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Bud and Lou enlist in the army in order to escape being hauled off to jail, and soon find themselves in boot camp. To their dismay, the company's drill instructor is none other than the cop who was all set to run them off to the hoosegow in the first place! The boys end up having a whale of a time getting under the skin of their humourless nemesis. Written by
BUCK PRIVATES (Universal, 1941), directed by Arthur Lubin, introduces the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello into leading roles, following their debut as secondary characters in ONE NIGHT IN THE TROPICS (1940). With the exception of Lee Bowman's name listed first in the closing casting credits, it's obvious that this military comedy rightfully belongs to Abbott and Costello. A box-office sensation for a "B" movie upon its release, and Universal's biggest money maker at that time, BUCK PRIVATES marked a whole new beginning in a long series of popular comedies featuring the comic dual.
Prior to the opening credits, the film starts off in documentary style of current events with President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the Draft Bill on September 14, 1940, with the enlistment of peacetime buck privates. Once the credits finish rolling on the screen, the movie gets underway first with a brief introduction of draftees Randolph Parker II (Lee Bowman), a millionaire Yale man, and Bob Martin (Alan Curtis), his now ex-chauffeur, entering the Army Recruiting Headquarters draft board, followed by a great opening with the main attractions of the evening: Marty "Slicker" Smith and Herbie Brown (Bud and Lou), former vaudevillians now Time Square street merchants selling dollar neckties for a dime. Joe Collins (Nat Pendleton), an officer of the law, goes after them for peddling without a license, a chase that leads them into an army recruiting center where they mistake it for a movie house playing "You're in the Army Now." While inside, Smith and Brown, believing they have signed up for a raffle drawing, unwittingly enlist themselves into the Army as buck privates. Once transferred to Camp Creely for basic training, guess who turns out to be their sergeant? One guess. His last name is Collins. "Ooooh, boy!!!!"
In between comic highlights by the boys, a handful of popular 1940s tunes, by Hughie Prince and Don Raye include: "You're a Lucky Fellow, Mr. Smith," (sung by The Andrews Sisters); "Gee, I Wish You Were Here" (sung by Jane Frazee); "I'll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time" (sung by The Andrews Sisters); "When a Private Becomes a Captain" (sung by Lou Costello and recruits); "Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy" (Academy Award nominee as best song) "Bounce Me Brother With a Solid Four" and "You're a Lucky Fellow, Mr. Smith" (sung by The Andrews Sisters).
As much as musical interludes can become intrusions in comedy films, for BUCK PRIVATES, they are delights, especially those introduced by the Andrews Sisters (Laverne, Maxine and Patti). "Apple Blossom Time," slower in tempo, remains memorable, even today. Judy Frazee, a charming screen personality and vocalist, appeared in a great number of "B" musicals throughout the 1940s, all forgotten. Because of her association with this film, it has become the only one featuring her to remain in circulation today. Others in the cast consist of Samuel S. Hinds as Major Emerson; Shemp Howard as the Cook; Mike Frankovitch as himself/radio announcer; and the Boogie-Woogie Dancers of Company B.
Bud and Lou actually participate more on their comic supplements than in the story, such as it is, which goes to Lee Bowman and Alan Curtis. Bowman is the millionaire playboy drafted into the army while his mother (Nella Walker) makes every effort to get him released within a week, however, it is his father (Douglas Wood) who arranges in keeping his pampered girl-chasing son in boot camp for a year in order to make a man out of him. Curtis plays Randy's chauffeur, now enlisted and placed in the same regiment. No longer obligated to his employer, he gives Parker his two week notice with a sock in the jaw. Both men become rivals, especially for the love and affection of Judy Craig (Jane Frazee), Bob's girlfriend, now working as army hostess. A cliché subplot was revamped for Laurel and Hardy's own military comedy, GREAT GUNS (20th-Fox, 1941), but due to the freshness and appeal of Abbott and Costello, BUCK PRIVATES is by far, a better film, thanks to these now famous routines: the dice game; the rifle drill; the boxing match with Costello in the ring with a muscular fighter with their sergeant (Pendleton) as referee; along with several of their other notable skits such as "Go ahead and play," that would be repeated again and again in their future comedies. An almost perfect yet dated comedy, the only dull spot in BUCK PRIVATES is the overlong maneuver sequence near the end where the focus becomes more on Bowman and Curtis than Abbott and Costello.
Because BUCK PRIVATES was such a sensation, it was later reissued in theaters through Realart, and found popularity to a new generation on television and later video cassette by the 1980s. Cable broadcast history consists of American Movie Classics where it premiered New Year's Day 2001 as part of its "Who's on the First" Abbott and Costello marathon, and later on Turner Classic Movies starting in July 2004.
A sequel, BUCK PRIVATES COME HOME (1947) brought forth Bud and Lou, with Nat Pendleton reprising their roles in a highly entertaining comedy that centers upon the characters returning to civilian life, with Pendleton in fine comedic form as their former sergeant returning to his old beat as a cop and after the twosome selling neckties on the street again. So before attempting to watch the sequel, be sure to catch the original, both currently available on DVD. (***)
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