Bud Abbott and Lou Costello had been a team for about five years when they made their starring debut in Buck Privates in 1941. During that time, they’d had success on the burlesque circuit, vaudeville, Broadway, and radio, and stolen the 1940 film One Night In The Tropics out from under its ostensible stars by performing some of their routines, including the deathless “Who’s On First?” True, the routine, technically speaking, wasn’t theirs. Abbott and Costello drew from the common pool of burlesque material, bits passed around, reinterpreted, polished, and customized by comics making the rounds at the time. They just did “Who’s On First?,” and everything else, better than anyone. When Abbott—with his slowly eroding straight-man poise—and Costello—with his baby face and panicked inflection—took on a bit, no one else had much of a claim on it. (And since they had about 200 routines in their repertoire, they claimed a lot.)
But how to build a whole movie around the team? With Buck Privates, Abbott and Costello had an awful historic turn on their side. As the Second World War spread, the U.S. began the first peacetime military draft in its history and needed help from Hollywood to convince the public of its necessity. That allowed Buck Privates, in which the two leads accidentally enlist in the army, to serve a dual purpose: sell the two funnymen as movie stars while padding out the running time with a patriotic subplot involving a pampered playboy (Lee Bowman), his faithful driver (Alan Curtis), the woman with whom they’re both smitten (Jane Frazee), and everyone’s recognition that it’s great to support the United States by serving in its armed forces (all without mentioning the war except in the vaguest possible terms).
It succeeds on both fronts. Bolstered by musical performances from the Andrews Sisters, whose “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” debuted here, it remains a rousing piece of wartime boosterism that delivers a message about the importance of military service with a heavy coating of sugar. (The exercises don’t look easy, sure, but there’s a lot of downtime hanging out in the malt shop surrounded by fetching camp hostesses with an endless supply of free apples and cigarettes.) But all that’s really just a frame that allows Abbott and Costello to do what they do: Talk at cross-purposes and frustrate each other in highly amusing ways. As Jerry Seinfeld puts it in the television special Abbott And Costello Meet Jerry Seinfeld (included as a bonus feature), the team had “a remarkable knack for presenting both sides of a silly argument and making both points of view seem perfectly logical.” The pace at which they perform a scene in which Abbott attempts to get Costello to loan him $50 that somehow ends with Costello in debt to Abbott is head-spinning enough that it’s easy to get lost in its twisted logic. Abbott may make more sense, but the bit makes Costellos out of us all.
As for the space between the routines and musical numbers, it’s as standard-issue for the era as combat boots and a Rita Hayworth poster, but it helped establish a pattern Abbott and Costello would repeat (and repeat and repeat) over the course of their 36-film big-screen career: Find a serviceable vehicle; let the plot roll out predictably, whether it involves the military (future films would take them into other branches of the service), racehorses, or monsters; bring in some musical guests; and fill up the empty spaces with the patter that made them famous in the first place. It worked remarkably well, and rarely better than here, where the boys’ chemistry makes a film created for a specific purpose and moment timeless whenever they’re on screen.
Key features: The aforementioned Seinfeld special (which is appreciative, if a little awkward), trailers, some standard featurettes.