What I’ve Been Watching: Ride ’em Cowboy (1942).
Who’s Responsible: Arthur Lubin (director); Edmund L. Hartmann, Harold Shumate, True Boardman, John Grant (screenwriters); Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Dick Foran (stars).
Why I Watched It: Old times’ sake…plus I needed a good laugh.
Seen It Before? Mais oui.
Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 7.
Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 4.
Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 5
And? As with many of my generation, Abbott and Costello films (if not their TV show) were a staple of my misspent youth, airing Sundays from 11:30 AM to 1:00 PM on what was then a humble independent station, WPIX, channel 11. I’ve occasionally re-viewed one here and there over the decades, and when they started popping up on several of my movie stations recently, I thought it might be time for a maintenance dose. I figured, “I’ll watch one, and if it’s unbearable, that’ll be it,” but since I think I probably laughed harder at it now than I did as a kid, and found it a welcome reminder of why the 1940s remains one of my favorite film decades—easily beating the ’50s—it probably won’t be the last.
Let’s start with the studio, Universal, for which A&C made the majority of their movies, but which for BOF-minded viewers is known first and foremost for one thing: the horror (and, to a lesser degree, science fiction) films with which the name became synonymous. A&C’s heyday coincided pretty closely with that of Universal Horror, so it’s perhaps not surprising that they shared many personnel on both sides of the camera…although I know of at least one reader heaving a heavy sigh over the fact that this and their 1943 Phantom of the Opera were both directed by Mister Ed creator Lubin. Romantic leads Foran and Anne Gwynne also appeared in the studio’s Frankenstein and Kharis the Mummy series.
The screenwriters, especially Grant, are mostly A&C regulars, while Shumate—credited with adapting Hartmann’s story—had solid cowboy credentials, as did fifth-billed Johnny Mack Brown. Their supporting cast is a dream team of character actors: Marx Brothers foil Douglass Dumbrille of A Day at the Races (1937) and The Big Store (1941); frequent authority figure Morris Ankrum; the briefly glimpsed Samuel S. Hinds and an uncredited Charles Lane, both of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). And who should pop up in her screen debut as Ruby but Ella Fitzgerald, singing her hit “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” although I’d be lying if I asserted that the musical stylings of The Merry Macs were equally memorable.
Universal often just unleashed A&C in a specific milieu or service branch; this was shot before Pearl Harbor but—per Wikipedia—delayed to accommodate the production and/or 1941 release of In the Navy and Keep ’em Flying. Successful Western writer Bronco Bob Mitchell (Foran) doesn’t actually know one end of a horse from another yet, after costing Anne Shaw (Gwynne) her shot at a $10,000 New York rodeo prize, tries to make it up by visiting the Lazy S, an Arizona dude ranch run by her father, Sam (Hinds). Food vendors Duke (Bud) and Willoughby (Lou), on the lam due to a mishap at the rodeo, are in tow and, following the classic Marxian template, wind up helping the soon-to-be couple.
Upon arrival, the boys go straight from frying pan to fire when Lou unwittingly proposes to the, uh, aggressively plain daughter of Jake Rainwater (Dumbrille), whose insistence on a “bow and arrow wedding” is the other through line in what passes for the plot. For once, I can write “meanwhile, back at the ranch,” and mean it literally: Bob is hoping for some quiet tutelage—and maybe more—from Anne, but reporter Martin Manning (Lane), eager to expose him as fake, enters him in the state rodeo championship, leading to some needless folderol involving a crooked gambler, Ace Anderson (Ankrum). Not only is the Lazy S’s honor at stake, but it also benefits a local children’s hospital; no pressure, Bob!
This being one of their first vehicles, the boys are in fine form and the film starts strong, but by the end it feels more than a little disjointed, which along with the brevity of Sam’s role suggests possible post-production tampering. As if the story weren’t silly enough, it pauses about an hour in for a dream sequence utilizing the hoariest of humor, down to the “Would you like your palm re[a]d?” gag. At its best, however, this picture reaffirmed my preference for A&C’s more…well, “intellectual” might not be the best word, but let’s say “verbal-intensive” style over such slapstick-heavy acts as Laurel and Hardy or the Three Stooges; Costello’s double takes, subversive asides, and non sequiturs had me guffawing.