If you’re trying to get a stubborn friend or family member to start watching older movies, I wouldn’t recommend starting them off with a comedy.
While all films are, in some way, influenced by the rapidly changing culture around them, comedies usually tap into something that is very unique to the specific time and place in which they were produced, more so than most other genres.
Plus, it goes without saying that what was once funny back in the day doesn’t always hold up to our [current year] sensibilities. I will never forget the first time I watched National Lampoon’s Animal House and was so confused when the filmmakers expected me to laugh at a scene where the joke basically boiled down to: BLACK PEOPLE ARE SCARY.
However, broad slapstick and clever wordplay usually breaks through these generational barriers, which is why comedy acts like the Bud Abbott and Lou Costello are still recognizable names to this day.
Even though this legendary duo starred in 36 features together, their first big hit came in 1941 with Buck Privates, a film that casts the two as sleazy con men who accidently enlist in the army during America’s peacetime draft.
As Abbott and Costello pratfall their way through basic training they also come into contact with a quirky cast characters, which includes a spoiled playboy and his former valet, who are fighting over the same woman, a disgruntled drill instructor, and a musical trio played by The Andrews Sister, who serve as a kind of Greek chorus for the developing plot.
Now, when it comes to reviewing comedies, most flowery analysis about things like cinematography, pacing, and structure can be thrown out the window in favour of one simple question: “is the movie funny?” And when it comes to Buck Privates, the answer is (mostly) “yes.”
Abbott and Costello’s act might be in its infancy on screen in 1941, since this is only their second film as a team, but their classic “skinny straight man-fat buffoon” routine is already very polished after years performing on stage and on the radio together.
The duo’s chemistry is so on-point that they even managed to make me chuckle at a reoccurring bit about math and probability, which is something I never thought possible for someone as allergic to numbers as myself.
And despite the fact that a lot of the scripted jokes are pretty corny, the two still managed to generate some pretty consistent laughs through sheer delivery alone, which is the true litmus test for any great comedian.
The Andrews Sisters also inject the film with a nice bit of musical variety, since they perform their hit songs like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “(I’ll Be With You) In Apple Blossom Times” to punctuate every major story beat.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers did not entirely play to the movie’s strengths, since they dedicated a lot of screen time to the dull love triangle featuring some satellite characters who wouldn’t be out of place in a daytime soap opera.
Maybe it’s because Abbott and Costello had yet to prove themselves as big box office draws in 1941 and the studio was trying to hedge their bets with two conventionally attractive leading men, but whenever the story cuts back to the boilerplate alpha males it seems like we’ve switched to a completely different movie.
The comedy duo doesn’t even factor into the film’s war games climax, which really downgrades them to the status of comedy sidekicks rather than protagonists you want to get behind.
Another thing worth noting is how this film is a pretty transparent recruitment tool to encourage movie-goers of the time to enlist in the US peacetime draft.
Unlike another WWII era propaganda film I reviewed earlier this year, Commandos Strike at Dawn, the filmmakers try to accomplish this feat by making the army look like a outdoorsy vacation spot instead of a dangerous environment where you get to prove your worth as a man.
I’m not necessarily saying this approach hurts the movie in any significant way, but I definitely noticed the sheer amount of scenes that would emphasize how the military is a great place to meet women, eat ice cream, and kill time playing dice with your buddies.
But then again, this movie was selling itself as a light comedy, so maybe writing jokes about amputated limbs and shell shock would have been too much for a 1941 US audience that hadn’t experienced the horrors of World War II just yet.
Ultimately, while Abbott and Costello would go on to star in better movies with higher production values, Buck Privates is still worth watching to catch a glimpse of the comedy duo’s first big break on screen.
It also serves as a good reminder of physical comedy’s universal appeal, since someone getting tripped up by their own loose pants is funny no matter what generation you were born into.
Corner store companion:
Raisin Bran cereal (because the little sugary bits make the surrounding blandness tolerable)
-Original release date: Jan. 11, 1941.
-Budget: $180,000 (estimated)
-Box office gross: $4 million
-In addition to signing up for an official sequel in 1947, Buck Privates Come Home, Abbott and Costello would go on to star in two other service comedies that highlighted different branches of the military. These includes In the Navy and Keep ‘Em Flying, which were both released later that same year.
-The Andrews Sisters co-stared with Abbott and Costello in a total of three feature films.
-On IMDB, The Andrews Sisters are listed as a trio in addition to having separate acting profiles.
-This film scored two Academy Awards nominations for Best Score and Best Original Song (“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”).
-According to film scholars, the Japanese military showed their troops clips from Buck Privates to demonstrate how incompetent the US army was during World War II.
-Musical highlight: “(I’ll Be With You) In Apple Blossom Times” (because “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” has already gotten enough shine).