Directed By: Arthur Lubin
Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lee Bowman
Trivia: This film marks the first time that Lou Costello's brother, Pat Costello, served as Lou's stunt double. He earned $31 a day for his work
1941’s Buck Privates was only the second film to feature both Bud Abbott and Lou Costello (the duo made their screen debut a year earlier, in One Night in the Tropics). Unfortunately, throughout this movie, the comedians are often pushed to the side to make room for a romantic subplot, one that’s not nearly as much fun as Bud and Lou’s various antics.
The two play Slicker Smith (Abbott) and Herbie Brown (Costello), a couple of unlicensed street peddlers on the run from a persistent cop (Nat Pendleton). Ducking into what they believe is a movie theater, the boys actually find themselves at an army recruitment center, and before they know what’s hit them, they’ve enlisted in the United States Army. Also at the recruitment center is draftee Randolph Parker III (Lee Bowman), the son of a high-ranking government official. Convinced his father will pull some strings to get him out the army, Parker spends most of his time trying to woo Judy Gray (Jane Frazee), a volunteer hostess who just happens to be dating his former valet, Bob Martin (Alan Curtis), causing what was already a strained relationship between the two men to get even dicier.
As mentioned above, the rivalry between Parker and Martin is given a fair amount of screen time, and while the actors involved in this side story are competent enough, my guess is nobody paying to see Buck Privates back in 1941 cared much about these characters or their predicament. They were there to see Abbott and Costello. But aside from a handful of funny sequences, including the now-classic drill routine, where Bud, posing as a drill instructor, confuses Lou with his seemingly conflicting orders, Buck Privates comes up short in the comedy department as well. One area where the film excels is its music, most of which is provided by the Andrew Sisters (aka Patty, Maxine, and Laverne), whose patriotic lyrics would catapult them to the top of the charts when the United States entered World War II. In fact, my favorite sequence in Buck Privates is the “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” musical number. And keep an eye out for future stooge Shemp Howard, who makes a brief appearance as an army cook.
With its flag-waving bravado and overly-patriotic sentiment (the film was made just prior to the U.S.’s involvement in World War II), Buck Privates is definitely dated. And as far as their screen comedies go, Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein is ten times funnier than this movie. But if you’re looking to familiarize yourself with the duo’s cinematic output, Buck Privates is as good a place as any to start.