Sunday, March 3, 2013

Little Giant (Universal, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night we watched the next Abbott and Costello film in sequence, Little Giant, which was quite a bit different. In the chapter on Abbott and Costello in his book Movie Comedy Teams, Leonard Maltin said that this film “experimented with a new idea, splitting up Abbott and Costello.” Actually it experimented with a lot more than that! It cast Bud Abbott in a dual role and opened in the farming community of Cucamonga (unlike most Hollywood movies then, this one took place in very specific locations, all in California), where Benny Miller (Lou Costello) is just finishing a course in salesmanship from the Record Correspondence School — a gag Charles and I found hilarious today in that tacky learn-at-home “colleges” like that have made such a comeback in the modern era as “online universities,” many of which are marketed to returning veterans and suck up all their GI Bill benefits in exchange for courses they never finish and, even if they do complete them, meaningless “certificates” that don’t mean jack in the real work world. The “Record Correspondence School”’s salesmanship course comes on a seemingly endless series of short-play 78 rpm records — which Miller listens to on an old portable phonograph in the company of his long-suffering mother (Mary Gordon) and his almost as long-suffering girlfriend, mail carrier Martha Hill (Elena Verdugo). The three of them listen to a screamingly funny “graduation” record in which the unctuous voice that’s been delivering the courses all along presents an alma mater song, a pep chant and an admonition to the earner of their “B.S.” degree — “bachelor in salesmanship” (and I can’t help but think the letters “B.S.” were the writers at once satirizing the uselessness of the degree and the overall idiocy of the concept) — to “go to the largest city in your state” and use the salesmanship skills they’ve taught to get and keep a job. (Earlier, just to underscore the uselessness of Costello’s education, he’s managed to get a local passer-by to accept a crate of oranges and a jar of marmalade — but he hasn’t extracted any payment for these items.)

Our Hero manages to make it to Los Angeles, mostly by hitchhiking or sneaking rides in the backs of trucks, and he lands a job with the Hercules vacuum cleaner company (the title “Little Giant” was originally supposed to have been a reference to the model of vacuum cleaner he was supposed to sell, but nothing in the film as it stands indicates this; the working title was The Wonder Boy, which would actually have been better in indicating what the film was about) thanks to the presence of his uncle, Clarence Goodring (George Cleveland), in Hercules’ accounting department. Only Miller’s new boss, Eddie L. Morrison (Bud Abbott, clean-shaven) is not only an S.O.B. but also a crook; he’s instructed Goodring to keep two sets of books so he can conceal the embezzling he’s doing on behalf not only of himself but his vampy wife Hazel (a marvelous comic-villainess performance by Jacqueline deWit). Hazel, in turn, resents that she has to keep the marriage secret, thanks to a policy imposed by Morrison himself that no one who already has a relative in the company can be allowed to work there. Miller goes to work for Hercules as a door-to-door salesperson, but his first day is also his last; the low point of his day (and the high point of the comedy so far) comes when he demonstrates a vacuum cleaner to the imperious Mrs. Hendrickson (Margaret Dumont) and accidentally covers her and her room with soot. (An contributor says that Dumont’s participation in this movie was arranged by its director, William A. Seiter, who had previously made Room Service with the Marx Brothers. It’s a nice story, except for one little detail: Margaret Dumont wasn’t in Room Service.)

