Who Done It? (1942) by matthew c. hoffman

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Transcript from 3/17/16: Our introduction incorporated excerpts from the article “Who Done It?” By Matthew C. Hoffman (Nostalgia Digest, Autumn 2003)

Throughout their careers, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were brilliant at what they did, whether it was those methodical word games or the timing of their lines. They were experts in their chosen field. The proof is in the routines, in the delivery. Set aside the physical stuff and concentrate on those bits like “Who’s On First?” or “Mustard.” There was no greater straight man than Bud Abbott; he could set up a gag, hold composure, and bring Lou back on track if a cue was missed or a word miscalculated. All smooth as silk. They may have been rough-edged burlesque performers, but they were absolute disciplinarians in their craft. And they were just plain funny. You can listen to all the same routines over and over again and still laugh…

Who Done It? was already their ninth film together, and it’s one of the best of their early vehicles that Universal cranked out. One of its distinctions is its wonderful supporting cast, which includes such names as Patric Knowles and Louise Allbritton (who provide the expected romantic element), William Gargan, William Bendix, Mary Wickes, and Don Porter.

This comedy whodunit is set almost exclusively at a radio station. Chick (Bud) and Mervyn (Lou) work as soda jerks downstairs in the Radio Center drugstore. When they’re not serving up Limburger cheese sandwiches, they’re aspiring to be radio mystery writers. “Muck and Mire” they call themselves as they give an impromptu performance at the counter for the new staff writer, Jimmy Turner, played by Patric Knowles. Turner invites them to see a recording of “Murder At Midnight” at the GBS studio. After witnessing a murder at the station, Bud and Lou determine to solve the case themselves, thinking the public will be begging for Muck and Mire as a result.

Who Done It? is more of a prop-driven comedy, and during the course of the night, Lou’s child-like Mervyn is frustrated by a temperamental drinking fountain, frightened to death by ominous “voices” in a sound-recordings library, and is shaken up by an elevator that rockets up and down. Despite all the props, there are some classic verbal routines including the “Alexander 2222” bit on the telephone and the “Watts/Volts” exchange which recalls their “Who’s On First? routine. In fact, there are two references to “Who’s On First?” in the movie.

The initial broadcast of “Murder At Midnight” reveals the atmospheric setting with its studio shadows and unusual camera angles. The scene is visually striking. As characters play to the on-air audience in attendance, director Erle C. Kenton and cinematographer Charles Van Enger bring to life, for the movie audiences, a medium that relies on the listener’s imagination to fill in the details. The filmmakers show us, with dramatic exaggeration, what “Murder At Midnight” might look like if we were trying to picture the set over the radio. Characters do not just stand in front of microphones in a brightly lit studio. The performance itself takes on the visual qualities of what is being spoken from the radio script; the end result being a hybrid between film and theatre.

Who Done It? is, quite simply, a wonderful film about old-time radio, evoking the spirit of the medium.There’s more about the film’s production in an article I wrote years ago for the Nostalgia Digest, including its parallels to a Wheeler & Woolsey film called The Nitwits. I’ll have copies of that article available for those interested. Instead, I’d like to mention an incident that happened after Bud and Lou had finished Who Done It? I’m quoting from Abbott & Costello in Hollywood by Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo:

“After completing the film, Bud and Lou began a whirlwind tour to sell War Bonds. The boys visited seventy-eight cities and one hundred war production plants in just thirty-four days. The Treasury Department credited Abbott & Costello with selling a record $85,000,000 worth of bonds and stamps on the tour. Not all of the venues were theatres or army camps, however. In Omaha, Nebraska, a twelve-year-old boy named Jerry Young sneaked up to Bud and Lou’s suite at the Fontenelle Hotel and asked the team to appear in a benefit show he was staging in his backyard. He offered them 70 cents for their efforts, and Bud and Lou consented. That night, police roped off the streets near Jerry’s house as a crowd overflowed the boys’ backyard. Bud and Lou arrived by special motorcade, fresh from an appearance in Lincoln, fifty-five miles away. After performing a couple of routines, Bud put Costello’s shirt up for auction. When the bids were closing at $10, Lou protested and bid $12 himself so he could keep it.”

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