Sunday, March 5, 2023

Charles Laughton meets Abbott and Costello

I was looking for a shorter movie to watch recently, and I came across one that I hadn't seen before and that clocks in at a breezy 70 minutes, so I sat down to watch and do a review on. That movie was Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd.

You can guess a fair bit about what happens in the first part of the movie from the film's title, as our two comedians do meet the famous pirate captain. Abbott and Costello play Rocky and Puddin' Head respectively. They work at the sort of dockside place that Marie Dressler's Min from Min and Bill might have run, except that it's the 18th century Caribbean instead of 20th century California. One evening before work, they're called to from a balcony by Lady Jane (Fran Warren, apparently better known as a singer as I'd never heard of her). She can't get out of her house, and wants the two of them to deliver a letter to her boyfriend Bruce (Bill Shirley, another singer probably best-known for providing singing voices in Sleeping Beauty and My Fair Lady) at the tavern.

Before Rocky and Puddin' Head can do that, however, their boss wants them to wait upon Captain Kidd (Charles Laughton). The problem with that, however, is that Kidd is notoriously irascible and will get very angry and physical with any waiter who screws things up in even the slightest way. And as you might guess, it's going to be tough for Puddin' Head to serve Kidd properly, although this provides quite a bit of opportunity for slapstick humor, which is really the point of an Abbott and Costello movie.

As for Kidd, he's in a difficult business meeting with fellow pirate captain Bonney (Hillary Brooke). The two of them are in a dispute over territory, with Bonney thinking Kidd has raided some ships in "her" territory. Kidd, meanwhile, has hidden the spoils from those raids on Skull Island, and has the map leading to the treasure. The two eventually agree to split the proceeds and go to Skull Island in a way that they'll have to trust each other.

But with Puddin' Head waiting on them in that meeting, things naturally go wrong. Lady Jane's letter and the treasure map are each in one of those cardboard cylinders, and wouldn't you know that Puddin' Head gets to the two cylinders mixed up. So when he goes to deliver Lady Jane's message to Bruce, he actually has the treasure map. Bonney gets not the map but the love letter, and thinks it was intended for Puddin' Head, which makes her curious about what Lady Jane saw in him. So Bonney pursues Puddin' Head for the rest of the movie.

Getting back to the voyage to Skull Island, Kidd takes Rocky and Puddin' Head along because they've got the map. Kidd, of course, plans to double-cross the two and kill them once he can get the map. Rocky and Puddin' Head also discover that Bruce has been shanghaied so he's on the boat as well. And then Kidd and Bonney's ships get in a skirmish with a third boat, which is how they kidnap Lady Jane, so all of our main characters wind up on Skull Island for the finale.

Abbott and Costello is less a movie that you watch for the nominal plot, and more one you watch for Abbott and Costello doing their routines. However, here they more than meet their match in Charles Laughton. Laughton was generally a quite capable actor, although he definitely had the tendency to play roles as larger-than-life when the script gave him the chance to do so -- and Captain Kidd certainly presents such an opportunity. I'm guessing the director didn't do much to discourage it either, letting Laughton ham it up opposite Bud and Lou. The result is that Laughton looks like he's having the time of his life getting to do straight lowbrow comedy, effectively stealing the show from Abbott and Costello.

My understanding is that a lot of fans of Abbott and Costello would say that some of their earlier movies are better, but if you want an introduction to them, seeing them with Charles Laughton is certainly not a bad place to start.

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