Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Film Review: Keep 'Em Flying

"Keep 'Em Flying"  *** (out of ****)

Abbott & Costello fly high in the Universal Pictures comedy "Keep 'Em Flying" (1941).

"Keep 'Em Flying" was the last of Abbott & Costello's "service comedies". In 1941 Abbott & Costello were given their first starring roles in "Buck Privates", a peace time draft comedy in which the boys accidentally enlist in the army. The movie was a box-office hit and Universal immediately wanted to cash in on their good fortune and take advantage of what would become the new star comedy team of the decade.

All Universal felt they had to do was try and duplicate whatever made "Buck Privates" work. So you put Abbott & Costello once again in the service, give the story a romantic sub-plot and have some musical numbers. The very next movie starring Abbott & Costello after "Buck Privates" was "In the Navy" (1941). In both movies the Andrew Sisters appear as themselves and sing songs and in the case of "In the Navy" for the romantic sub-plot Dick Powell co-stars.

For me "Buck Privates" was a bit too political, too patriotic and the country wasn't even at war (!). "In the Navy" lacked big laughs and allowed too much screen time for the romance. Some may feel the same way about "Keep 'Em Flying" and it is partially true however I find I enjoy watching it more than their prior service comedies!

There is still a patriotic feel to "Keep 'Em Flying", in one scene Lou asks Bud what is the U.S.O to which Bud replies it is a government building funded by unselfish Americans for the men in uniform to be a sort of home away from home. The movie starts off with a dedication to the air corps and the "unsung heroes" the "ground crew". And there are very patriotic lyrics to one of the songs sung in the movie, "Let's Keep 'Em Flying" about the air corps and the men who fly.

There is not much of a romantic sub-plot however and whatever little there is it is mixed with another sub-plot involving a pilot that has a psychological block and is afraid to fly solo. Both of these plots compete for screen time against comedy routines performed by Abbott & Costello.

Bud Abbott plays Blackie and Lou Costello is Heathcliff. They are friends of Jinx Roberts (Dick Foran), a pilot who currently works at a carnival, along with Blackie and Heathcliff, doing an air show. Their boss becomes fed up with Jinx stealing the spotlight from the other acts and with Blackie and Heathcliff's incompetence and fires them all.

Jinx (which is not really a good nickname for a pilot) is not worried about losing a job because he has enlisted in the service. Blackie and Heathcliff, being the good friends that they are and also unemployed, decide to join with Jinx, they even mention becoming "buck privates".

In the early scenes of the movie it is established Jinx's is a ladies man with a wandering eye. Once in the service there will not be time for women but that doesn't stop Jinx from making the moves on a singer, Linda (Carol Bruce), who as luck would have it, for Jinx anyway, is going to be a hostess at a U.S.O.

Linda has a brother, Jim (Charles Lang) who saw his father, who was also a pilot, die in a crash and as a result has developed a fear of flying solo. For reasons unknown to mankind Jim has decided to enlist in the air corps, which is why Linda has decided to be a hostess. Jim befriends Jinx, who is the exact opposite. Since Jinx already has flying skills he believe the air corps is merely wasting his time. He knows more than they will ever teach him. Plus, it is good to get in with the brother when you want to go out with the sister.

Naturally none of this has anything to do with Abbott & Costello. Nearly nothing their characters do advance the plot forward in any way. The boys are only shown on-screen to perform comedy routines. If they weren't so popular by the time "Keep 'Em Flying" was released these would basically be considered supporting characters but Abbott & Costello receive top billing, even above the title of the movie.

The boys do some good routines in this movie. The best may be a variation of the 15 cents gag, most famously done by Laurel & Hardy in the comedy short "Men O' War" (1929), where they play a couple of sailors who only have 15 cents between them. They ask two ladies if they can buy them a drink at a soda shop but they can only pay for three drinks which means Stan will be left out. With Abbott & Costello they only have 25 cents between them, just enough to order a turkey sandwich and a cup of coffee, which they will have to split. After Abbott places his order Costello must decline and say he is not hungry but Abbott keeps trying to coax him to order something and Costello can't resist. Making matters worst the woman behind the counter (Martha Raye) has a twin sister, that works with her. Each has a different personality and are never both in the same place at the same time which baffles Abbott & Costello because they never know who they are talking to.

Another good routine takes place when they boy are working at the carnival behind a "hit the umpire" stand. Lou Costello will stand behind a cardboard umpire's costume while players get three chances to hit him with baseballs. Bud Abbott will control a mechanical baseball player with a bat whenever someone throws a ball in order to prevent the ball from hitting Lou. But Bud's timing is always a little off and the bat keeps hitting Lou on the head.

One of the twin sisters Ms. Raye plays is a bit "man hungry" and has a crush on Lou, whose persona was that of a man-child that knew two adults playing doctor could be fun. "Keep 'Em Flying" has some fun with Ms. Raye's character, Gloria, always wanting to be romantic with Lou but he doesn't know what to say or do.

There are some good musical numbers in "Keep 'Em Flying". One of the songs is a boogie woogie number called "Big Foot Pete" performed by Martha Raye. In a story almost too strange to be believed the song was nominated for an Academy Award however the Academy gave the nomination to the wrong movie, another Universal comedy released the same year, "Hellzapoppin'" (1941) starring a comedy team often compared to Abbott & Costello, Olsen & Johnson. We also get to hear Carol Bruce sing "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You". The song was not written for the movie. The famous bandleader Tommy Dorsey recorded the song many years prior to the release of this movie.

Although I believe "Keep 'Em Flying" is a solid Abbott & Costello comedy at its time of release movie critics (sheep) were not kind to the movie. Many critics, including "Variety" felt Abbott & Costello were appearing in too many movies in short period of time recycling gags. Because of this their appeal would wear off quickly with the public. It is actually a good point. If I were a movie critic in the 1940s I may have said the same thing. Between 1940, when the boys made their screen debut in "One Night in the Tropics" and 1942, Abbott & Costello appeared in nine comedies. Four made in 1941 alone! That is simply saturating the market place. It was an over-exposure. Even though Abbott & Costello are still remembered today because they were in so many movies in such a short period of time (they appeared in 36 movies in total) you will find their output is hit or miss. They did repeat gags and refused to create new material. However that should be of no concern when you watch "Keep 'Em Flying".

"Keep 'Em Flying" was directed by Arthur Rubin, who worked at Universal for many years. He directed five comedies starring Abbott & Costello including "Buck Privates" and "Hold That Ghost" (1941). One of the movie's co-writers was True Boardman (one of the strangest names I ever heard) who worked on other Abbott & Costello comedies such as "Hit the Ice" (1943) and a Bing Crosby / Bob Hope "Road" picture rip-off, "Pardon My Sarong" (1942). Another co-writer was Nat Perrin who worked with all the greats; Eddie Cantor, Abbott & Costello, Olsen & Johnson, Wheeler & Woolsey, the Marx Brothers and Red Skelton.

There are some big laughs in "Keep 'Em Flying" and some good musical numbers to listen to. Abbott & Costello fans should be pleased and those unfamiliar with the team might find something to enjoy.