Alaska)—so he was familiar with the team, and even had the foresight to insist that a camera be focused on Lou at all times in the event the comic came up with an inventive bit of business.  Yarborough also produced the series (taking over from Alex Gottlieb), though the title of “executive producer” went to Costello’s brother Pat in one of those Hollywood nepotism stories we’ve come to know and love.

Critics were not kind to The Abbott and Costello Show…but then again, Bud and Lou were never really held close to any critic’s bosom throughout their long show business career.  Sure, the series was crammed with lowbrow humor and jokes old enough to be collecting pensions…but as I have long pointed out here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, sometimes the jokes with the longest whiskers got the biggest laughs.  Costello bet director Charles Barton on the set of A&C Meet Frankenstein that one gag—“My date had so much bridgework every time I kissed her I had to pay a toll”—would get a boffo response from the theater audience, more so than some of the other scripted material…and a chagrined Barton was forced to pay up when it did just that.  (And yes, Bud and Lou recycle that old chestnut in one of the show’s episodes as well.)  The Abbott and Costello Show would spend years and years in The Old Syndication Home; the show was at one time a mainstay of WGN’s programming, who no doubt used the series as an appetizer before they’d unspool one of the team’s classic movies.  It’s currently a staple at MeTV, where it airs Sunday mornings at 7am EDT—an hour-long block of classic comedy.

And while The Abbott and Costello Show might not be everyone’s cup of Earl Grey, it’s an important television artifact because—along with Bud and Lou’s movies—it’s a virtual encyclopedia of burlesque routines: the popular variety show theatrical form is but a distant memory in the past, so it’s nice that someone took the time to make sure it was recorded for generations to follow.  Jerry Seinfeld even acknowledged the influence The Abbott and Costello Show had on his own self-titled sitcom, Seinfeld; the main antagonist in the episode “The Old Man” is named “Sidney Fields,” and the Chinese puzzle intricacies of many of Seinfeld’s episodes (miscommunication and emphasis on plot complications rather than character development) can be directly traced back to its source in Bud and Lou.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)