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The Best of Abbott and Costello: Volume 3

In Pulp Fiction, Mia Wallace says there are two types of men: Elvis men and Beatles men. For classic comedies I find there are also two different types of people: Abbott and Costello fans, and Laurel and Hardy fans. For fans of Lou and Bud, Volume 3 brings eight more classic Abbott and Costello films to DVD. The more I watch older movies the more astonished I am at the differences between filmmaking then and now. It’s not just the visual effects, but entire concepts. There are many things that were common then that you just couldn’t get away with now. For instance, Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves are commonly accused of playing the same character over and over. It’s just not done today, but in the films of Abbott and Costello it didn’t matter if the duo were detectives, bellboys, or con men. What the audience wanted to see was the partnership of Bud and Lou in action, the chemistry between them, and their vaudeville shticks and pratfalls, and as these eight movies show, that’s what Hollywood gave the audiences.

Because Bud and Lou were the important thing to audiences, story and characters didn’t mean much of anything. The story of the movies can usually be summed up in one sentence, and the plot is seldom anything more then a thin device to get the boys in some situation to allow them to use and reuse antics. For instance Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion put the boys back in the military (a la Buck Privates). As the characters go, whether they are baggage handlers in Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein or a bellboy and a hotel detective in Abbott and Costello meet the Killer, Boris Karloff they are nothing more then just Bud and Lou. They are buddies, whether their characters know each other at the beginning of the movie or not. Bud Abbott is the perennial straight man; he talks straight, he never sees anything out of the ordinary, and even though he’s the serious one, he never seems to be lucky with the ladies. Lou Costello, on the other hand, is the eternal clown. He always has a slight skip in his step, and is the first one to come across any unbelievable situation, often robbing him of the ability to speak or think straight. Whether it's because he's jolly or silly, the ladies always took interest in Lou, although often to take advantage of him. The two play off each other in a way that only a partnership like theirs can – a partnership that just doesn’t exist in today’s Hollywood. David Spade and Chris Farley started to go down the road towards what Abbott and Costello could do, and might have reached it if not for Farley’s untimely death.

Abbott and Costello were one of Universal’s best franchises in their day, so it’s not a surprise to see familiar faces pop up in their movie as Universal merged popular concepts to boost audiences. Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., and Boris Karloff appear in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Universal’s attempt to cash in on both Abbott and Costello and the Universal Monster Movies. The success of that film led to Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man which loosely borrows the concept of the Invisible Man, but really isn’t related to any of the monster movies. Mexican Hayride is based on a Cole Porter play. Karloff returns for Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff, a neat noir flick. The success of the Ma and Pa Kettle movies led to Comin’ Round the Mountain (which has a brief appearance by The Wizard of Oz’s Margaret Hamilton), and the science fiction films of that era inspired Abbott and Costello Go To Mars (which includes several of the Miss Universe contestants for that year). In fact, only two of the movies in this set weren’t directly influenced by other Universal films or guest stars: Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion and Lost in Alaska.

What’s really neat to watch is how much of “Abbott and Costello” was actually Lou Costello. Until watching this set I never noticed how much time Costello spent on screen when Bud was absent. Lou’s surprise takes and physical stunts make up the majority of the laughs, and the comedy switches to something more cerebral when Abbott enters the scene, particularly plays on words and numbers. Fans of cartoons should pick a couple of these movies and watch them – it’s easy to see where animation greats like Mel Blanc or Walter Lantz got their inspiration. The timing on Lou’s comedy is perfect, and sometimes the gags worked better for him then in cartoons.

For me, one of the more annoying things about films of that era was the use of musical interludes that had nothing to do with the movie whatsoever. Usually it was a chance to showcase new talent, but looking back it’s mostly just an interruption to the movie. Thankfully most of the pictures in this collection don’t suffer that fate, with the exception of Comin’ Round the Mountain and Lost in Alaska. Of these two, Comin’ Round the Mountain is the bigger offender, with 4 songs interrupting the movie. It’s my least favorite film on the set, not only because of the musical breaks but also because it’s probably the weakest film, with less then stellar gags from Abbott and Costello (in fact, the good ones in the movie have been recycled from other films), and bad hillbilly impersonations from most of the cast.

That aside, this is a great set with some classic movies, some of which haven’t been shown with the frequency they deserve. It’s another great set for fans of the boys, or a good way to introduce Bud and Lou to someone who isn’t familiar with their work. While the movies are grand, the DVD set itself is a little less then stellar. With no real extras and cardboard packaging, a little more love could have been put into this release.

Let’s start with the appearance of the disks. The fact that the set is a mix of cardboard and plastic is pretty easy to overlook. What plastic there is on the "digipak" should hold the cardboard together pretty well, and if the packaging is kept in its sleeve it should last. However the eight movies are placed on two double sided disks, that have both “Side A” and “Side B” printed on the same side, one printed on the outer part of the inner ring, and one printed on the innermost part of the disk. Once you figure out that the side with the text on it is Side A, you’re set – but it is confusing for first time users.

Once you place the disk in and get past the splash pages you get your choice of the two movies on that side of the disk, as well as a list of the other movies on the other side of the disk. You select the movie you want and you’re taken to a page specific for that movie. This is where the set starts to shine.

That page is designed with the theme of the movie, usually using images similar to that movie’s poster. From there you have four options: Play Movie, Subtitles, Scene Selection, and then either “Bonus Materials” or Production Notes. On the movies that have “Bonus Materials” you’re taken to a choice of the Production Notes or the movie’s trailer. Unfortunately these classic trailers are only on three of the movies - serious bummer. What is neat about this movie page is that the cursor you move around to make your selection is also tailored to the movie you’ve selected. It might be a ghost (for Meets Frankenstein) or a camel (for Foreign Legion). That shows some effort was put into the set, even if it’s just an appearance thing.

The production notes for each film are kind of interesting. They talk about the situation around the movie – usually why this movie was made or what it was inspired by. It also gives you brief information on important cast members other then Bud and Lou, as well as tidbits of what the critics said for each movie’s release. They are an interesting, albeit brief, look at what filmmaking in that era was like.

The films themselves look pretty good. The set doesn’t advertise any sort of re-mastering or cleanup on the prints, and there is dirt evident from time to time, but they are very clear in picture for the most part. The sound remains true to the movie’s origin and is available in mono 2.0. It was kind of interesting watching these as a marathon, because the Universal logo at the beginning of each picture is in stereo, followed by the movie in mono. This meant I ended up with a burst of stereo every hour and a half or so.

The movies are short – not one of them exceeds an hour and a half, so it’s easy to watch a couple in one sitting. So kick back, relax, and enjoy some good old fashioned comedy with Abbott and Costello… unless you’re a Laurel and Hardy fan, in which case you’re out in the cold – there’s nothing in this set for you.

The Best of Abbott and Costello, Volume 3

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

Mexican Hayride

Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff

Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man

Comin’ Round the Mountain

Lost in Alaska

Abbott and Costello Go To Mars