Monday, January 28, 2008

The Time of Their Lives

Starring Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Marjorie Reynolds, Gale Sondergaard, Binnie Barnes, Anne Gillis.

Abbott and Costello were once referred by Andrew Sarris as the most minor of comedy teams. But they were big stars of the 40s, and their careers fell into two parts. One were the vaudeville comedy team who would often work their stage bits into movies, things like the sublime "Who's on First" and the unknown and underrated "7 x 13 = 28" (where they "prove" the math in three different ways). The other was the mock horror films like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, where the boys were put into danger and the comedy was from Costello's fearful reaction coupled with Abbott's putting him there.

But one movie that doesn't fit the mold is The Time of Their Lives. It's not one of their funnier films, but it is certainly their most charming one.

Costello plays Horatio Prim, a tinker and patriot during the Revolutionary War. Prim has gotten a letter of commendation from George Washington and wants to use this to show his patriotism to Tom Danbury (Jess Barker) the employer of Nora O'Leary (Anne Gillis), who Horatio wants to marry. But Danbury's butler, Cuthbert Greenway (Abbott), keeps him from doing so, and then Nora discovers Danbury is involved with Benedict Arnold's treason. Danbury's fiancee, Melody Allen (Marjorie Reynolds) finds out about the plot and rides off with Horatio to get help.

But as they try to leave, they are shot. Dead.

Yes, this is a comedy. Bear with me.

Horatio and Melody's corpses are thrown down the well, and they are cursed (literally) to haunt the grounds of the estate.

Yes, a comedy. A romantic one at that.

Cut to 1946. Horatio and Melody's ghosts are still haunting, living near the well. They will remain that way until their names can be cleared by the letter from George Washington.

One of the group restoring the estate is Dr. Ralph Greenway, a descendant of Cuthbert. And, as in all movies of this type, he happens to look exactly like Cuthbert (It's Abbott again, of course). Emily (the always spooky Gale Sondergaard) believes the estate is haunted, and the only way to fix it is to find the letter.

Horatio, of course, mistakes Ralph for his ancestor Cuthbert, and gets in a few licks (one of the few times Costello had the upper hand), and Ralph makes amends for his ancestor's misdeed of hiding the letter.

Costello is charming as Horatio. Lots of film comedians want to emulate Chaplin and go for pathos, and most fail. But Costello pulls it off. It helps that he is in such a dire situation (he wants throughout to meet up again with Nora in heaven), but you can really feel for his situation.

I also like Marjorie Reynolds as his fellow ghost Melody. They are the real team here, and you kind of wonder why Costello is still so enamored of Nora with Melody around.

Gale Sondergaard made a career of playing spooky and sinister women. The look of the witch in Disney's Snow White was based on her, and she was the first choice for the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, a role she turned down because she didn't feel she was right for the role (it would have been quite different). Here she added an air of creepiness to the entire surroundings.

Because of the nature of the plot, Abbott and Costello have few scenes together, and several of those involve Abbott interacting with a ghost (sometime with the ghost being invisible). This was evidently by design: the two men were feuding at the time and didn't want to be in the same room together if they could help it.

Because of its lack of belly laughs, and romantic plot (out of fashion these days), the movie tends to be overlooked. But it shows Costello in a different light, and has charm to spare.


Anonymous said...

Probably my favorite A&C movie - I liked them all but this one sticks with you - especially after seeing them shot and thrown into a well as a young kid! :)

Joseph said...

This film is wonderful! Bud and Lou actually considered it their favorite. I loved the cameo by Gale ( Anthony Adverse) Sondergard