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The Best of Abbott and Costello, Vols. 1-2

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One of Universal's most lucrative properties in the 1940s was the comedy team Abbott and Costello, the epitome of the straight man/funny man team-up. To many, they were just a poor man's version of Laurel and Hardy, who had come from the silent screen as well as the stage, and knew to put artistic pauses in their work. Abbott and Costello merely charged ahead though, hammering away and looking for the next laugh.

Surprisingly, this team has withstood the test of time as easily as Laurel and Hardy, perhaps because their films played regularly on television. (I used to watch them on Sunday mornings, after Popeye, the Three Stooges and the Little Rascals.)

Now Universal has released the first sixteen Abbott and Costello films, in chronological order, on two box sets, The Best of Abbott and Costello, Vol. 1 and The Best of Abbott and Costello, Vol. 2.

Lou Costello was a vaudeville performer, and their dubious partnership began when Costello's original partner became ill and he recruited a reluctant theater cashier -- Bud Abbott -- to join him on stage. They performed on stage and in radio for a decade before breaking into films in 1940 and made nearly 40 films together between then and 1957, when the duo broke up. Costello made one solo film before dying of a heart attack in 1959 at age 53. Abbott lived until 1974 but never appeared in films again.

Conventional wisdom ranks five A&C films above all the others. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is not included in these sets and, presumably, Universal will eventually release more sets to include that film and the later 1950s efforts. Four others, The Time of Their Lives, Hold That Ghost, Buck Privates and In the Navy are included here.

Volume 1 contains three of these. Buck Privates (1941) was the duo's first starring vehicle and their first big hit, following One Night in the Tropics, in which they have only supporting roles. In the Navy (1941) was the logical follow-up, cashing on the growing war effort.

Hold That Ghost (1941) established Lou Costello as the overweight, cowardly butterball who always needs to call on his level-headed but stern comrade Bud Abbott. The formula has it so that Abbott never sees any of the supernatural events that preoccupy Costello. The duo would capitalize on this balance in the later monster movies, but it works just as well here. Bud and Lou play two service station attendants who unwittingly inherit the estate of a gangster. But when they get stranded there along with three other hapless passengers, the place appears to be haunted.

Other titles in Volume 1 include Keep 'Em Flying (1941), Ride 'Em Cowboy (1941), Pardon My Sarong (1942) and Who Done It? (1942). Guest stars include the swingin' Andrews Sisters, Shemp Howard, Dick Powell, Martha Raye, Ella Fitzgerald, and many other familiar names.

Volume 2 comes with what could be the boys' most unusual and most interesting film, The Time of Their Lives (1946), in which the partners barely say two words to one another. And in fact, Costello dies in the film's first fifteen minutes and comes back as a ghost! Blamed as traitors, Costello and Marjorie Reynolds are doomed to haunt their New England grounds until it's proven that they were actually trying to help George Washington against Benedict Arnold. Abbott appears as an 18th century butler and a 20th century psychiatrist who doesn't believe in ghosts. Reynolds and Costello make a terrific team, and the film has a taste of the bittersweet along with its imaginative story. The film was the most expensive of all the A&C features because of the ghostly special effects, and it did not perform as well as hoped, despite critical acclaim.

Notably, Volume 2 also includes The Naughty Nineties (1945) in which Abbott and Costello perform their most memorable and beloved routine, "Who's on First?"

And Here Come the Co-Eds (1945) is worth noting for its appearance of Lon Chaney Jr. as the villain and the tap-dancing spunk of Peggy Ryan. Other titles in Volume 2 include Hit the Ice (1943), In Society (1944), Little Giant (1946), the sequel Buck Privates Go Home (1947) and The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap.

Each set consists of two discs with two films on each side of each disc. The quality is exceptional, even if the soundtrack is a little too soft. Extras include production notes and trailers.

Buy The Best of Abbott and Costello, Vol. 1 on DVD.

Buy The Best of Abbott and Costello, Vol. 2 on DVD.

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