They were the greatest partners that ever partnered, partner. No, I haven’t lost the ability to write, I’m simply repeating the word repeated ad nauseam in the 1978 television biopic, Bud and Lou. I avoided watching/reviewing this for a while, predominately because I know absolutely nothing about Abbott and Costello, and the duo, embodied by Buddy Hackett and Harvey Korman, instilled a belief this was a cheapo TV movie….which it is. Bud and Lou plays as if the screenwriter read a Sparknotes write-up about the duo and thought it was too long. On top of it all, the characters are bipolar in temperament and horribly miscast. For a movie about two comedians, the only humor derived is in the belief this television movie was a good idea.
Bud Abbott (Korman) and Lou Costello (Hackett) struggle to rise up the burlesque ranks, eventually becoming successful comedic actors. However, various problems complicate their fame.
Despite the joined title, Bud and Lou, billing is an issue, both for the audience and within the narrative. Abbott jokes about billing the straight man first, but this biopic is interested more in the life of Lou Costello. It certainly doesn’t start that way, only making you wonder if a last-minute pardon of Costello’s character (or the idea there was more conflict in his life to mine material from) was decided upon. I joke about the overuse of the word “partner” because in the first half hour almost every line Hackett says is punctuated with the word “partner,” as if the audience is going to forget they were a duo. The film’s first half explores their partnership-which the film erroneously says was because of Bud previously dating Lou’s wife…or something-and rise up the ranks before they make their debut appearance on the Kate Smith Show where they infamously perform “Who’s on First.” After that, Lou’s health problems and the death of his child cause the movie to move away from Abbott and follow Costello’s deteriorating marriage, anger issues, and subsequent death. Abbot becomes the straight man to the point of irrelevance, content to sit around and comment on what’s happening in the moment.
The scaling down of Abbott’s character is exemplified in the detailing of each man’s health. The movie opens with Abbott’s struggles with epilepsy complicated by excessive drinking. He explains the reason why he’s gone through so many partners is because of his issues with the disease (epilepsy, as defined by the film, involves pausing and falling down), and thus Costello’s decision to stick with him in spite of it bonds them further. However, this entire subplot is a bump in the road, never mentioned again past the thirty-minute mark. Costello’s health problems take center stage, probably because he died first, although when he dies it laughably involves his manager, Eddie Sherman (Arte Johnson) just staring at him. The man could have been saved but Eddie just looks at him and the movie cuts to commercial. Other transitions between moments of heartbreak into bizarre “happy” sequences are used again when Costello has a heart attack. The movie cuts from Costello lying on the ground, his health in peril, to an idyllic sequence of Anne Costello (Michele Lee) playing with their son and oh, yes Costello is fine.
Buddy Hackett bears a slight resemblance to Lou Costello in that they’re both heavy-set with black hair, but Hackett and his Catskills comic voice aren’t quick enough to spit out the rapid-fire dialogue the comedic duo were known for. Harvey Korman is better as Bud Abbott, but he’s nothing but the straight man. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Abbott and Costello had defined personalities. In this incarnation, they’re just “loud” and “dull.” The “Who’s on First” sequence falls flat because the two are taking an unnaturally long time to pull it off. You note every pause in dialogue, usually coming from Hackett. Hackett fares the worst with the material, especially in the dramatic moments. A scene of him coming to grips with his young son’s death is ruined as he covers his eyes because Hackett is incapable of crying. He’s content to scrunch up his face and call it sadness. Conversely, his “temper” comes off like a child throwing a temper tantrum and springs from out of nowhere; one minute, Costello is a pie-eyed gentle giant and then he becomes the Queen of Sheba. Based on what I read off its IMDB page, this movie inflamed Costello’s daughter who refuted everything the “source material” claimed.
If you’re wondering where Hollywood fits into everything, it doesn’t. Buck Privates is mentioned but the studio and director’s names are changed. I’m actually unsure if the studio is even mentioned. Robert Reed (TV’s Mr. Brady) plays one of the production heads but comes off as a villain or general cynic depending on whether he likes Costello or not. In the end, Bud and Lou is disappointing, content to wallow in hitting key moments with absolutely no context or depth. You’ll feel as if you started the movie in the middle with scenes happening quickly before moving on to another scene. At a brief 98-minutes you won’t want to gouge your eyes out, but you’ll be close to it.
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