Today, I am taking a look at two brand-new Blu-rays for people who are interested in movies that were made before 1970. (More on that in a little bit) The two discs are the new Kino Lorber Blu-ray release of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (W.C. Fields’ last film for Universal and his last starring vehicle) and the new Classic Flix/3D Archive restoration of that old Abbott & Costello chestnut (familiar to anyone looking through the dollar bin at Walgreens) Africa Screams.
I sometimes wonder in 2020 how many film buffs still remember W.C. Fields. There aren't quite as many pop culture references to him as there were when I was growing up. When I was but a lad, he was all over film and TV; you have a character in the original Friday the 13th movie doing an impression of Fields. Richard Dawson on the old Match Game used to break into his W.C. Fields impression, seemingly on a daily basis. W.C. Fields seemed like he was everywhere back then; maybe because he's so easy to imitate. I'm seeing a lot less Fields love in 2020, and that's a shame because he is hilarious.
The chart compares WHEN the movies that are featured on the different streaming services were made, and it's a little sobering. (Although, because I was there at the genesis of Blockbuster Video, I not surprised. At the very beginning of Blockbuster Video, they had something for everyone, including an entire section of silent films and entire section of Westerns. Then, as time went by and their business plan changed, they became an entire wall of new releases and little else; if you liked older movies, you could go scratch.) In any case, back to this fascinating chart-- apparently less than 1% of the films offered on Netflix were made before 1970. (1970!) Hulu is exactly the same. Amazon Prime features 7% of films made before 1970. Thank the Lord for HBO Max (and I think part of this is because HBO Max features a channel that is curated by the Criterion Collection) a full 12% of HBO Max movies were made before 1970. I am gob-smacked by this data because quite honestly I prefer films that were made before 1970 (and if I'm pressed to the wall with a wolf’s head cane, I might even admit that I prefer movies from before 1950; you know, like the two movies I'm discussing this week.) How's that for a segue way back?
The plot goes all over the place; it revolves around Fields pitching a script to the Head of Production at Esoteric Pictures, in which he jumps out of an airplane to chase a bottle of whiskey that gets out of his hands, and he winds up in this strange country called Klopstokia, trying to seduce a young lady and then trying to marry her rich mother. The film goes back and forth between that plot and the Production Head at the Studio screaming that this script doesn't make any sense. Then, as if they couldn't figure out any other way to end the film, we have this crazy chase sequence that has nothing to do with anything that came before. It's a wonderful chase sequence; it's really well done and it's full of gags. So this film is a bunch of WC Fields sequences (including the famous one where he goes into an ice cream parlor and tells the audience that the scene was originally written for a saloon but that the censor nixed it; he proceeds to act in this ice cream parlor as if he's having a drink in a saloon) that are funny but don’t combine into any sort of compelling narrative whole. It's a crazy movie, but I love it a lot.
AN ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: as I was watching the new Kino Lorber disc of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, I started to remember that the first time I ever saw it was at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library from 16mm when I was 12 or 13 years old. The Audio-visual Director there had great taste in film, and very often he would schedule a series of films playing every Sunday afternoon for a month or two. I tried to see as many of them as I could because I was allowed to ride my bike to the library. The first time I ever saw a Never Give a Sucker an Even Break was at the Arlington Heights library, and the first time I ever saw Vincent Price in The Pit and the Pendulum was at the Arlington Knights library, and the first time I ever saw The Haunting was at the Arlington Heights library. This was a wonderful memory that came bubbling up. I remember at one point they were scheduling an evening of short comedies, and they had a sort of portmanteau title for it. I remember calling the library on the phone because I'd forgotten what time it started. Because all I did then was read and never talked about what I had read with anyone, I pronounced every word wrong, so I asked the librarian who picked up the phone what time the October POTT-PORIE began? There was a pause, and she said, “You mean the October POTPOURRI? I said… “Yes! Yes, that's it—POTPOURRI, and she told me. So that afternoon, I learned what time the films started AND how to pronounce that word. Great Memory. Fifteen years later, after I began teaching film, my buddy Dale and I hosted a film series at that very library where we curated screenings of important foreign films and lead lively discussions with the audiences afterwards. I can’t remember if Dale and I called one of these great evenings “An October Pottporie.”
