BOOTLEG FILES 690: “Knights of the Bath” (1951 short film consisting of footage from the 1944 Abbott and Costello comedy “In Society”).
LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The material is copyright protected.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely.
Beginning in the 1930s, a company called Castle Films was a dominant force in the nontheatrical home entertainment market. In the decades before video technology, movie lovers would purchase either a projector and watch their favorite Hollywood films in the comfort of their homes. However, the Super 8, 8mm and 16mm formats did not easily support feature-length films, and the productions were often edited down to fit the reels being sold to the public. In many cases, certain sequences would be excised from the larger works and sold as standalone pieces, usually for one-reel or two-reel exhibition.
Castle Films originally focused on cartoons, travelogues, newsreels and older orphaned films from studios or distributors that were out of business. The company was purchased by Universal Pictures in 1947, and that studio used Castle Films to market its output into the home entertainment market.
Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were the most popular stars in the Universal line-up during this period, and Castle Films sold short films culled from the comedy team’s chase sequences or comedy highlights. The 1951 “Knights of the Bath” featured an extended sequence from the 1944 comedy “In Society,” and this truncated offering is one of the great laugh-out-loud titles of the pre-video home entertainment years.
“In Society” was an important film in the Abbott and Costello canon. According to James Mulholland’s classic “The Abbott and Costello Book,” this was the first release after the team was off the screen for 18 months following Lou Costello’s bout with rheumatic heart disease. The comics and their studio needed to deliver a socko movie that would reinforce the duo’s popularity, and the resulting film is uncommonly vigorous in its presentation of the classic burlesque sketches that made Abbott and Costello famous – particularly the “Bagel Street” segment where Costello is assaulted by everyone he encounters while trying to find the address of the Susquehanna Hat Company – as well as the new slapstick sequences created for the film.
“Knights of the Bath” telescopes the first part of “In Society” by presenting Abbott and Costello as Eddie Harrington and Albert Mansfield, two dubious plumbers. The film opens with the telephone ringing in their shop. Abbott is reclining on a couch reading the newspaper when the telephone rings. Rather than get up and answer the phone, he barks, “Albert, answer the phone!” Of course, Costello has to come a great distance to do the chore that Abbott could have handled if he got off his rump and walked three paces. Costello’s entrance is priceless – he comes sliding down a fireman’s pole upside down, landing on the floor on his head while letting out a huge groan. Abbott, as usual, is critical of his partner’s bumbling, growling out, “What are you trying to do, crack the cement?” Costello goes to answer the phone but picks up a pipe and wonders why he can’t hear anyone talking. The annoyed Abbott places the phone in front of Costello – again, Abbott’s lazy dominance over the hapless Costello gets the comedy off at a brilliantly off-kilter pace.
The call was placed by a butler at a millionaire’s mansion, where the master bathroom has a leak. The plumbers arrive with a reckless insouciance that punctures the dignity of their surroundings. The butler informs Costello that the mansion’s owner, Mr. Van Cleve “is a very nervous man” who is trying to sleep. Naturally, Costello’s propensity for walking into doors and dropping his heavy tools on the floor is anything but therapeutic, waking Mr. Van Cleve into a groggy state. Costello uses a falsetto to pretend he is Mrs. Van Cleve, which cues the half-awake millionaire to beckon what he thinks is his wife to join him in bed. Costello’s double-take reaction to that carnal invitation clearly suggests that the Breen Office wasn’t paying too much attention when reviewing the film.
The plumbers find their way into the bathroom and then all hell breaks loose. This is the rare Abbott and Costello film where Abbott is on the receiving end of some rough slapstick, getting knocked by his partner into a bathtub full of water and then having a plunger stuck on his forehead that Costello removes with a violent hammer blow. Abbott still has his newspaper to read while Costello works, but putting Costello in charge of fixing the leak turns out to be a supremely bad idea.
Trying to describe everything that happens in the bathroom would not only represent the ultimate spoiler, but it would be impossible to encapsulate both the astonishing physical knockabout and the brilliant manner in which Abbott and Costello used dialogue. And credit needs to be extended to director Jean Yarbrough, whose career was mostly in B-grade work including “The Devil Bat,” “King of the Zombies,” and the Rondo Hatton thrillers “House of Horrors” and “The Brute Man.” Yarbrough rose to the occasion with “In Society,” offering an aggressively funny style that perfectly framed Abbott and Costello’s madcap antics. It is no surprise that Abbott and Costello tapped Yarbrough to direct their beloved television sitcom, which offered the pair at their best.
“Knights of the Bath” was released by Castle Films in 1951 and was sold in Super 8, 8mm and 16mm formats. It remained in circulation until VCR video became the predominant format for the home entertainment market, and prints can still be found on eBay. There was a silent version of this title, but the sound version is infinitely superior because it captures Abbott and Costello’s hilarious dialogue. The film has never been made available in any digital format – the complete “In Society” is on DVD – but this short can be found on YouTube in an unauthorized posting. This deserves to be sought out and watched, and then watched again, because it is pricelessly funny.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.
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