To get rid of Miller, Morrison sends him to their Stockton office, where he’s hired by regional manager T. S. Chandler (also Bud Abbott, this time wearing a moustache and a different toupee; the real Abbott grew a moustache and wore it in the later Abbott and Costello movies), who’s as nice as Morrison is nasty. But he’s up against an office-wide quota of 25 vacuum cleaners he and his staff are supposed to sell in one week, imposed by Morrison back at the head office in L.A. — and on the last day they’re short 12 cleaners and Miller hasn’t sold a one. As a gag, office secretary Ruby Burke (Brenda Joyce), who’s in love with Miller (one of the weirder parts of this plot is how Lou Costello is drawn as the man no woman can resist), and some of the other salespeople convince Miller that he can read minds — and the next day he sells a vacuum cleaner to each of the nine women in his sewing circle, not only getting the office to its quota but posting the best one-day sales record in the history of the Hercules company. For that he’s summoned back to the L.A. office to receive an award from the company’s CEO, P. S. Van Loon (Pierre Watkin) — only Miller’s uncle has tipped him to the scams Morrison is pulling, and rather than risk having them exposed to the CEO Morrison assigns his wife to vamp Miller, drug him and keep him from attending the meeting. The plan backfires as Mrs. Morrison herself gets dosed, courtesy of a sleeping pill Miller accidentally dropped in her drink, and Martha comes to the big city to take Miller back to the farm; she has a jealous hissy-fit at seeing him with Mrs. Morrison in the adjoining twin beds that passed for marital (or extra-marital) sleeping arrangements in the Production Code era, but eventually she gets Miller back to the family farm — only Van Loon comes in person, with Ruby in tow, to present Miller a $10,000 award for his one-day sales record and an offer to set up a new Hercules regional office in Cucamonga, now that Morrison has been fired and turned over to the police and Chandler has taken over his job.

Though it has a pro forma happy ending, Little Giant is quite a departure from the usual Abbott and Costello formulae; John Grant isn’t on the writing credits list (the screenplay is by Walter DeLeon from a story by Leftist writers Richard Collins and Paul Jarrico, which may explain the mild anti-capitalist satire that appears in the plot), there’s only one big talking gag (a reprise of the “7 times 13 is 28” scene from In the Navy, only this time reversed so Costello pulls it on Abbott instead of the other way around), and for the most part Little Giant is, as Charles pointed out, a Warner Bros.-style movie about skullduggery in the business world with Abbott and Costello stuck in. It was a time when Universal was willing to experiment; not only had Abbott and Costello fallen from the peak of their popularity in 1941 (when their second film, Buck Privates, was the most popular U.S. movie of the year — a pretty amazing feat given that Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, How Green Was My Valley, Sergeant York and quite a few other deathless classics were also released that year) but they were responding to the career dip by fighting with everybody, from Universal (they were delaying the production of their films by “working to rule,” insisting on quitting at 5 p.m. every day whether they were still in the middle of a scene or not) to each other (according to, during the filming of Little Giant Abbott and Costello were literally not speaking to each other unless they had an on-camera scene together). Accordingly Joseph Gershenson, assigned to produce Little Giant (usually he was the head of Universal’s music department but otherwise didn’t get involved in the creative side of filmmaking), concocted a story very much off the beaten path of Abbott and Costello movies, one which not only spoofed the business world but cast Costello as a Chaplin-like figure of pathos — at which he was quite good even though Universal didn’t know how to do this sort of comedy anywhere near as well as Chaplin (his own producer, director and writer as well as star) did. (Ironically, given Gershenson’s usual job at Universal, Little Giant is also one of the few Abbott and Costello movies that contains no songs.)

In Movie Comedy Teams Maltin acknowledged his admiration for Abbott and Costello but also pinpointed their major flaw: “With few exceptions, the team never strove to portray realistic characters in their films. … They never convinced audiences that the two guys they were playing were real people, worth caring about.” (The Marx Brothers didn’t either, but they were doing a very different kind of humor and didn’t need to strive to “portray realistic characters.”) Though the writing and Seiter’s direction aren’t quite sensitive enough to give him his head, Lou Costello turns in a quite remarkable performance in Little Giant, good enough that if he and Abbott had broken up right after this movie instead of a decade later, Costello could have gone on to a quite interesting career as a comic character actor. We got to see this side of Costello again in his very next film, The Time of Their Lives — a movie even farther removed from the beaten path of A&C vehicles, involving time travel, a supernatural curse and the American Revolution — and his last film (and only one without Abbott), The 50-Foot Bride of Candy Rock, a surprisingly good 1959 spoof of the then-popular “B” sci-fi cheapies (Costello’s newlywed wife is expanded to the titular proportions and he has to figure out how to shrink her again) in which Costello got another of his rare opportunities to play a genuinely sympathetic character. Costello was actually set to play Fiorello LaGuardia in the Broadway musical Fiorello! when he died of heart failure in March 1959 (the musical’s producers got Tom Bosley to replace him), a tragic end to a career that was hugely successful but also seems oddly unfulfilled.