I made a last-minute change in my entry for The Backstage Blogathon and it turned out a terrific choice because I revisited an old favorite, Jean Yarbrough‘s The Naughty Nineties (1945) starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.
While The Naughty Nineties is a great choice for me as far as entertainment goes I’ll admit it isn’t an obvious choice for a blogathon centering on backstage action, but there is some to be had here. The movie takes place during the 1890s with the action happening mostly on the showboat, The River Queen, which travels along the Mississippi River delivering the cleanest, finest entertainment available. That entertainment includes the talents of hammy leading man, Dexter Broadhurst (Abbott), actress/singer Caroline Johnson (Lois Collier) and a host of other acts that fill the vaudeville-style variety shows. Incidentally, The River Queen we see in The Naughty Nineties is the riverboat that was created for Universal’s Show Boat directed by James Whale in 1936.
Also part of the entertainment troupe on The River Queen is Sebastian Dinwiddie (Costello) who’s sort of jack of trades, but mostly master of mayhem. Throughout the story we see Sebastian as drummer of the showboat band, as stagehand and as sound effects engineer. Of sorts. Eventually Sebastian takes his place on the stage as an entertainer, but he’s willing to do it all – even attempting to quiet babies that interrupt the show with their crying, but of course he does more damage than the babies when he causes havoc with the sets. It’s through Sebastian and his many duties that we get a glimpse of what the backstage machinations would look like on a riverboat. And all indications are they’d be a lot of fun. Unfortunately though the merriment aboard The River Queen is threatened when three unsavory characters – Bonita Farrow (Rita Johnson), Mr. Crawford (Alan Curtis) and Mr. Bailey (Joe Sawyer) – join the fray in Ironville with sinister intentions involving crooked gambling. It takes them no time at all to put their plan into play even though they’ve been warned by the Sheriff (played by an uncredited, but instantly recognizable John Hamilton who speaks in full Perry White mode in a brief scene at the beginning of the movie.)
Against everyone’s advise The River Queen’s Captain and owner, Sam Johnson (Henry Travers with eyebrows in full bloom) agrees to a card game with the crooked trio who manage to get him drunk and fix the game so that they win controlling interest in the riverboat. Immediately after that The River Queen is turned into a floating casino with odds 100% in favor of the house. With depravity now permeating through the beloved River Queen Sebastian and Broadhurst join forces to get rid of the criminals and return the showboat to Capt. Sam and good family entertainment.
The Naughty Nineties is great fun due to its great cast and a hoot despite some of the gags being older than dirt. Or so some seem in any case. There’s the familiar mirror routine done here by Sebastian (Costello) and Bailey (Sawyer) where the former mimics the actions of the latter as if it were a reflection in the mirror. Then there’s a bit where Sebastian wrestles with a bear thinking it’s Broadhurst dressed as a bear as part of a scheme to scare everyone out of the casino. Both of those are a bit stale, but all of the other routines are right on the money and still entertaining as hell, including a swapping glasses bit when one of the bad guys slips poison into Sebastian’s glass and the hilarious scene during which Sebastian thinks he’s eating chopped cat burgers after he overhears the chef mentioning cats in the kitchen.
My favorite Abbott and Costello routine in The Naughty Nineties, however, actually takes place in a sort of backstage setting, during rehearsals as Broadhurst is giving stage directions to a stage hand. Hoping to get a spot in the show Sebastian steps onto the stage to audition by singing “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” and misinterprets Broadhurst’s stage directions as intended for him. As Broadhurst says “lower” Sebastian lowers his voice, when Broadhurst says to lift the leg of the backdrop Sebastian responds by lifting his own leg and so forth. I roar during this bit and could watch on a loop.
The most famous routine in The Naughty Nineties also happens to be what the movie is best remembered for. That is, the brilliant “Who’s On First?” which is featured here in its most complete version (and probably the best). It’s absolutely wonderful. The critic for the Los Angeles Examiner noted in 1945, “the ‘Who’s On First?’ routine alone is worth the price of admission” and that would also be true today for the price of a DVD.
The “Who’s On First?” routine remains tops among all of the comedy routines of the 20th Century, which is saying a lot. The routine was formerly immortalized in October 1956 when Abbott and Costello were invited to appear before a live audience on “The Steve Allen Show.” Bud and Lou performed the routine on Allen’s show that night, in what at least one source reports was their swan song – the final performance of the classic skit they claimed to have done 15,000 times. Other guests on the special “Salute to Baseball” episode of the Allen Show included Mrs. Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle. Also on the program that night was Allen’s announcement of the induction of Abbott and Costello and their Gold Record of “Who’s On First” into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Abbott and Costello are the first and only non-baseball playing celebrities ever to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The version of the routine as seen in The Naughty Nineties plays continuously in the museum to this day.
One last note – something else associated with the “Who’s On First?” routine can also be heard continuously if one wishes. It happened backstage in a way as Abbott and Costello taped the routine for The Naughty Nineties. It turns out that the director and crew could not keep from laughing while Abbott and Costello performed. After many failed attempts to keep everyone quiet Yarbrough gave up. If you listen closely you can hear the laughter on the DVD (version from The Franchise Collection Vol. 2). There’s no better reminder than laughter of the legendary duo at their best and in this case that there were people backstage experiencing history in the making.
Be sure to visit The Backstage Blogathon and read all of the terrific stories. I’m heading on over there myself.