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?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bobby Hackett-Bix Session (1940)

T0 his is our first post on the wonderful cornetist Bobby Hackett (1915-76). It won't be the last. Bobby was one of the most melodic and creative soloists in the field of traditional jazz and swing. No less than Louis Armstrong cited Bobby as having the "best ingredients" in referring to his skills as an improviser.

This interesting session came about during Bobby's tenure with the Horace Heidt Orchestra. (Sept. 1939-June 1940). Starting as a guitarist in the New England area and soon doubling on cornet, Bobby rapidly became a popular freelancer and sideman before leading an ill-fated big band in 1939. The band was a musical success but not financially. At this point in his career Bobby was frequently compared to Bix Beiderbecke and even did a guest spot at Benny Goodman's famous 1938 Carnegie Hall concert playing Bix's solo on I'm Comin' Virginia. Heidt was a showman who led a large entertainment unit (he was the Lawrence Welk of the day). Alvino Rey and the King Sisters had just left Heidt and his current band featured Frankie Carle on piano and Art Carney was a featured singer and comic.

Heidt saved Bobby at a time when the big band venture had left him in financial straights. His role in the band was similar to Bix's with Paul Whiteman in providing some jazz punch. This session for Vocalion billed as Horace Heidt Presents gave Bobby the spotlight on two Bix classics and two old favorites. The band consisted of Heidt sidemen (including Carle) with Bobby's former big band drummer Don Carter sitting in. On some issues Bobby is credited as arranger. This is quite possible as Bobby did some arranging for his big band and certainly knew the Bix solos and routines. The results feature some prime early Hackett work.

On January 25, 1940 the band recorded That Old Gang of Mine and Clarinet Marmalade. Singin' the Blues and After I say I'm Sorry were also waxed but were rejected and remade. On January 31, Old Gang and After I say were remade and on February 1, Singin' the Blues was reworked. The Tempo Twisters vocal group sings on Old Gang and there's an unknown vocalist on After I say I'm Sorry (perhaps one of the band members). Here are some of the musical highlights.

That Old Gang of Mine: opens with some nice Bobby dancing around the organ tones of the band and taking a nimble break into the melody (trombone handles the bridge). A modulation brings on the Tempo Twisters in a style reminiscent of The Modernaires with nice obbligato by Bobby. (He was a master at vocal accompaniment.) Following an arranged dixie spot and Dorsey-like trombone, Bobby is back with more mellow blowing , a clarinet spot (Bob Reidel) and tasty coda.

Clarinet Marmalade: much of the original Bix-Trumbauer original is retained in this tasty chart. Bobby's two chorus solo is a gem of twisting, melodic phrases with some of Bix's licks included. Jerry Borshard (trombone) and Frankie Carle have spots before Bobby and the band ride home usung Bix's original solo as an arranged band passage. Nice Stuff!

What can I say After I say I'm Sorry?: another winding melodic intro over sustained chords brings on an opening dixie passage reminiscent of the Pete Kelly band. Bobby weaves into the unknown vocalist with nice backup. After the vocal Bobby comes in with some repeated notes and a Bix-like but pretty chorus. At this point Bobby's embouchure was still a little weak in spots. (He would soon correct that.) A nice arranged ensemble takes us home.

Singin' the Blues: opens with a quote from Bix's I'm Comin' Virginia. The ensemble plays the melody with pretty cup mute obbligato by Bobby. He takes over the lead for the middle followed by George Dessinger's tenor. Bobby's chorus is full of lovely Bix-like lines including some of the original but mainly pure Hackett. The closing ensemble again uses Bix's original solo as a scored passage. Bobby plays Bix's original break and tenor and ensemble take us home.

The Heidt boys must have had a ball playing some relaxed, swinging jazz under the leadership of Bobby, one of the nicest guys in the business. There may be a lead trumpet on some of the ensembles. (Bernie Mattinson was listed, but he was Heidt's drummer).

After Heidt Bobby went with the great Glenn Miller band from July 1941 to September 1942. Glenn loved his playing and brought him in on guitar--Bobby was recovering from dental surgery--and cornet solos. Bobby's solo on String of Pearls has become a classic and is still played to this day. Bobby also had a stint with Glen Gray's Casa Loma Orchestra from October 1944 to September 1946. By the post war years he had developed into a seasoned pro and had conquered his technical problems.

The Bobby Hackett of the 50s and 60s was a consummate jazzman who also reached the general public through his Mood Music albums with Jackie Gleason and under his own name.

Two CDs provide a good account of this session-, Classics CD, No. 890 and Past Perfect CD, Poor Butterfly, though, alas, these may be out of print.

We will be revisiting the great Hackett horn many times on this blog.