Monday, May 1, 2017

Naughty Nineties, The (1945)

Director: Jean Yarbough

How does a motion picture about a showboat become synonymous with the national pastime? I can answer that with another question: Who’s on First? Comedic duo Abbott and Costello team up in yet another silly, goofball comedy, filled with some of their more beloved routines including the timeless “Who’s on First?” sketch in Universal’s 1945 picture The Naughty Nineties. Take a ride on this cinematic show boat that is filled with comic gold.

The Naughty Nineties is an Abbott and Costello comedy where the two funnymen help save a wholesome showboat from falling into the hands of crooked gamblers. As Captain Sam (Henry Travers) travels his prized showboat up and down the Mississippi with his wholesome brand of entertainment he is swindled by a pair of crooked gamblers, Crawford (Alan Curtis) and Bonita (Rita Johnson), for a controlling interest for his prized floating venue. It takes the madcap cunning of the boat’s lead actor Dexter (Bud Abbott) and show hand Sebastian (Lou Costello) to help keep Captain Sam from being conned out of everything a he owns and loves, regaining full possession for their friend and lovable boss with a deception of their own. Along the way are set ups for many classic Abbott and Costello sketches.

The film is a goofy comedy with a rather weak plot that serves to do nothing more than to set up moments where Abbot and Costello can perform scenes they had perfected on the vaudeville stages several years beforehand.  Despite these sketches were nothing new to the Abbott and Costello repertoire, for many audiences this would be a first time they would experience the comedic genius of this classic funny guy/straight man style duo.

Steered by long time B-level director Jean Yarbrough, whose résumé consisted mostly of low budget horrors and comedies, this film’s assembly is rather simple with hints of charm. Set in the fanciful 1890’s in Middle America, this Universal feature utilized much of the studio’s backlot stock form previous features to give its settings a more elaborate feel. Sadly the same cannot be said about the direction, or use of the camera, which tends to be stagnant, and at time amateur-like with its editing.

The film features the all-around fatherly and lovable Henry Travers as the focus of its plot. With his sympathetic bumbling ways he is the man which Abbott and Costello focus to help through the picture. Alan Cutis and Rita Johnson portray the antagonists of the story, as a crooked gambler and his sweet-talking beauty that attempt to take the Captain for his prized possession and turn it into a floating house of fixed gaming. For Curtis this would be a reversal of his character in his prior Abbott and Costello feature, Buck Privates, where he played the romantic lead. Rita Johnson was an actress on the wrong side of 30 still looking to find a way to make a major name for herself as she portrays the beautifully dangerous villain of the picture.

In the end all the cumulative parts of this feature point to Bub Abbott and Lou Costello simply performing their particular brand of comedy despite the plot did not revolve around them. This style of comedy plays very much in the same manner as Marx Brothers picture as they too had very little to do with the actual plot, yet the entire film focused on their entertaining qualities.

Several of Abbott and Costello’s vaudeville acts would find variations in this picture, including the “higher/lower” routine, where Costello mistakes Abbott’s stage setting for pointers on his singing, and a Costello take on a mirror scene, where he mimics another actor as if looking into a mirror.

The routine that stands above them all is the classic rendition of “Who’s on Frist?” The sketch itself goes back well into the duo’s 1930s acts, but here in The Naughty Nineties it is preserved in possibly its best manner. A classic routine where Costello mistakes odd nicknames of baseball players called “Who”, “What”, etc. for Abbot asking return questions to him remains a timeless comedic act that to this day is revered as one of the best pieces of comedy performance. Careful listeners may overhear film crewmembers chuckling in the background as they fight off bursting into laugher while recording of this classic routine. These results with hints of chuckles are left in the final cut of the picture showing just how funny these men were at their peak,

The movie remains a simple goofball comedy at best, but to see Abbott and Costello doing what they do best is what makes this feature enjoyable. Today the film remains rather forgotten, yet “Who’s on First?” plays in the hearts and minds of comedians and fans as an ever present reminder of one of the 20th century’s finest moments of comedy. The sketch of “Who’s on First?” is so beloved that it plays on a continuous loop at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY for its brilliance and reference to the sport which it references.

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