That being said, Africa Screams is not the greatest Abbott & Costello film ever made; it seems a little tired. You would be hard-pressed to say any of the team’s routines in the film are among their best. The film is also crammed with guest stars that take up precious running time. It's almost as if, not wanting to ruin the comedy with musical numbers the way a lot of comedy teams did in the '40s and '50s, Abbott & Costello booked this film full of star cameos from the world of big-game hunting and boxing. Clyde Beatty, the famous lion tamer, shows up and he has a scene where he's taming lions. Frank Buck, the big game hunter, (“Bring ‘Em Back Alive!) has a scene where, by God, he goes big-game hunting. Max and Buddy Baer, who were both heavyweight boxers, show up as to hired-muscle goons, and there's a scene where they fight, so they get to show what made them famous. (Some of you might recognize Max Baer's name; much later Max Baer's son, Max Baer Jr., played Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies and became producer and director of low-budget drive-in movies like Macon County Line.)
I do not count Africa Screams as among Abbott & Costello’s best work; maybe nothing could compare to Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (although I've read that when they were working on that film, Lou Costello was not happy and said that his nine-year-old son could have written a better script.) However, time has been very kind to Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Time has not been particularly kind to Africa Screams. The comedy team play a pair of clerks in the book department of a major department store who are persuaded to join a shady safari because Costello has supposedly memorized an important map originally contained in a true-life adventure book that is now out of print. Hilarious hijinks are then supposed to ensue. The minute the pair get to Africa and are captured by African natives, you know what you're in store for, racially. Yes, the natives throw Abbott & Costello in big smoking pots and intend to cook them and eat them. (BIG IDEA: A remake of Cannibal Holocaust starring Abbott & Costello!) I think the most racially insensitive gag occurs when a few members of the tribe are very scared by a gorilla, and courtesy of clunky special-effects, their fear turns them WHITE! Now, this may have been funny in the '40s, but it really comes across as less funny… and more insensitive… today.
The other thing that the two films have in common (and this is the reason for the remark I made at the beginning of the column) is that both Abbott & Costello and W.C. Fields’ worked for Universal Studios. W.C. Fields made his most famous films at Universal, but by the time he got to Never Give a Sucker an Even Break in 1941, he was looking at the end of his career. One of the reasons, ironically, that Universal didn't give W.C. Fields a lot of attention… is that Abbott and Costello had started making films for Universal about this time, and they quickly become their number one box office attraction in the country! In W.C. Fields’ case, being ignored leads to him making one of his greatest films; he's being ignored because Universal is spending all their time and money on Abbott & Costello. Then, eight years later, it's 1949 and Abbott & Costello are nearing the end of their filmmaking careers, and they make Africa Screams! This too I find ironic because W.C. Fields went out with a bang, and I Think Abbott & Costello went out with a whimper. This film should be called Africa Whimpers.
PLEASE NOTE: To those readers who missed the first installment of this series, this column was not proofread nor copy edited by anyone. It was dictated by JB, who promptly printed it, rolled it up, stuck it in a bottle, and threw it in the ocean.
BTW: Nuance Software’s Dragon Anywhere dictation program had a devil of a time deciphering the names of comedy team Abbott & Costello. In various places in the original document, the program mis-transcribed their names as “Abacus Stelevo,” “Old Avenue Castella,” “Emma Castello,” “Abacus Tell Off,” and “Abacus Fellow.” If anyone needs more proof that Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein is one of the pair’s greatest films, consider that whenever I mentioned THAT film, the dictation program spelled their names perfectly. Still, and I feel I am not alone in this, I await the triumphant resurgence in popularity for comedy legend Abacus Stelevo!