I was giddy with excitement when I discovered that Abbott and Costello were getting their own day during TCM’s Summer Under the Stars.
Abbott and Costello are two performers who have been in my life for as long as I can remember. Their comedies are some of the foundational movies for yours truly and many are ones I’ll sit down and watch whenever I find them playing on television.
Bud Abbott and Lou Costello worked constantly and are credited with more than thirty films between 1940 and 1956. The comedies incorporate their unique brand of humor while crossing genre lines from horror to military and even westerns. There’s a lot here to love.
Without further ado, here are our Top 5 Favorite Abbott and Costello films.
5.) The Naughty Nineties (1945)
Okay, this fifth spot really was hard one to narrow down. To make a long story short, there were a number of movies which could fit into this position. However, The Naughty Nineties brings it home on the basis of a single scene. Sometimes that’s just the breaks!
A warning… This one is set on a ‘Show Boat’ and with that comes lots of challenging (and problematic) historical context… Namely blackface, racial sterotypes, and minstrel shows. The movie follows Abbott and Costello as two performers who team up to save the day after their Captain (Henry Travers) is swindled by a bunch of baddies.
The Naughty Nineties lives high in the Abbott and Costello legend as this is the movie where audiences are able to watch the duo perform ‘Who’s On First’.
The comedy routine has a long and complicated backstory which is difficult to pin down. Abbott and Costello have a history which goes back to burlesque in the 1930s and later radio, before eventually making the jump to movies. However, even almost 80 years since The Naughty Nineties hit theaters, ‘Who’s On First’ stands as a shining example of Bud and Lou’s legacy.
4.) The Time of Their Lives (1946)
I wrote about this movie just a few weeks ago as a part of our Fourth of July spotlight– and here it is again!
The Time of Their Lives is a bit of a weird one as it relates to the team’s work. However, weird doesn’t always mean bad. This time out, Abbott and Costello aren’t buddies as they usually are. In this one two Revolutionary War ghosts (Lou Costello and Marjorie Reynolds) struggle to clear their names in the present day after a misunderstanding with the Colonial Army leads to them being cursed as traitors.
This is a horror comedy (there will be a few of these on the list) featuring plenty of humor combined with impressive trick photography. There is effects work and photography which is difficult to wrap one’s head around, especially considering the movie’s 1946 release date.
The Time of Their Lives will be airing as part of Summer Under the Stars (4:30pm EST), so be sure to check this one out.
3.) Who Done It? (1942)
This was a later viewing for me as it relates to Abbott and Costello, but it holds a nostalgic place in my heart.
I’ve made no secret of my love for the 1994 comedy Radioland Murders. So, boy was I surprised when I watched Abbott and Costello’s 1942 film and found it to be (with very few changes) the source material for the later movie. Trust me, kids. It’s uncanny.
Who Done It? features the comedians as struggling detective story writers who find themselves unwittingly involved after a murder at a local radio station. The movie features a delightful supporting turn by the always amazing Mary Wickes as well as the stalwart and reliable Patric Knowles.
This is a fun story combining entertaining mystery elements with traditionally good comedic bits and as such, this is a must see. In addition, the radio narrative makes this one a fun bit of nostalgia. It’s a bit of a time capsule and I love it for just that reason.
2.) About and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
While this isn’t quite my number one film, it isn’t far off. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is the first of the duo’s movies I remember watching and it is a great entry point for any newbies out there.
The story follows the comedians as shipping clerks who unwittingly become involved (notice… this is a trend) in Count Dracula’s (Bela Lugosi) scheme to revitalize ‘Frankenstein’ (Glenn Strange)… No, the creation, not Dr. Frankenstein.
This is a later entry in their filmography, but it shows Abbott and Costello finding some magic in a movie that drips with ‘franchise’ goodness. I mean sure, Universal does drop a number of their named monsters into this movie featuring their main comedy team… I’d be rolling my eyes if a studio tried this today.
That being said though, the final product is a delightful horror comedy. Dracula, The Wolf Man and ‘Frankenstein’ appear in the film in their most faithful, recognized forms and each legend melds seamlessly with Abbott and Costello’s particular brand of comedy. Perhaps it shouldn’t work, but it does!
This one airs during Summer Under the Stars at 8:00pm EST. Perhaps I’ll even live-tweet!?
1.) Hold That Ghost (1941)
As I mentioned, this is a very close call with the number two movie, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. However, Hold That Ghost eeks just over the top as Bud and Lou star as two gas station attendants who unwittingly (I know! I know!) inherent a potentially haunted house after a gangster is killed in front of them.
It is a given that Abbott and Costello always have quite a bit of heavy lifting to do as it relates to the narrative, but in this one, they are lucky enough to have a supporting cast who more than holds their own (they aren’t always so lucky).
For Abbott and Costello, Hold that Ghost feels very much like the MGM movies for the Marx Brothers. With a cast including Joan Davis, Richard Carlson, and Evelyn Ankers, the comedians have a bit more room to breathe, thanks to these well-rounded performers holding their own. After all, we know how bland supporting casts can sometimes be in these franchise films.
Of course, the golden set piece in this one is a dance number featuring Costello and Joan Davis. In it, we see two comedians at their peak and it is truly a thing to behold. Davis more than keeps pace with Costello and it has been written that he didn’t like the final product (because she was that darn good).
Hold That Ghost is a fun and atmospheric horror-comedy showing the comedians coming out of the gate at their very best. This one might not be playing on Abbott and Costello Day during Summer Under the Stars, but make sure you add it to your list.
Like any traditionally busy actors, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello had some high and low points during their more than fifteen years on-screen. However, if you haven’t jumped into their work, Summer Under the Stars gives you a great opportunity to start!
Dive in and let is know your favorites in the comments!
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Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Studying the contributions of women behind the camera in classic television.
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