Thursday nights in October—in keeping with Halloween—The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ will spotlight “Ghost Stories”: films with out-of-this-world apparitions at the center of their plot. For example, the evening kicks off at 8pm with the 1937 Cary Grant-Constance Bennett screwball classic Topper…but following at 10pm is one of my favorite Abbott & Costello vehicles: The Time of Their Lives (1946).
The ‘rents cannot stand them (ooh, there’s a stunner)—indeed, my mother’s late stepmother would spit out their names in the same manner as one might utter the words “Nazi Germany.” (Naturally, I took it upon myself to put on one of their movies—any one, really—whenever I was visiting at her house and watching TV. Ain’t I a stinker?) You will not get any argument from me that the comedy duo was quite fortunate in that they latched onto a pretty good decent routine (“Who’s on First?”) and parlayed that into a lengthy movie career despite a lack of enthusiasm for the filmmaking process (stories are legion about their gambling/card-playing in between set-ups, and apathetic approach to learning lines). But I will brook no dissension that all that aside, Abbott & Costello made some first-rate film comedies. The early ones—when they hadn’t become completely jaded by moviemaking—are undeniably the best: Buck Privates (1941), Hold That Ghost (1941), Pardon My Sarong (1942), Who Done It? (1942). I think some of their later vehicles are fun, too—Buck Privates Come Home (1947), The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap (1947), Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951). Of course, it also goes without saying that I positively adore Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)—a classic that has become a watch-on-Halloween tradition here at Rancho Yesteryear. If anyone tells you “Oh, it was just an excuse to allow Universal to squeeze one last dime from their faded monster franchise” you have my permission to give them a “thbbbbht!”
Truth be told, the modus operandi of most Universal productions involved cheaply made, formulaic motion pictures that reaped big rewards at the box office…and that describes the A&C comedies in a nutshell. There would be a bare bones plot, of course, with enough room to hang the duo’s perfected burlesque comedy routines (many of them contributed by longtime collaborator John Grant), and in between the boys’ tomfoolery Universal would showcase musical acts from their stable of performers (the Andrews Sisters, etc.). But by 1946, the team had become bored with making movies (and additionally, a rift developed between the two of them in 1945 that never really completely healed…yet they managed to maintain their professionalism) and decided to stray from their formula a bit with an outing entitled Little Giant (1946). In Giant, Bud & Lou interact but not as a team—Costello is a wannabe go-getter salesman and Abbott plays two roles in vacuum cleaner company supervisors (they’re twins—Bud also takes on a third role as the brothers’ grandma). The movie did okay at the box office, but not nearly as well as their past outings. And then…there was The Time of Their Lives.
It is 1780, and the Revolutionary War is in full swing. Horatio Prim (Lou), a poor-but-honest tinker, is smitten with Nora O’Leary (Ann Gillis), a servant in the house of Thomas Danbury (Jess Barker). Though Horatio is not a wealthy man, Nora very much wants to marry him; the two of them are convinced that if Horatio shows Tom a letter of recommendation from General George Washington himself Danbury will be persuaded to release Nora from her servitude. Time’s a-wastin’, as a famous comic strip hillbilly might say, for Prim has a romantic rival in loathsome butler Cuthbert Greenway (Bud).
Danbury has a couple of his goons kidnap Nora—after taking Horatio’s recommendation letter from her and putting it in a clock for safekeeping—as they set their treasonous plans in motion. Having eavesdropped on all this, Melody prepares to warn Washington’s army with Horatio’s help; the two of them saddle up and set out for his headquarters.
But some American troops—led by Major Putnam (Robert Barrat)—are already aware of Danbury’s treachery and as they approach the Danbury Estate, they are mistaken for Tom’s confederates by Melody and Horatio…who ride off in the opposite direction. The soldiers, in turn, believes the fleeing couple to be working with Danbury and the two of them are shot and killed in their escape. Their bodies are tossed into a well and Putnam offers this as a memorial: “Hear me, ye faithless souls…may you lie there in everlasting torment…with but one name to identify your rotting bones—traitors! And unless some evidence proves us wrong…I curse your miserable spirits to be bound to Danbury Acres…’til crack of doom.”
