The film that launched Abbott and Costello into Hollywood superstardom
Buck Privates was released in the United States on January 31, 1941.
About the movie Buck Privates
This 1941 film made Abbott and Costello big stars in Hollywood, and it remains one of their best, full of high energy and showcasing several of their best comedy sketches.
The film also features several on-screen songs performed by the Andrews Sisters (particularly their giant hit "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy"). The sisters also appear as characters within the tale.
Fear of war permeates Buck Privates
The film is a unique window into the moment in America when the country was turning from an isolationist view about Europe toward facing the inevitable conflict ahead. Besides the songs and comedy, Buck Privates has onscreen a strong dose of the glamour (and tension) that enveloped the U.S.A. and it's military just prior to Pearl Harbor. Hitler had already taken control of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland and the Netherlands. Britain and Canada had declared war on Germany, and in September of 1940 a conscription had begun in the U.S.A. Invasions of Greece and Romania by the Nazi forces (with Axis ally Italy) soon followed. The world was filling fast with Nazi flags.
When Buck Privates was made (production was quick: December 13, 1940 through January 11, 1941) America had begun to tool-up in earnest for what seemed like only a war in Europe but instead turned into World War II.
The story doesn't include Nazis or Tojo or anything of the like, but a nameless unseen enemy is just beyond the edges of this manic narrative about enlistment and getting America's defenses ready. The fear about the coming conflict (Buck Privates appeared in theaters about 11 months prior to the Pearl Harbor sneak attack) is obvious in the appeal for unity and a shopping list of reasons to defend the country (the song You're A Lucky Fellow Mr Smith is played twice by the Andrews Sisters, and it's essentially a call to flood the enlistment offices).
Though Abbott and Costello lampoon everything from basic training to army food, there's also a simple plot on which all of the gags are hung upon: a love-triangle between a wealthy enlistee looking for a way out of getting drafted (Lee Bowman), an attractive camp 'hostess' (Jane Frazee) and the wealthy man's former chauffeur (Alan Curtis). Who ends up with who isn't decided, but in the meantime the snob is brought down to earth and grows up, realizing his responsibilities. In the context of the rest of the film, apparently the snob is the segment of America which wants to steer clear of any entanglements in Europe, ignoring the looming global disaster ahead.
This film was such a money-maker for Universal that they often reused the plot and elements in their other Abbott and Costello movies, the comedy accompanied by romantic crisis and tunes. The structure isn't much different from the 1930s comedies Irving Thalberg packaged for the Marx Brothers, though the gags are of a completely different vein.
Full of energy, Abbott and Costello shout, roll dice, slap and pun their way through most of the movie, their presence substantially increased over the 1940 One Night in the Tropics which introduced the duo to film. Not only did Buck Privates give Universal a chart-breaking cash cow, it pushed Abbott and Costello toward becoming the most successful comedy team of the 1940s.
The Film Today
How dated is this movie? The smiling America that is often shown behind the main performers in Buck Privates is certainly of a different era, not just in the sense of a vanished culture, but in the sense of how the movie is put together.
It is expected that the men onscreen are going to shoulder the task of violence in order to preserve the country, as the film mentions, the U.S.A., is "one hundred and thirty million strong," and the abundant females onscreen are provided as a whole auxiliary with support roles. It is presented as an accepted fact to the audience seeing this movie that war is how you solve certain global problems (such as self-preservation), and that out beyond the songs, dancing and comedy is a threat that can no longer be ducked.
However, as strident as a message like that might seem, the film still has Abbott and Costello joshing about the idea of even joining the military, to the extent that Costello appears during the medical examine happily confident his weight will be too high to allow him into the army (which Abbott sabotages by cranking up the heat level of the radiator that Costello sits upon, causing him to sweat out enough pounds to meet the minimum requirements).
That American boys would prefer to not be in the army at all is mixed in with the rest of the messages about responsibility. This is a complete reverse from the propaganda efforts in Germany toward it's own youth at the time, which motto was 'We were born to die for the Fatherland.'
There are awkward moments in the movie, in particular when the African-America train porter joins in with the Andrews Sisters during the first playing of You're A Lucky Man Mr Smith, and the porter's lines are "I'm Uncle Sammy's fair-haired boy." At the time, it was daring to include an African-American in any capacity (there were American film markets that simply didn't want to see black performers on film at all, regardless of the role played), but the ridiculousness of the situation is cringe-educing to our modern age of higher-sensitivity about presentation of minority racial groups. This is an issue that is prevalent in quite a few other films of that age, and Buck Privates is as cutting-edge or grossly racist, depending upon your bias, as other films of the time.
Buck Privates is also in a format that has long since passed into disfavor in Hollywood: the variety show. Though there is the rather predictable love-triangle, there are song segments, dancing segments, and the comedy of Abbott and Costello, with public service messages about the necessity of a military (and the preservation of the country, which underwrites all of the song and laughter with a rather grim sobriety by implication).
Buck Privates is probably one of the very best of a genre of film that is too easy to call "World War II Propaganda" but is really of a sub-genre: the selling of the United States to the Americans. After Pearl Harbor, sheer survival closed the sale, but Buck Privates is a fascinating, and funny, exploration of the idea prior to the war even starting. And in that moment you can see that the country was finally making up it's mind to fight.
Buck Privates Blu Ray
[Above: Cover to the remastered Blu-Ray Buck Privates disk. Enlarge.]
Exceptional picture quality for this restored copy of the movie, digitally re-mastered from the original 35mm film elements. In high definition resolution, the prestine quality of the photography shows off that era of Hollywood when black and white was king of the bijou.
A 28-page booklet about the film, the stars Abbott and Costello, the Andrews Sisters and the other actors, is in the center of this hard-shell 2-disk case, with stories about 'the boys' and the other performers. Includes script dialogue from several skits, such as the "You're Forty and She's Ten" sketch. Also press book cuttings, reviews, a list of stats about the career of Abbott and Costello, and bios of all the performers.
Blu-Ray edition: Amazon.com can sell you a copy here.
Click to view enlargement of this Andrews Sisters Page
Back From Eternity
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From former screen legends who have faded into obscurity to new revelations about the biggest movie stars, Valderrama unearths the most fascinating little-known tales from the birth of Hollywood through its Golden Age.
Winner of the 2020 Peter C. Rollins Book Award
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Named a 2019 Richard Wall Memorial Award Finalist by the Theatre Library Association