Bud Abbott & Lou Costello were the two biggest moneymakers for Universal Studio in the 1940s. However, with the release of Little Giant followed by The Time of Their Lives, they had fallen into a box office slump. Abbott & Costello had been trying to do something different with these “character comedies” in which they didn’t even appear together as a team. The experiment failed, at least in terms of popularity. To right the ship, they made a sequel to Buck Privates, their 1941 military service comedy which had been the studio’s biggest hit of the year.
In Buck Privates Come Home, Bud and Lou return to the States onboard a troop ship with a little French orphan girl on their hands—one that Lou would like to smuggle into the country and adopt. The film is an example of the ‘comics with kids’ storylines that never went out of fashion. One of the best examples is Chaplin’s The Kid. Even the Stooges played babysitter in shorts like Mutts to You and Sock-A-Bye Baby. However, the storyline here more closely resembles the 1932 Laurel & Hardy feature Pack Up Your Troubles in which the boys return from World War I with a child they must deliver to the appropriate home. Lou Costello worked well with kids onscreen and it’s easy to see why Chaplin once planned to remake The Kid with Lou Costello. Chaplin called Costello “the best comic working in the business today.” The heart appeal of Buck Privates Come Home is mixed with the pratfalls, but the kid angle is never coy or sentimental.
The film opens with scenes from the original Buck Privates, in which Bud and Lou play necktie peddlers who are chased by a cop right into an Army recruiting station. They are enlisted and must contend with their new sergeant—the same cop who had been chasing them on the New York streets. The role of Sergeant Collins was played in both films by Nat Pendleton, a great Hollywood character actor audiences would recognize from countless films like Another Thin Man and At the Circus.
Beverly Simmons, in only her fourth film, plays Evey and Joan Fulton, whose career was started by Abbott & Costello when she was discovered in a nightclub, plays Sylvia, the nurse who takes Evey in. Fulton would work with Abbott & Costello later in their television show and she would appear in films like Some Like it Hot. Tom Brown plays Bill Gregory, Sylvia’s boyfriend who makes good in order to marry Sylvia and adopt Evey. Brown has the distinction of appearing in a film that features his own name, 1932’s Tom Brown of Culver.
Buck Privates Come Home features the kind of routines audiences had missed from Abbott & Costello’s more recent films. There are many terrific scenes including the well-staged teeter-totter table routine on the ship and the laundry sequence in which Lou sets up a hammock on a clothesline between two apartment buildings. The highlight of the film is the climactic race at the end in which Lou Costello drives an out-of-control midget racecar. When the car goes off track, the authorities have to catch up with him. It’s a chase that is one of the best in any Abbott/Costello movie. The scene was shot at the Gilmore Stadium in Los Angeles, site of actual midget car racing.
In Abbott & Costello in Hollywood, Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo write, “The ever reliable John Grant came up with an innovative gag to cap the sequence. Herbie drives the car right through the rear of a movie theatre. (Sharp-eyed observers will spot the sign, ‘Abbott & Costello in ‘Romeo Junior’’ high up on the wall.) The car stops just as he crashes through the movie screen, on which an Abbott and Costello movie is being shown. Costello-on-screen is in the middle of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Costello looks down at Herbie and demands, ‘What’s the big idea?’ Herbie looks up at the giant image of Costello and replies, ‘Gee, you ain’t very pretty, are you.’ The screen Costello snaps, ‘Oh, a wise guy! Well, this is gonna hurt me as much as it does you!’, and he steps off the screen to bop Herbie in the nose! The crash had to be perfectly timed to coincide with the action on the screen. It took sixteen tries to get it right, and yet the scene was omitted from the final print. (Look closely and you’ll notice that Herbie is holding his nose when the rest of the cast catches up to him.)”
Buck Privates Come Home was directed by Charles Barton, who was responsible for some of their best films. This was the first one they made with producer Robert Arthur. This same production team would go on to make their greatest film the following year, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Even though Buck Privates Come Home doesn’t have the music of the Andrews Sisters, it is often considered better than the original. It’s a wonderful showcase of Abbott & Costello together and at their best.
I grew up watching Abbott & Costello on television. It was always part of the Saturday matinee on Channel 9. It’s where I saw most of their films like Buck Privates and The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap and Abbott & Costello Go to Mars. It was a regular routine for me. Kids don’t have such routines anymore where films like these are played on a consistent basis. The Saturday Matinee showcase is gone, but we still have three dozen Abbott & Costello films that are all available on home entertainment. Three dozen films that preserve the comedy tradition that made Abbott & Costello two of the most loved comedians of the 20th century.