Monday, September 21, 2015

Buck Privates (1941)

Director: Arthur Lubin

Universal Pictures’ comedic response to the newly formed peacetime draft of 1940 would make stars out of the comedy duo of Abbott and Costello. A picture that empathized with a nation on the brink of joining the ever present European struggle that weighed over the world, the picture made light out of difficult situation in American lives. It was a movie filled with funny banter and musical numbers that delighted audiences. Produced with a B-picture mentality Buck Privates would surprisingly become a smash hit for the smallest of the major Hollywood studios beginning over a decade worth of Abbott and Costello motion picture vehicles for Universal.

Buck Privates is a musical wartime comedy about two unlikely men who mistakenly sign up for the army and find ways to cause all sorts of trouble in boot camp.  Slicker (Bud Abbott) and Herbie (Lou Costello) are two sidewalk hawkers who while evading the police hide out in a theater that happens to be used as an enlistment office and find themselves the newest members of the US Army. While Slicker and Herbie find themselves causing all types of havoc at boot camp we follow the rivalry of Randolph Parker (Lee Bowman) a spoiled son of a wealthy family, and his former valet and now fellow soldier Bob Martin (Alan Curtis). Randolph and Bob compete for the affection of a camp hostess, Judy (Jane Frazee) while Randolph’s privileged behavior alienates him from the rest of the soldiers. It is through Randolph’s self-revelations that lead to his unselfish acts that help win a major war exercise that gains Randolph the respect of his fellow comrades, as well as a lot of money for the unit through a wager arranged by Slicker and Herbie.

Buck Privates was Abbott and Costello's first starring feature film.
The picture is a wonderful vehicle for comic stylings of Abbott and Costello sandwiched in-between a secondary sappy melodrama about two rival soldiers and musical numbers performed by The Andrews Sisters portraying musically talented camp hostesses. On the whole the film really is not all that good as a piece of cinematic “art.” The melodrama storyline is forgettable B-movie material and the film is out of touch with the actual happenings within any army, but the movie was made simply as entertainment, never meant to be taken seriously. The comedy provided by Abbott and Costello even coupled with The Andrews Sisters more than make this film entertaining and unforgettable despite it lacking plot.

The comedy team of Lou Abbott and Bub Costello goes back to the mid-1930s as a duo in vaudeville and burlesque shows with Abbott as the straight man to Costello’s blundering antics. Universal had signed the comedy twosome in 1940 with intention to flesh out some of their films as comic relief. After a debut supporting appearance in the comedy One Night in the Tropics where they stole the show with a few of their classic acts the studio decided to assemble a picture around the antics allowing Abbott and Costello to be the stars, the first which became Buck Privates.

Bowman and Curtis as the featured actors of the film's real plot line.
The film would turn Abbot and Costello into bona fide stars, but the movie also need a story driven plot which was supplied by melodramatic performances of Lee Bowman, Alan Curtis, and Jane Frazee. The three leave no real indelible mark on the motion picture as almost anybody in the studio’s stable of B-list actors could have carried out the performances these actors provided. The plot as a whole is secondary to the minds of audiences when compared to the on screen appearances of Abbot and Costello.

The Andrew Sisters
Perhaps the most historically iconic moment of the picture actually do not include Abbot and Costello at all. Buck Privates would impact popular culture greatly as it introduced audiences to one of the century’s greatest musical hit “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” performed by The Andrews Sisters. The song is  an up-tempo mix of swing time style with blues that caught on as being one of the catchiest tunes around and would be a precursor to rock n’ roll. The song would be a massive hit, especially for the war years, as the tune had direct correlation with servicemen. “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” would go on to be nominated for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards that year, and despite not winning the it would live on in history much long than it fellow nominees. It would be revitalized three decades later by Bette Midler becoming once again a major charting song in the 1970s. Near the later years of the century music critics would name the tune one of the most iconic songs of the prior hundred years for its impact of popular music and it time in history.

When Buck Privates released to audiences it became an instant smash hit for Universal, the top grossing film for the studio in its history up to that time, taking in over four million dollars. Universal was so overjoyed with the film’s success that it gave its director, Arthur Lubin, a $5000 bonus which was a major prize for the director who was only making small B-pictures at $350 a week at that time.

Universal looked to continue this new found momentum they had with Abbott and Costello as they produced three more movies featuring the comedy team in 1941, two of which were wartime comedies. The names of Abbott and Costello would become a major draw to the movie theaters across the nation for Universal as the star comedians would become Hollywood’s two biggest money makers during the period of World War II.

Looking back Buck Privates is a simple, yet highly enjoyable comedy feature. Abbott and Costello’s foot was now in the door and their best works were yet to come as they dived into the world of motion picture super stardom. As mentioned before, the film played an immense role on popular music that impacted the industry decades later as a wonderful, energetic tune. However this was only the beginning for everyone involved in the feature as America was drawn into the war later that year and the film’s stars found greater audiences that further sang of their praises.

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