Our Inductees: Abbott and Costello

Biography

The first inductee into the Official National Comedy Hall of Fame® was ABBOTT & COSTELLO. They were the most popular comedy team of the 1940’s and 1950’s with memorable comedy movies and bits such as the Who’s on First sketch to the left.

In 1940, Universal Studios signed them for a musical, One Night in the Tropics. Cast in supporting roles, they stole the show with several classic routines, including the “Who’s on First?” routine. Universal signed them to a two-picture contract. Their second film, Buck Privates (1941), directed by Arthur Lubin and co-starring The Andrews Sisters, was a massive hit, earning $4 million at the box office and launching Abbott and Costello as stars.[2]

Their next film was a haunted house comedy, Oh, Charlie!. However Buck Privates was so successful that the studio decided to delay its release so the team could hastily make and release a second service comedy, In The Navy (1941), co-starring crooner Dick Powell and the Andrews Sisters. This film initially out-grossed Buck Privates. Loew’s Criterion in Manhattan was open until 5 a.m. to oblige over 49,000 customers during the film’s first week.[2]

Oh, Charlie was put back into production to add music featuring the Andrews Sisters and Ted Lewis. The film was eventually released as Hold That Ghost (1941).[7] The duo next made Ride ‘Em Cowboy (1941), with Dick Foran, but its release was delayed so they could appear in a third service comedy, Keep ‘Em Flying (1941). This was their last film with Arthur Lubin.

All of these films were big hits, and Abbott and Costello were voted the third biggest box office attraction in the country in 1941.

Universal loaned the team to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for a musical comedy, Rio Rita (1942). During filming, on December 8, 1941, a day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Abbott and Costello had their hand and foot prints set in concrete at what was then “Grauman’s Chinese Theatre“. Back at Universal they made Pardon My Sarong (1942), a spoof of South Sea Island movies; and Who Done It?(1942), a comedy-mystery.

All of these films were big hits, and Abbott and Costello were voted the third biggest box office attraction in the country in 1941.

Universal loaned the team to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for a musical comedy, Rio Rita (1942). During filming, on December 8, 1941, a day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Abbott and Costello had their hand and foot prints set in concrete at what was then “Grauman’s Chinese Theatre“. Back at Universal they made Pardon My Sarong (1942), a spoof of South Sea Island movies; and Who Done It?(1942), a comedy-mystery.

In 1942 exhibiters voted them the top box office stars in the country, and their earnings for the fiscal year were $789,026.[8]) The team did a 35-day tour during the summer of 1942 to promote and sell War Bonds. The Treasury Department credited them with $85 million in sales.[2]

After the tour the team made It Ain’t Hay (1943), from a story by Damon Runyon; and Hit the Ice (1943).

Costello was stricken with rheumatic fever upon his return from a winter tour of army bases in March 1943 and was bedridden for around six months. On November 4, 1943, the same day that Costello returned to radio after a one-year layoff due to his illness, his infant son Lou Jr. (nicknamed “Butch” and born November 6, 1942) died in an accidental drowning in the family’s swimming pool.[9]

 

 Maxene Andrews remembers visiting Costello with sisters Patty and LaVerne during his illness, and remembered how Costello’s demeanor changed after the tragic loss of his son, saying, “He didn’t seem as fun-loving and as warm…He seemed to anger easily…there was a difference in his attitude.”

Once Costello recovered, they returned to MGM for Lost in a Harem (1944), then back to Universal for In Society (1944), Here Come the Co-Eds (1945) and The Naughty Nineties (1945). Their third and final film for MGM was Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (1945).

In 1945 a rift developed when Abbott hired a domestic servant who had been fired by Costello. Costello refused to speak to his partner except when performing. The following year they made two films, (Little Giant and The Time of Their Lives), in which they appeared as separate characters rather than as a team. This may have been a result of the tensions between them, plus the fact that their most recent films had not performed as well at the box office. Abbott resolved the rift when he suggested naming Costello’s pet charity, a foundation for underprivileged children, the “Lou Costello Jr. Youth Foundation.” The facility opened in 1947 and still serves the Boyle Heights district of Los Angeles.

Abbott and Costello reunited as a team in Buck Privates Come Home (1947), a sequel to their big hit. In The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap (1947) they were supported by Marjorie Main.

They signed a new contract with Universal which allowed them to make films outside of their studio contract.[2] The first of these, The Noose Hangs High (1948), was released through Eagle-Lion.

The team’s next film, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), co-starring Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr, was a massive hit and revitalized the duo’s careers. It was followed by Mexican Hayride (1948), an adaptation of a Cole Porter musical without the songs. They then made Africa Screams (1949) for Nassour Studios, an independent company which released through United Artists. Back at Universal they returned to horror comedy with Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949).

The duo was sidelined again for several months when Costello suffered a relapse of rheumatic fever. They returned to the screen in Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion (1950). The following year they made Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951); then Comin’ Round the Mountain (1952), a hillbilly comedy.

Their first color film, Jack and the Beanstalk (1952), was made independent of Universal, and distributed by Warner Bros. After making Lost in Alaska (1952) at Universal, they made a second independent color movie, Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1953) with Charles Laughton, that was also distributed by Warner Bros.

At Universal they did Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953) and Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1954). They were forced to withdraw from Fireman Save My Child in 1954 due to Costello’s health, and were replaced by lookalikes Hugh O’Brian and Buddy Hackett. Their last films for Universal were Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops (1955) and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955).

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