In the gay '90s, cardsharps take over a Mississippi riverboat from a kindly captain. Their first act is to change the showboat into a floating gambling house. A ham actor and his bumbling sidekick try to devise a way to help the captain regain ownership of the vessel. Written by
One of the few films ever made about a show boat that depicts it correctly. A show boat was not a self-contained steamer but a barge, moved by another boat that was called a "tow boat" but was actually mounted behind the show boat, pushing it up and down the river. Of the three films of the musical "Show Boat," the first one -- released by Universal in 1929 -- got it right, but the 1936 and 1951 versions got it wrong. See more »
As Bailey rushes through the door he has just stuck his head through, the door hits and disturbs the ceiling woodwork, revealing the flimsiness of the set. See more »
In many of Abbott and Costello's films, their faces are visible through the "O"'s in their names. In this one, only Costello's face is seen at first; then he silently calls, "Hey, Abb-bott!," and Abbott's face appears. See more »
THE NAUGHTY NINETIES is one of those films of Abbott & Costello that is a favorite with their fans for the skits that are in them: the plot about the trio of gamblers plotting to take the showboat away from good old Captain Sam (Henry Travers) is tolerable, because it can be ignored. We like the old Captain, but we await the sketches involving the boys. In the end they help save the Captain, so they do become his pair of guardian angels - his "Clarences", if you will.
But the sketches are priceless, in particular the rehearsal sketch and the immortal WHO'S ON FIRST.
In another review I compared Bud and Lou with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Bud Abbott's persona is not like Oliver Hardy's, although both try to dominate (Bud, with more success) Lou and Stan. Ollie is quite self-important, but is (actually) as stupid as Stan is. His self-delusion is just added on the cake. But Bud normally is street smarter, and bullies Lou. He barks orders left and right to him, orders that Lou thinks he understands. The orders are in abbreviated form, using slang or short form descriptions that most people will understand, and that is doomed to confuse Lou.
In the rehearsal sketch, Lou is studying a song he wants to sing in the showboat show, and if he does it well Captain Sam will let him sing it. Bud is on stage helping direct the putting up of varying scenery. He is asked for help by Lou to help him, and to shut the little guy up, he half-heartedly agrees to do so. But he is concentrating on that scenery. So we hear Lou start singing "MY BONNIE LIES OVER THE OCEAN", and after awhile he hears Bud yelling "Higher", "HIGHER", "LOWER, etc. Of course Lou is not watching Bud directing the men with the scenery, and Lou raises and lowers his voice accordingly. The vast alterations eventually is too much for Lou, who falls into the orchestra pit while an oblivious Bud walks off stage.
The other sequence is even greater. If you say "Abbott & Costello" to anyone today, the phrase "Who's on First" comes up immediately. No other dialog of theirs is as memorable (not even that delectable skit about Niagara Falls). Indeed, due to the popularity of Baseball, the skit is honored in Cooperstown's Baseball Hall of Fame, and Bud and Lou are members of the Hall of Fame too (without being baseball players). No other comedy team approached such a signature dialog - for instance Groucho and Chico Marx did several fractured English discussions, such as "Why a Duck" in COCONUTS, but the dialog is not central to their reputations. Similarly Laurel & Hardy's use of "two peas in a pod" in THE SONS OF THE DESERT is classic, but not central to their reputation.
"Who's On First" works on the same principle as the rehearsal skit - Lou cannot follow the statements fed him by Bud, and yet Bud is not being intentionally difficult. He starts by explaining the crazy nicknames of the baseball players these days, and Lou never makes the logical connection that the nicknames can be terms like "who", "what", "I don't know", and "I don't care". Once I saw someone rewrite Abbott's description as "Mr. Who is on First base; Mr. What is on Second Base...etc." Actually the effect on Lou would probably be minimal: How many people have surnames like "Who" (this was years before the British Doctor in the futuristic tardis showed up). Moreover, they are nicknames, not proper names like "Unconditional Surrender" Grant, or "Old Hickory" Jackson. So it can't be "Mr. Who" or "Mr. I Don't Care".
Interestingly few people seem to be noting that the nicknames don't say much for these players. "Who", "What", "I Don't Know", "I Don't Care", "Today", "Tomorrow" suggests that each of the players has a failing, like "Who" suggests he is confused at the strategy of the team (who is going to be targeted by his team's pitcher on the opposite team), "What" suggests a lack of understanding orders from the team coach or captain, "I Don't Know" suggests confusion, and "I Don't care (the short stop) doesn't give a damn to be on the scene of where the ball falls when he is needed. Lou's willingness to play on the team, which we accept as his fondness of the game (and his constant image of being childlike) may actually have some merit - he may be a better player than these others.
The highpoint (to me) of the dialog is when, giving up momentarily, trying to comprehend Bud's apparent double-talk, Lou shows he can repeat the line-up's name, and describe a baseball play perfectly. Bud shows his approval of this rational approach - only to hear Lou scream out he doesn't understand what he himself has been talking about. To me that was the perfect conclusion of the great confusion known as "Who's on First".
In recent years stores have offered mechanical representations of political and entertainment figures reciting comments they are supposed to be famous for. There was one pair together: of Bud and Lou in costume from THE NAUGHTY NINETIES (Bud wearing the baseball outfit of non-existent St. Louis Wolves), reciting Who's On First. That is immortality folks.
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