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Classic Film and ‘The Colonies’: The Time of Their Lives (1946)

This week, we’re continuing our look at Classic Film and ‘The Colonies’ looking at a feature that might feel like a bit of a stretch. When we think about cinematic depictions of the Colonial Era in the United States, typically stodgy historical epics come to mind. Au contraire! Today I’m taking a look at a colonial comedy! They do exist, you know. Let’s sit down and talk about The Time of Their Lives.

The Time of Their Lives is the eighteenth cinematic pairing of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello during the team’s landmark run throughout the 1940s and 1950s. This time out, the story follows two Revolutionary War ghosts (Lou Costello and Marjorie Reynolds) who were mistakenly cursed as traitors by American forces at the time of their premature deaths. After more than 100 years, a group restores the house they are stuck haunting, thus giving the spirits a chance to clear their names. Bud Abbott, Binnie Barnes, John Shelton, Gale Sondergaard, and Lynn Baggett co-star in the film. Charles Barton directs The Time of Their Lives from a script by Val Burton and Walter DeLeon.

The Time of Their Lives comes together in a fascinating blend to create a story which is equally at home during both Halloween and the Fourth of July. Despite this rather disparate set of tones, the comedy works surprisingly well on-screen.

Director Charles Barton makes his behind-the-camera debut for the comedy duo (he would stay on to direct a number of their later pictures). While haunted house movies weren’t out of character for Abbott and Costello (1940s Hold That Ghost is considered one of their best), The Time of Their Lives breaks some delightful new ground for them in effects photography. The work is especially impressive when remembering the movie’s 1946 release date. On a visual level, it works incredibly well to make the ghosts appear and disappear, seem translucent and even swap clothes while on camera.

Gale Sondergaard is a standout in the supporting cast as housekeeper Emily who is also the resident goth and spiritual medium. Early in the film, there’s a highly self-reflexive moment between Emily and Mildred (Binnie Barnes) when the two are introduced. Millie looks her over and replies, “Excuse me, but didn’t I see you in Rebecca?”. Throughout the film, Sondergaard does give strong Ms. Danvers vibes in everything from performance to costuming and even her appearance. Though, she is, of course, allowed to show off her comedic timing and seems to enjoy playing with this unconventional character.

The Time of Their Lives is largely off-brand for the comedy duo due to this being one of really two films where Abbott and Costello are not constantly together throughout the whole of the narrative. In most films, they are friends and companions. In fact, there isn’t any direct interaction between their characters throughout the feature.

While it is markedly different from their other films in tone, this isn’t a detractor for The Time of Their Lives. The change in the narrative construction allows both Abbott and Costello to tackle work we don’t often see them attempt. As Dr. Greenway, Bud Abbott stands as a source of animosity for the ghosts and participates in a good deal more physical comedy than he usually is able. At the same time, Costello spends most of the movie playing off Marjorie Reynolds while at the same time orchestrating the narrative flow… as opposed to reacting to what is going on around him. This is a role that allows him to stand apart from Abbott, which must have been a welcomed change for the comic.

Meanwhile, much of the “Colonial” aspect of this film serves as narrative and character development. The early first act does take place in 1780 (as we learn from the ghosts) before quickly jumping to present day (1946). Much of the script’s humor comes from the ghost’s status as “fish out of water” as they try to understand what a radio is, or that lights are now electric. It is funny, self-reflexive comedy shining a light on contemporary culture.

Outside of Sondergaard and Binnie Barnes, the movie can certainly feel like a later and ‘off-brand’ Abbott and Costello film. While the cast does what they can, they don’t pack the same power as the performers in earlier films like Hold That Ghost and In the Navy. Truthfully, I found myself wondering what the movie could have been like with the Hold That Ghost cast… Woulda Coulda Shoulda.

Interestingly, watching the film from a 2021 perspective, we’re reminded just how relatively recent this history is. Sitting here, the colonial era feels forever and a day ago. However, at the time of filming, 1780 was less than 200 years before. Dr. Greenway mentions that Cuthbert Greenway was his great-great grandfather. This movie hit theaters 74 years ago. So while so much has changed, we really aren’t as removed from this history as it may sometimes feel.

Sitting down for a rewatch, it’s easy to recommend The Time of Their Lives. The movie might be a later entry in the Abbott and Costello filmography, but the colonial, historical epic takes the comedians time-worn formula and turns it on its head. Fans of the comedy team should add it to their list and it’s a solid example of studio-era comedy with some visually interesting filmmaking. Check this one out.

Stay tuned as we return to historical epics next week with a (new to me!) Cary Grant historical epic, Howard’s of Virginia.

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