One hundred and sixty-five years later, Melody and Horatio are still trapped in their earthly prison…but their situation becomes a bit more optimistic with the arrival of Sheldon Gage (John Shelton) and his fiancée, June Prescott (Lynn Baggett). Sheldon has rebuilt Danbury Manor to its former glory, and furnished much of the house with the original antiques. With the help of June’s Aunt Millie (Binnie Barnes), the couple’s psychiatrist friend Ralph Greenway (a descendant of that vichyssoise Cuthbert) and a spooky housekeeper who claims to be psychic, Horatio and Melody just might be able to prove their innocence—after all, he and Nora have been separated for practically an eternity, and as Prim observes, “A girl will only wait so long, and no longer!”
Lives is an inventive and imaginative romp that showcases the duo to wonderful effect…even though they really only interact with one another in a brief scene at the beginning (for most of the proceedings, Costello’s character is a ghost and cannot be seen by the rest of the cast save Reynolds). The sad truth is, for all his comedic talent, Lou Costello wouldn’t have recognized a great movie comedy script if it bit him in the inner thigh. At one point during Lives’ production, he told director Charles Barton that if he couldn’t switch roles with his partner he’d walk. He did so for two weeks (while Barton worked around his absence), then came to his senses and unceremoniously returned to the set to finish the film. (Lou didn’t think much of A&C Meet Frankenstein, either, until his own mother told him it was the best film he’d ever made.)
Their act was little more than old burlesque chestnuts—admittedly performed with gusto—and little attempt was made to create any kind of characters for them in their films other than the fact that Lou was the gullible patsy and Bud his whip-smart partner, ready to take advantage of him at any moment when he stood to benefit. Abbott’s habit of “slapping” his partner wasn’t something he cribbed from the Three Stooges; it was a stage tradition where the straight man abused the comic in order to generate sympathy for the “funnyman.” This, sad to say, didn’t work well in their movies—there are a number of scenes in their films where Bud’s abuse of Lou is downright uncomfortable (for example, in Pardon My Sarong, he attempts to convince his partner to commit suicide—putting a damper on an otherwise entertaining comedy).
Granted, Lou isn’t that much different from the way he’s usually portrayed in their vehicles (a roly-poly, sympathetic sort…and no one ever did comic fright like Costello) but Abbott reveals that he wasn’t too shabby in the thespian department in the role of the harried psychiatrist, Ralph Greenway. In many of the A&C movies, you kind of get the impression that Abbott is just along for the ride; in Lives, Bud participates in a lot more comedy scenes than is his norm—his shrink is quite similar to I Dream of Jeannie’s Dr. Bellows in that he questions his own sanity when he’s tormented by the ghosts of Horatio and Melody. “Be calm…be reasonable…” is his mantra throughout the movie.
It goes without saying that I love Gale Sondergaard’s presence in this film, and her introduction in the movie produces one of the funniest lines (courtesy of Binnie Barnes): “Pardon me—but didn’t I see you in Rebecca?” Speaking of Barnes, she gets a lot of the best lines in the movie as well—I like her skeptical reply to Sondergaard’s insistence that the joint is haunted after they discover books strewn all about in the library: “Ghosts…they must have been a couple of interior decorators, looking for a little overtime…”
Shelton and Baggett are serviceable as the romantic interests, and character great Donald McBride is on hand as the cop out to arrest Bud’s character when Greenway steals the antique clock that contains the needed Washington letter. My pal Cliff at In the Balcony says that whenever he mentions McBride’s name to anyone and is rewarded with a quizzical look that all he has to say is “Jumping butterballs!” (the actor’s repeated exclamation in 1938's Room Service)—and suddenly they’re on the same page. Lives also features brief bits from serial heroes like Kirk Alyn and Myron Healey as dandies in the opening ball sequence, and stalwart character thesp Selmer Jackson appears as a museum curator.
Barton does a splendid job with the material, including the highlight of the movie—a genuinely spooky séance sequence in which the guests of the manor attempt to make contact with the otherworldly inhabitants. Lives was also the last A&C release before Universal revamped itself as Universal-International; though the company started to shed itself of its B-movie product (like their serials and Sherlock Holmes franchise), they still kept Bud and Lou on the payroll despite the fact that the duo were experiencing a box office slump. (A&C Meet Frankenstein turned all that around in a hurry.)
So if you haven’t seen The Time of Their Lives, I highly recommend you tune in tonight at 10pm on TCM. I guarantee that if it doesn’t give you a new appreciation for Abbott & Costello…well, then I don’t know what you expect me to do about it.