"Buck Privates" ** (out of ****)
Lately I have been spending a lot of time watching some of my favorite comics and comedy teams. Mostly I have been focusing on Abbott & Costello. With that in mind, I thought now was a good time to write about them.
I have reviewed the work of Abbott & Costello before. I discussed their comedies "Hold That Ghost" (1941) and "Naughty Nineties" (1945) but "Buck Privates" (1941) is one of the team's most popular films. It was their first starring vehicle as a team. Their only previous on-screen performance was in "One Night in the Tropics" (1940), where they had supporting roles. To most audiences of that time, they stole the show and Universal allowed them their own vehicle, well, sort of.
"Buck Privates" is suppose to be a gentle, feel good, almost war-time comedy. Slicker Smith (Bud Abbott) and Herbie (Lou Costello) are a couple of salesmen going around selling cheap ties. One day a police officer, well known character actor Nat Pendleton (even if the name means nothing to you, trust me, you'll know the face) spots them and chases the boys. They think they are being clever and run into a movie theatre to escape. What they don't know is the theatre is being used as an army recruitment area. Now the boys have been drafted.
"Buck Privates" is actually a very political, patriotic message movie with Abbott & Costello thrown in. There is a belief among most people that wars are generally fought by the working class and minorities. Even with a draft in effect it is the poor who usually get recruited. The rich generally get deferments (Dick Cheney anyone?) or use their influence to avoid serving. "Buck Privates" wants to correct that problem.
In this movie a man of privilege Parker (Lee Bowman) gets recruited. He knows he doesn't belong there and wants his father, who works in Washington, D.C. to use his influence and get him out of the army. He expects to leave in about a week. Not only was he drafted though, but so was his chauffeur Bob Martin (Alan Curtis). Now we will see the rich and the working class side by side in the army. No man can escape the draft.
"Buck Privates" does a lot of flag waving. One of the songs heard in the movie is "You're A Lucky Fellow, Mr. Smith". "Mr. Smith" representing the "average Joe". The song is really saying be proud you're an American. America is the greatest country on Earth. You have freedoms here you won't have in any other country. To a lot of people this may all very well be true, but, answer me this, what is it doing in an Abbott & Costello comedy?
This all adds to a problem I have with "Buck Privates". I'm not interested in the patriotic propaganda. America wasn't at war yet when "Buck Privates" was released. In fact there is no mention of war. This is a peace time draft. But I suppose audiences felt it was only a matter of time before America would get involved in that war in Europe.
Other problems with "Buck Privates" are the same problems with "One Night in the Tropics" or any number of comedies made in the 1940s. The comedy team plays second fiddle to a romance. Here Parker and Bob compete for Judy's (Jane Frazee) hand. And we have musical numbers enter the film for no apparent reason. The songs are provided by the Andrew Sisters (Patty, Maxene and LaVerne, why do I know that?). Some of the songs are very good. They became war time standards; "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B" (nominated for a Best Song Oscar) and "I'll Be With You In Apple Blossom Time" but they only take away screen time which could have went to Abbott & Costello.
"Buck Privates" works best when it lets Abbott & Costello do their routines. And there are some good ones. Pay attention to a scene when Abbott teaches Costello how to play dice. Listen to the dialogue for their "40 year old man in love with a 10 year old girl" bit (it is not as creepy as it sounds). And when Abbott asks Costello for a $50 loan.
But there is simply too much politics in the film. The screenplay could have been written by Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. In reality it was written by Arthur T. Horman who also wrote "In the Navy" (1941) another Abbott & Costello in the service comedy. And "Here Come the Co-Eds" (1945). Special material for the team was written by John Grant, who actually wrote every comedy the team appeared in consisting of "Who Done It?" (1942), "Hit the Ice" (1943), "The Time of Their Lives" (1946) and "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948) all of them rank among their best.
Directing credit was given to Arthur Lubin, who directed their next couple of films including "In the Navy" and "Hold That Ghost".
Because of the success of this film, it grossed four million dollars, Universal heavily pushed the team into making several films in the course of a year. In 1941 alone they appeared in four movies. From 1941 to 1956 Abbott & Costello appeared in at least one movie every year. Towards the end of their partnership, as one might imagine, audiences grew a little weary of them. They never developed new routines and after getting their own television show it became too much of a good thing. They were all over the place with the same jokes we heard ten times before.
I'm aware my opinion of "Buck Privates" does not follow the mainstream but how someone can watch this movie and honestly feel the politics, the love story and songs don't distract us from Abbott & Costello is a mystery to me. By all means watch Abbott & Costello, they are worth watching, but, you don't have to start with "Buck Privates".
If you are interested also in 1941 another comedy team took on similar material. Laurel & Hardy starred in their first 20th Century Fox comedy "Great Guns". I actually prefer that one over this.