Blu-ray Review: Abbott & Costello: The Complete Universal Pictures Collection - 80th Anniversary Edition

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A massive collection from Shout! Factory and, simply put… a massive “win” for fans of classic, vintage, old-time comedy. Abbott & Costello: The Complete Universal Pictures Collection presents no less than 28 feature films starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, most of them making their HD debut, spanning 1940 to 1955. No, it’s not a complete set of their films—several were produced with distributors other than Universal Pictures. Nonetheless, for those of your looking to upgrade your old DVD collections, or for anyone new to the world of the team that was 1940’s biggest box office draw, this is a holiday season gift from comedy heaven.

It has been said that comedy ages poorly in general, with changing collective sensibilities and the overall tone and tenor of society shifting from generation to generation dictating that what was funny 50 years ago may not hold up in present-day. There are many dated elements evident throughout the Abbott & Costello films collected herein. In some cases, there are entire films really only suitable for viewing by true aficionados and nostalgia buffs (most of the post Meet Frankenstein monster team-ups). By the time Abbott & Costello entered the film scene—awkwardly, tentatively inserted strategically throughout the otherwise run of the mill romantic programmer One Night in the Tropics—the duo has plenty of stage and radio experience. As the ‘50s rolled around, the quality and consistency drop off was inescapable. Still, hard to argue with the overall level of value here.

A colleague of mine, older and wiser, has spoken about the necessity of older generations continuing to introduce younger generations to entertainment of yesteryear. The work of Abbott & Costello, particularly the endlessly inventive wordplay that was always delivered with such expert comic timing, is a valid example of entertainment from decades past that deserves to be remembered (and rediscovered). As mentioned, the earliest film presented, One Night in the Tropics, is hardly the place to start for the uninitiated. The Bud and Lou material is inserted almost as a sideshow to an otherwise routine soaper of the period (great material nonetheless, but some offered up in superior versions later on—particularly the duo’s best-known bit, “Who’s On First,” which is reprised in 1944’s The Naughty Nineties). Buck Privates is therefore the first true Abbott & Costello feature and it remains one of the most essential.

It also puts forth several aspects that might deter younger viewers from fully embracing the style. Musical numbers that interrupt the plot of Buck Privates will either mar or enhance one’s enjoyment, depending upon how you feel about the Andrews Sisters. But the insertion of musical interludes in many of the films becomes more of a distraction than anything else. And the non-Abbott & Costello plot lines are often rather drab. As the duo became more and more popular, the need to pad out these films was apparently deemed less necessary. By 1942, Who Done It? (one of the set’s most hilarious and spritely-paced highlights) dispensed with the musical sideshows altogether. As the years wore on, an over-reliance on physical slapstick crept in. While this type of childish material hasn’t aged well, the less physically-agile Abbott & Costello prove increasingly unfit for even when the pratfalls work.

But all told, this is a rather magnificent monument to the genius of one of comedy’s most enduringly influential acts. Shout! Factory has packaged it in a compact, sturdy box that contains three Blu-ray keep-cases and a booklet. The 15 discs are packed five to a case, those hinge-based ones that are oh-so-susceptible to breakage (even under careful handling). My own set had various bits and pieces of blue plastic in each of the three, with hinges cracked and center hubs missing teeth. It wasn’t enough of an issue to damage the actual discs, but consider it a warning of the possibility of a certain amount of imperfections.

Having seen all these films on standard DVD, where they were already given generally solid transfers, I was pleasantly surprised to an improvement overall in the visual presentation. Remember, bearing in mind these were originally released between 1940-1955 and that quite a few were low-cost programmers, it probably shouldn’t be a shock to reveal that the quality varies. And a few of them (Buck Privates and Meet Frankenstein for instance) have been on Blu-ray previously and these don’t appear to be upgraded. But while some (Buck Privates) suffer from a bit too much DNR while others (Hit the Ice fall a bit short due to a softer image, on average these are quite highly watchable from a visual standpoint. Audio has been upgraded to simple but listenable DTS-HD 2.0 mono.

There are enough special features here to keep fans busy. Fifteen of the films are graced with audio commentary tracks courtesy of various historians; ten are new Keep ‘Em Flying, two separate tracks on Ride ‘Em Cowboy, It Ain’t Hay, Hit the Ice, The Naughty Nineties, Little Giant, Mexican Hayride, Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff, Meet the Mummy). The 15th disc is given over entirely to features, including several new ones: Their Lives and Legacy featurette (73 minutes), Film Stories interview with historian James L. Neibaur (50 minutes), Behind the Scenes featurette (17 minutes), and Abbott & Costello Meet Castle Films, a collection of eight film shorts (70 minutes). Carried over from previous releases are outtakes culled from several films, The World of Abbott and Costello (1965) documentary, Meet the Monsters featurette, Meet Jerry Seinfeld featurette. 

Complete List of Included Films:

One Night In The Tropics (1940)

Buck Privates (1941)

In The Navy (1941)

Hold That Ghost (1941)

Keep 'Em Flying (1941)

Ride 'Em Cowboy (1942)

Pardon My Sarong (1942)

Who Done It? (1942)

It Ain't Hay (1943)

Hit The Ice (1943)

In Society (1944)

Here Come The Co-Eds (1945)

The Naughty Nineties (1944)

Little Giant (1946)

The Time Of Their Lives (1946)

Buck Privates Come Home (1947)

The Wistful Widow Of Wagon Gap (1947)

Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Mexican Hayride (1948)

Abbott And Costello Meet The Killer, Boris Karloff (1949)

Abbott And Costello In The Foreign Legion (1950)

Abbott And Costello Meet The Invisible Man (1951)

Comin' Round The Mountain (1951)

Lost In Alaska (1952)

Abbott And Costello Go To Mars (1953)

Abbott And Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1953)

Abbott And Costello Meet The Keystone Kops (1955)

Abbott And Costello Meet The Mummy (1955)

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Chaz Lipp is a Las Vegas-based musician and freelance writer. His new jazz album 'Good Merlin' is now available.

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