This movie crushed me as a child. I had always loved Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, watching their thirty-six films on Sunday mornings, right after Ma and Pa Kettle films. Seriously, weekends in Pittsburgh in the 1970’s and 80’s were amazing. You stayed up all night watching Chiller Theater and then woke up late and took in some Abbott and Costello. Ah, memories.
That said, when this aired on November 15, 1978, I excitedly watched it from my parent’s black and white kitchen TV, ready to have fun reliving my favorite memories of the comedy duo. I wasn’t ready to learn how much they hated one another and their foibles. Cut me some slack — I was six.
Abbott and Costello are played by Buddy Hackett and Harvey Korman. Interestingly, Hackett and Hugh O’Brian replaced the team when Costello’s health forced them to drop out of 1954’s Fireman Save My Child.
The team came together when Abbott’s original partner was ill and it gelled pretty quickly. The film hints that Bud used to date Lou’s wife — this is unproven — but as we’ve learned from tabloid style films, facts are rarely important. For example, while they did debut on The Kate Smith Hour on February 3, 1938, they didn’t do the “Who’s On First?” routine until a month later and they had developed their distinctive voices (audiences initially thought they sounded alike until Costello came up with his high-pitched, childish affect).
They debuted their own show, The Abbott and Costello Show, as Fred Allen’s summer replacement in 1940 before joining Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on The Chase and Sanborn Hour in 1941. That was also the year that their first two films — Buck Privates and Hold That Ghost — debuted (they made their actual first film appearance in 1940’s One Night in the Tropics, essentially playing their greatest hits from burlesque on screen).
By 1942, they were the top box office stars in the country, earning over $789,000 ($12 million in today’s money) that year alone. To show how big of stars they were, a 35-day Wr Bonds tour in the summer of 1942 earned $85 million dollars ($1,299,767,105 today!) in sales. This is important — because soon, the government would come calling for this money and forget all about this. That’s a major part of the film.
Here come the bad parts. Abbott had epilepsy, which in the film just means you have to sit down every once in a while, as well as drink way too much. Costello got rheumatic fever from a military base tour and was bedridden for the rest of 1942 and into ’43, when he returned to radio after a year layoff. That very same day, his infant son drowned in the family’s pool and the comedian was never the same. He was quick to anger and constantly vindictive to the point that a major rift happened when In 1945 a rift developed when Abbott hired a servant who Costello had fired. That led to Costello refusing to speak to his partner except when performing. From them on, they would play separate characters in films, rather than be a team. This led to their loss in popularity when faced with other teams like Martin and Lewis.
Abbott resolved the rift when he suggested naming Costello’s charity the “Lou Costello Jr. Youth Foundation.” Finally some good news — this charity still helps underprivileged youth in the Boyle Heights district of Los Angeles.
Despite their dip in popularity, they still starred in several films with the Universal monsters and hosted The Colgate Comedy Hour. From 1952 to 54, Costello created, owned and syndicated The Abbott and Costello Show, paying Abbott a salary, a point this movie hammers home as proof that any reconciliation was only on one man’s part. That said, the movie totally ignores that this show was a success and aired in reruns for a long time.
The film never gets into the point that the duo was overexposed and worried about creating new material, which is one of the reasons why Universal couldn’t reach a contract with them. They were forced to sell all of their assets to the IRS to pay taxes, a point the movie definitely makes.
After one last film, Dance with Me, Henry and Lou appearing on This Is Your Life, the duo split for good in 1957. Errol Flynn claimed in his autobiography that he was the reason. At a party he had invited Bud, Lou and their families to, he showed hardcore pornography and Bud and Lou both blamed the other. This is skipped by the movie, because how would you explain that on TV in 1978?
The movie makes it seem that Costello died quickly after the pair split, but he lived until 1959, after ten appearances on The Steve Allen Show doing old routines without his partner. He died shortly after finishing his last film, The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock.
In 1960, Abbott formed a team with Candy Candido, a voice actor in Disney films. He also did his own voice for the Hanna-Barbera Abbott and Costello cartoons. He died of cancer in 1974.
Let’s go back to me being a kid. I always thought that Lou was the nice one, with Bud being the mean adult, always grumpy with him. Little did I know the truth — or what passes for it in this movie. I remember crying my eyes out during the last scene where Lou dies.
This whole movie is based on the book by Hollywood correspondent Bob Thomas and trust me, it’s as over the top and ridiculous as you hope it is. It’s been said that Thomas got most of his gossip from Eddie Sherman, Abbott and Costello’s longtime manager who had been fired by the duo, so obviously there was a reason why it’s so venomous. It’s also remarkably unfunny in the comedy segments, which is weird when you consider who is starring in it. Arte Johnson and Robert Reed also show up, just to remind you this is a made for TV movie.
Both the book and movie upset Lou’s daughter Chris so much that she wrote the book Lou’s on First to refute many of its claims.
I’m not the only one obsessed by this film. On his podcast, Gilbert Gottfried has brought the death scene at the end up several times. I wasn’t the only one shattered by it, I guess.
I guess if you want to catch up on memories, you should skip TV movies and go right back to the real movies. But as you may have learned by now, I love junk.