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Hold That Ghost

Hold That Ghost(1941)

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The comedy team Abbott & Costello occupy an unusual position in film history, fondly remembered though never entirely praised. They've been perennially popular for over six decades while other teams ranging from the Ritz Brothers to even Martin and Lewis have tended to fall by the nostalgia wayside. The odd thing about this is that Abbott & Costello never made an entirely successful film, preferring instead to toss in bits of old burlesque routines throughout frequently cliched scripts. That's not entirely a surprise since throughout the 1940s they were making two or three films a year in addition to a weekly radio show and frequent cross-country personal appearances. Not to mention that the boys really preferred a poker game to the dedication required by comedy at its highest levels.

So why the popularity? Because Abbott & Costello had a type of goofy charm that comes through no matter what the circumstances and at their best were undeniable masters of comic dialogues. Good evidence can be found in the new DVD set The Best of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Volume 1 which contains their first eight feature films from 1940 to 1942 (the only one missing from that period is Rio Rita, presumably to be included in the next set). Better yet the entire package has a list price of $24.98 and despite such a budget price the films show crisp remastering and respect for detail. There are also some good though brief production notes included. The one drawback is that the discs and packaging don't tell you which side of which disc has a particular film; that information is only given on an insert.

In their first feature, One Night in the Tropics the duo are second-billed as a test for their screen abilities. They do manage to get off a couple of striking routines but it's the followup, Buck Privates (1941), that really showed what they could do. This is one of their best efforts, with the two unintentionally enlisting in the Army and the mayhem that results from that encounter; just imagine Lou trying to follow a drill sergeant's orders! With U.S. participation in the war looming, Abbott & Costello made two more service comedies that same year as morale boosters. In the Navy and Keep `Em Flying both follow the Buck Privates pattern though with enough fast and and snappy bits to keep things lively. Keep `Em Flying is particularly helped by the presence of ex-vaudeville comic/singer Martha Raye (who ironically enough was in real life afraid of flying).

Other Abbott & Costello films tend to present a high concept situation where the boys are let loose. Thus you'll find them in a haunted house (Hold That Ghost), a dude ranch (Ride `Em Cowboy), the South Seas (Pardon My Sarong) and a murder mystery (Who Done It?). None are classics even by A&C standards but generally work on sheer momentum. Hold That Ghost showcases a stream of sight gags (Lou's reactions to a mysteriously moving candle), twisting patter, peculiar characters and even songs courtesy of the Andrews Sisters. It's never more than the sum of its parts but most comedies don't even have parts that good. Still, an example of A&C at their weakest is Ride `Em Cowboy, one reason being because the team doesn't appear as often in it. Much of the time is instead given over to a tedious plot and lame singers, with the notable exception of a 25-year-old Ella Fitzgerald girlishly romping through her breakout hit "A-Tisket A-Tasket" (though unfortunately backed by a Hollywood orchestra instead of a jazz band).

Despite that film, it's hard to go wrong with a set at such a low price. Abbott & Costello won't appear on any future Sight and Sound polls but neither will they be forgotten.

. To order The Best of Abbott and Costello, Vol. 1, go to TCM Shopping.

by Lang Thompson