Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)

This is our first post on the wonderful comedy team of Bud Abbott (1895-1974) and Lou Costello (1906-59). Along with the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Bros. they are among my all-time comedy heroes.

The boys became a team in vaudeville in the 30s and quickly rose to stardom in radio and finally films, becoming the star comics of the 40s and early 50s and becoming one of Universal Studio's biggest money makers.

This film, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955), a personal favorite, was ironically their last for Universal. A series of sub-par outings, the ascension of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and the power of television had all contributed to their demise at Universal. However, they went out with a very funny and worthwhile swan song.

The boys had met most of the classic Universal monsters starting with A&C Meet Frankenstein, one of their very best films. So it was an easy task to pair them with another Universal horror staple, The Mummy.

The threadbare plot (the best kind for slapstick) involved the boys trying to clear themselves of the murder of archeologist Dr. Zoomer, who they applied to for the job of "accompanying his Mummy to the states!" They get mixed up with treasure hunting crooks led by sultry Madame Rontru (Marie Windsor), the cult of the mummy Klaris led by Semu (Richard Deacon in his pre -Leave it to Beaver and Dick Van Dyke Show days) and a host of cops, waiters, natives and other assorted foils.

Cute Peggy King, a popular singer and regular on the George Gobel show, wanders into a nightclub setting to sing "You came a Long way from St.Louis." The boys are in good form as they are put through their usual slapstick paces and get in a few of their patented verbal routines. Bud, approaching 60, is not as nasty as he was in the early films. (He could be downright cruel!) He does get in his usual quota of slaps and pushes on Costello. Lou, despite some recent bouts with rheumatic fever, is as energetic and full of fun as ever. In the end credits the boys are listed as Pete Patterson (Bud) and Freddie Franklin (Lou) but these names are not used and they just call themselves Abbott and Costello.

Also along for the ride as Rontru's cohorts are Michael Ansara, from the TV classic Broken Arrow (Charlie) and veteran character actor Dan Seymour (Josef). Fans of the B classic, Little Shop of Horrors will enjoy seeing Mel Welles (Mushnick,the Florist) as Semu's henchman, Iben. Veteran Universal stuntman Eddie Parker plays Klaris, the Mummy. The film was directed by Charles Lamont, a veteran of the Sennett and Christie studios who had piloted many A&C comedies (including some of their worst!).

The film moves at a leisurely pace and Bud and Lou seem to be having a good time. There are many comic highlights in the film, here are some of my favorites:

The old Vaudeville gag of a girl speaking in French to Bud who replies with "Lady, I can't!" Lou's response is "Hey Bud, maybe I can!"

An A&C standby where the body of Dr. Zoomer keeps moving from room to room much to Lou's dismay and cries of "Hey Abbott!"

Lou's snake-charming efforts on flute resulting in a response from a very live snake and the old rope trick with Bud getting a lift thanks to Lou's flute-tooting.

The sacred medallion that leads to the treasure brings death to whoever possesses it. Bud plops it into Lou's hamburger. Lou eats the medallion, of course, and the crooks X-ray him and then try to throttle the medallion out of him.

A return to their "Who's on First" roots with a clever John Grant routine involving picks and shovels." My pick is the pick. Your pick is the shovel." You get the idea.

The film's climax in the tomb has three mummies running around, Klaris and Bud and Charlie posing as him. This is good stuff with lots of double takes and screams.

The film's coda has a neat scene where the boys have opened the Kafe Klaris. The entire band is decked out as mummies and Lou does the old slip into a one-piece tuxedo gag, resulting in a slap from Bud. When Bud toots on the flute and a beautiful girl emerges from a vase, Lou tries it only to meet up with another snake and a classic Costello pratfall to close out the show.

There are also some unintentionally funny bits including some Egyptian dance routines, Richard Deacon's hammy performance as Semu and some "infidel" references for good measure.

Despite good reviews, the film did only so-so at the box office and spelled their end at Universal.

Bud and Lou made one last film, Dance with Me Henry (1956), a pleasant but mediocre film about the boys running an amusement park and getting into a money mix up with gangsters.

In 1957 the team split. Lou did solo appearances including the Steve Allen Show, Wagon Train and the Minsky's Show in Vegas. He also made a cute comedy for Columbia, The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959), a take off on the 50 Foot Woman with Dorothy Provine as his girlfriend and title character. In March of 1959 we lost Lou to a heart attack. Bud was devastated and the world of comedy lost a little giant.

Bud took things easy, although he did a G.E. Theatre episode and briefly teamed up with musician/comic Candy Candido. In 1967 he voiced a series of Abbott and Costello cartoons. (Stan Irwin voiced Lou). The cartoons are so-so, but it's fun to hear Bud's gravelly voice again. In later years Bud was dogged by tax problems and was living at the Motion Pictures Actor's Home in Hollywood. He passed from cancer in April of 1974. The greatest straight man went up to join his partner.

For the "daddy" of all mummy comedies, check out our post on the Three Stooges' We Want our Mummy (1939). Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy is available on Universal DVD. Next time out, we'll explore the boys' wonderful TV show of the early 50s.

Till then, I'm going to try to find out Who's on First?

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