Sunday, June 28, 2015

Film Review: In Society

"In Society"
** 1\2  (out of ****)

Abbott & Costello hobnob with the well-to-do when they go "In Society" (1944).

"In Society" was the twelfth comedy to star Abbott & Costello in a period of four years. The team made their first film appearance in a Robert Cummings - Allan Jones comedy called "One Night in the Tropics" (1940). In that movie the comedy team played supporting characters and they even found time to do their "who's on first" bit although it is a shortened version.

By the time the team starred in their next picture, "Buck Privates" (1941), a peace-time war comedy, they had the lead roles and Universal Studios had a hit on their hands. Universal released four Abbott & Costello comedies in 1941 alone and four more in 1942. As one might expect this became too much of a good thing. There was an over saturation of Abbott & Costello movies. That is not to say there weren't some good comedies being released by the team, there were; "Hold That Ghost" (1941), "Keep 'Em Flying" (1941) and "Who Done It" (1942) but a lot of the movies were just average and had the team repeat routines. "In Society" is an example of the middle-of-the-road quality the team sometimes released.

Bud & Lou play working-class plumbers who receive a telephone call from a wealthy businessman who has a leak in his bathroom sink. The boys show up, in their plumbing uniforms, but, are mistaken for guest at a costume themed party being thrown by the man's wife. Bud & Lou meanwhile naturally do not have a clue how to repairs the leak in the bathroom sink. Instead they cause more damage and destroy the man's home.

This set-up feels more like a situation the Three Stooges would find themselves in. Moe, Larry and Curley often interacted with high society, crashing parties, causing destruction wherever they went. But it doesn't feel right for Abbott & Costello. This isn't normally a predicament they find themselves in.

After the boys destroy the man's home, they accidentally receive an invitation for a weekend getaway at another wealthy estate where a famous painting will be unveiled. The boys see this as a great business opportunity. They can go and pass around business cards. You know, these mansions have four or five bathrooms in them.

This leads to gangsters, which the boys owe money, crashing the party, pretending to have been invited by Bud & Lou, wanting to steal the valuable painting.

The major problem with "In Society" is it feels like a rushed production. The story was not fully developed. It feels as if Universal Studios just wanted to release another Abbott & Costello movie quickly in an order to cash in on their popularity and turn in a profit. Doing something like this though could hurt the team more than cause good. If the quality of work the boys were appearing in was not good, popular or not, audiences would not see their movies.

"In Society" does what a lot of movies from the 1940s did. It has a little comedy, a little romance and some songs and dancing. What hurts "In Society" is the romance is poor, the acting, outside of Abbott & Costello, is poor and the songs are OK. This formula, of putting everything into one movie, only works when everything is done well.

Other Abbott & Costello movies featured popular musical acts of the era such as the Andrew Sisters, a singing sister trio that sang songs like "Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B" and bandleader Ted Lewis. These musical acts were never asked to serve double duty though and play an activate role in the plot. They only played themselves and usually appeared in a nightclub scene which would provide the movie the opportunity to introduce a new song.

However in this movie Marion Hutton, a big band vocalist, is asked to serve as a love interest in the movie. She can't act! She may be nice to look at and have a decent enough voice but who had the brilliant idea to give her a part to play? Was she dating a producer of the movie? She plays a cab driver that is friendly with Bud & Lou. Her name is Elsie Hammerdingle. She drives the boy to the wealthy businessman's home and is also mistaken for a guest in costume. There she meets Peter Evans (Kirby Grant) a playboy. The two are immediately attracted to one another only Elsie doesn't want to tell Peter she isn't rich.

As is the case with most movies made in the 1940s, which feature a famous comedy team; the Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy, it is the comedy team which has all the best scenes and generally speaking is why audiences are watching the movie in the first place. "In Society" is no exception to the rule. The best scenes in the movie involve Abbott & Costello doing their vaudeville routines. Everything else in the movie is a letdown.

If we were to remove every element of the movie that did not revolve around Abbott & Costello, at best, you might have 30 minutes of screen-time. The entire length of the movie is 74 minutes. Keep in mind that includes the credits and musical numbers. There simply is not enough going on in this movie plot-wise. What the audience sees on screen is really a draft of an idea. Abbott & Costello are doing their thing. The comedy routines are in place. Now the hard work. Creating a plot where they can have an active role in it. You want them to be plumbers? Fine. Engage with high society? Good. We can get some laughs out of this. But you need to do more. You need to re-cast the other parts. Rethink the romance or completely get rid of this sub-plot. It isn't very well developed anyway and quite frankly, could have been its own feature length comedy. Poor girl, dreams of becoming rich, works as a cab driver, mistakenly meets a rich man, who believes she in costume at a party and they fall in love but she is too embarrassed to tell him the truth. She lies about who she is, he finds know how it ends. Predictable? Yes. But, enough plot for a movie of its own.

Instead what we have now are sub-plots which aren't fully developed scrambling for screen-time. There is not enough conflict to engage the audience. Nothing interesting is happening when Abbott & Costello aren't on-screen to keep audiences watching. The acting is poor. Marion Hutton is an amateur at best and has no zest for her lines. Kirby Grant lacks charisma. There is zero chemistry between him and Hutton.

Abbott & Costello are always funny to watch but I find their body of work a mixed-bag. They have just as many "misses" as they do "hits" when compared to Laurel & Hardy or the Marx Brothers. They also appeared in more movies then either comedy team. If you watch several of their movies at a time you'll always see how often they repeat routines. After a certain point in their career they stopped creating new routines. When the team created their television show, which aired between 1952 - 1954, it further allowed them another medium to rehash their routines which they have previously done on stage, radio and movies.

There are bright spots in their movie career after "In Society", in fact there are several good movies to select from; "Here Come the Co-eds" (1945), "The Naughty Nineties" (1945), "The Time of Their Lives" (1946) and "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948).

"In Society" shows promise. The boys are funny in it. The problem is it was just not fully developed. It feels like a rushed production. There is not enough plot here. It is a little rough around the edges.