After teaming up in 1935, the comedy duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello thrived in every medium they took part in, succeeding on stage, radio, film, and TV. They were kings of all media decades before Howard Stern gave himself the title, and they remain one of the best straight man/clown pairings with their classic wordplay exchanges. Their most famous bit, which Time magazine named it Best Comedy Sketch of the 20th century is the legendary "Who's on First?" where Bud explains to Lou the unusual nicknames of baseball players. Based on an old vaudeville routine, it became so iconic that a recording of it appears in the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry.
As their popularity on stage and radio grew in the late '30s, it was no surprise Hollywood came calling and Universal signed them. They first appeared in 'One Night in the Tropics' in supporting roles, but their routines are what make this romantic comedy so memorable. Next they starred in 'Buck Privates', a pre-WWII film that saw the boys signing up for the draft. It's been given the Blu-ray treatment as part of Universal's 100th Anniversary Collector' Series.
The United States had yet to enter the war when the film was being made, but it was obviously intending to as Congress instituted a draft that FDR signed it into law, as revealed in a newsreel that runs before the opening credits. Smitty (Abbott) and Herbie (Costello) are illegally selling ties on the street when Officer Collins (Nat Pendleton) tries to round them up. They run into a theater, unaware it has been turned into an enlistment station, and unknowingly sign up.
While waiting for their physicals, Herbie thinks he has an out because the army isn't taking anyone over 240 lbs. Not wanting to go without him, Smitty plugs in the radiator Herbie is sitting on. This causes Herbie to sweat and he just makes the cut off by a few ounces. This scene is a perfect illustration of the one issue I have always had with the relationship between Abbott and Costello's characters. They frequently try to take advantage of each other, as seen in funny bits showcased here with "The Dice Game" or "Loan Me $50". Though Laurel and Hardy always got into a fine mess, it was usually unintentional, but Abbott and Costello, like The Three Stooges, frequently antagonize and one-up each other, so their reason for associating was always curious.
Though Abbott and Costello get above-title credits when film begins, 'Buck Privates' offers more than comedy. The Andrew Sisters sing four numbers, most notably Oscar-nominated "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy". There is also a storyline featuring a spoiled, rich young man named Randolph (Lee Bowman), who presumes his father will get him out of service and chases after camp hostess Judy (Jane Frazee). Bob (Alan Curtis) is Randolph's valet until he enlists. Bob rides Randolph for his unpatriotic attitude and his harassment of Judy, a friend of Bob's. Fans of films from this era may enjoy these other elements, but they bog down the pacing. 'Buck Privates' wraps up a little too neatly and happily ever after, but it's not surprising given what was happening in the country as war was approaching.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal presents 'Buck Privates' on a 50 Region Free Blu-ray disc housed in a digibook alongside a DVD copy. The book offers wonderful items, such as an introduction from John Landis, bios on the cast and crew, text of their routines, and excerpts from the pressbook. Be ready to watch after inserting the disc, because the movie starts right up instead of going to a menu.
The video has been digitally remastered and fully restored from high resolution 35mm original film elements and given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.33:1. The picture looks free of dirt or wear. Except during the stock footage of the military, grain is slight, likely due to the mild DNR that's been applied. It's not atrocious but is apparent, such as in the close-up of Herbie's face when he shoots craps with Smitty.
Both black and white are rendered sufficiently to get the job done. Both lean slightly towards gray, yet still allow for good contrast. Depth is apparent, though the high definition contributes to revealing false backgrounds, like the large photo behind the men when they arrive at camp. When a dissolve completes, the image can be seen popping into sharper focus.
Texture detail can be seen in the suits and uniforms, which has pluses and minuses. Before they arrive at camp, the fine lines in Smitty's suit are clear and sharp. On the other hand, Herbie wears this odd, two-tone tweed jacket that results in some fierce aliasing.
The audio is available in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono, though it could easily have just been 1.0. The source sounds clean and free of defect but it limits what can be done with it. The ADR, which is mainly the production numbers with the Andrew Sisters and others, sounds hollow. During those sequences, the singers appear mixed louder than the music. Another ADR issue occurs in the scene when Herbie puts on Smitty's pack. Not is part of Herbie's dialogue dubbed but it clearly doesn't even match what was said during filming if you look at his mouth.
Though the A/V won't blow anyone away, and the Bonus Features are slight, the historical significance of 'Buck Privates' being Abbott and Costello's first starring roles, the material in the digibook, and the inclusion of the TV special put this over the top for me to recommend, especially if a fan of the Classic Hollywood period. However, I was disappointed Universal didn't include the 60-minute radio adaptation of the film from "Lux Radio Theater" in the way Warner Brothers did for 'The Maltese Falcon' and 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre'. Overall, this is recommended.