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Abbott and Costello in Hollywood

Abbott and Costello in Hollywood

1944.Directed by S. Sylvan Simon. With Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Frances Rafferty, Robert Stanton

There are some isolated self-ref joys in this predictable studio comedy, in which Abbott and Costello have a barber shop down the street from Mammoth Pictures and after a series of complications find themselves hiding out on the movie lot.

"Rags" Ragland (a character actor MGM was pushing that season, I guess) comes by the barber shop. After a lot of "Oh-hello-Mr.-Ragland-loved-your-last- picture," they talk him into getting a shave. The shave is a botch, and when Ragland asks for a mirror so he can check the results, Abercrombie (Lou Costello) instead holds up one of Ragland s own publicity photos. Rags is impressed: "You've made me look ten years younger!" This gag would work with almost anybody in the barber chair, I suppose, but it's especially pointed in the context of a movie actor: this fellow is so used to seeing himself on the screen that he can't tell the difference between a posed still and a live mirror. Or, to put it another way, whatever may befall the face of the "civilian" Ragland, the "cinematic" Ragland is always smiling, always glamorous, always young.

Here's another example of the same thing: Abercrombie takes refuge in the "schoolhouse" on the Mammoth Pictures lot (he's being chased by studio cops, of course). There's a scene with him and some of the kids who study there when they're not needed for filming (including "Butch" Jenkins, the little boy who's in The Human Comedy and National Velvet). The kids keep up with Lou quite well; they're natural and funny. You think, "Those kids are good actors!" Then you think, "Of course they're good actors; that's why they're under contract to Mammoth Studios." These child-actors are not just playing children; they're playing child-actors. It's another double-exposure view of professional performers who, just when they're supposed to be off-duty, perform up a storm.

And here's my favorite: The cops have Abercrombie cornered on a western saloon set. He hides among a pile of dummies, lying very still and looking blank. Of course, when it's time for a body to be thrown from a balcony, it's Abercrombie who gets plucked from the pile. It's a pretty funny scene, since Abercrombie has to pretend to be inanimate. He gets dragged repeatedly up some stairs, his head bouncing on each step. He tries to remain limp while a dance hall girl writhes on his lap, and then when her boyfriend comes over and roughs him up. And when the gag gets to the point where the "dummy" has to fall off the balcony, the movie cuts to a long shot and something that is indisputably a real dummy falls from the balcony (cut to a closeup of Lou lying amidst the rubble of a broken table). So here's a real dummy standing in for the fake dummy who is in fact Abercrombie who is in fact Lou Costello, a major star who would never be permitted to take such a fall.

There must be some general formulation for what goes on at junctures like. We're behind the scenes of an inner movie at the same time we are immersed in an outer movie. In the inner movie, a man takes over for a dummy. In the outer movie, a dummy takes over for a man. Like some mathematical equation where a double negative equals a simple positive, the outcomes of the two scenarios are identical: a dummy is photographed falling from a balcony. Weird.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein