Universal // 1941 // 84 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 23rd, 2012
Slicker: "Throw your chest out!"
Herbie: "I'm not through with it yet!"
Slicker Smith (Bud Abbott, Jack and the Beanstalk) and Herbie Brown (Lou Costello, Africa Screams) are two con men who have just made a terrible mistake. They thought they were buying movie tickets, but it turns out that they actually just signed up to be privates in the U.S. Army. Before long, they're being forced to adapt to the strains of military life. Ah, but even the sternest of drill sergeants will prove incapable of preventing wacky hijinks from ensuing.
Meanwhile, the wealthy Randolph Parker III (Lee Bowman, Cover Girl) and his former valet Bob Martin (Alan Curtis, High Sierra) have also joined the Army. Placed on an even playing field as members of the military, the two soon find themselves competing for the hand of the lovely Judy Gray (Jane Franzee, Calender Girl). Which of the two will win this romantic battle?
In 1940, the comedy team of Abbott and Costello appeared as supporting players in the comedy One Night in the Tropics. The film as a whole wasn't anything special, but Bud and Lou made a huge impression on moviegoers. In no time, Universal was handing Abbott and Costello their own star vehicle: Buck Privates, a movie that would serve double-duty as a goofy lark and as a rousing pre-war recruitment vehicle. The film was a huge success -- it crushed the likes of Citizen Kane and How Green Was My Valley at the box office that year -- and ensured that the duo would go on to star in dozens of additional big-screen comedies over the next fifteen years.
While I've always felt that Abbott and Costello fared best on their radio program (where their considerable improvisatory gifts were better-utilized), their movie outings are usually good for at least a few chuckles (though to say that the films vary in quality is an understatement). I suppose Universal has singled out Buck Privates since it was their first starring feature, but it certainly isn't the greatest Abbott and Costello film. Nonetheless, it's an important moment in cinematic history that contains a handful of classic sequences and some iconic musical selections.
Though most Abbott and Costello features would focus solely on the antics of the beloved comedy team, it feels as if the folks at Universal were hedging their bets a bit with Buck Privates. Approximately half the running time is devoted to Bud and Lou, while the other half is largely handed to an incredibly tedious love triangle involving cardboard cutout characters. The transition from the scenes highlighting Costello's comic energy to the scenes of jealous wooing are painful; we're constantly lurching from a reasonably entertaining affair to a nearly insufferable one.
Less insufferable are the musical interludes, many of which feature The Andrews Sisters at the peak of their stardom. Buck Privates may be best-known as Abbott and Costello's first starring feature, but it's also noteworthy for being the film that brought such beloved musical staples as "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and "(I'll Be With You When It's) Apple Blossom Time" into the world. The former in particular became one of signature tunes of the WWII era, and it's presented with infectious cheer in its original incarnation. Given the somewhat random manner in which the musical numbers appear, the sketch-driven nature of the comic sequences and the film's bizarre tonal issues, the film often feels like a big-screen variety show of sorts.
There's no question that the comedy is the central reason to check out the film, and many of the routines still hold up quite well today. Costello is brilliant in the supremely silly "Drill Routine" (in which Costello incorrectly interprets many of the commands being provided by an overbearing drill sergeant), and the copious one-liners are still immensely entertaining.
Abbott: "How did you get up in that tree?"
Costello: "I sat on it when it was an acorn."
As ever, Costello is the scene-stealer while Abbott remains the slick straight man, though in this film there seems to be a greater emphasis than usual on Costello. We see Abbott and Costello together quite a bit, along with quite a few scenes of Costello interacting with other cast members, but Abbott isn't really given anything to do unless Costello is around. That's too bad, considering that Bud Abbott's sly, understated charm is one of the film's biggest attributes.
Buck Privates (Blu-ray) has received a reasonably satisfying 1080p/Full Frame transfer from the folks at Universal, offering crisp detail and clarity throughout. While it isn't exactly a Citizen Kane or Casablanca-level transfer (the film itself just looks vastly cheaper and flimsier than those efforts), the picture looks attractive. Unfortunately, a good deal of DNR has been applied, though it's more obnoxious in certain sequences than others. Those who prefer films to be preserved in a more natural manner will undoubtedly be displeased with the decisions Universal made in this case. The DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio track is hit-and-miss, sounding robust during the musical sequences but a little flat during some of the dialogue scenes. It's functional, but little else.
The Blu-ray packaging is certainly attractive, as the film is an oversized digibook release featuring quite a few full-color pages packed with photos and behind-the-scenes info. Curious that the physical packaging is so lavish while the disc itself can't even muster up a main menu screen, but there you have it. The most curious supplement included is an hour-long television special entitled "Abbott and Costello Meet Jerry Seinfeld." It's a dated, somewhat awful special (a pair of less-than-persuasive Abbott and Costello impersonators turn up far too often) in which Seinfeld awkwardly attempts to elaborate on just why Abbott and Costello were so funny. Still, I suppose it will have some novelty value for fans of either Seinfeld or Abbott and Costello. Otherwise, we're stuck with a trio of often-recycled Universal 100th Anniversary featurettes: "Restoring the Classics," "Unforgettable Characters" and "The Carl Laemmle Era." I wish that Universal had just combined all of their assorted featurettes into a feature-length documentary and skipped this silly business of scattering the same handful of featurettes all over their new Blu-ray releases. You also get a trailer and a DVD copy of the film.
Buck Privates isn't exactly a classic, but it's a fun little slice of film history which introduced one of the world's greatest comedy teams to the moviegoing public. The Blu-ray release is merely adequate.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 1941
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* DVD Copy