When Universal Studios Home Entertainment began releasing the cinematic oeuvre of Bud Abbott & Lou Costello to DVD in 2004—ultimately resulting in four separate volumes, many consisting of two discs featuring eight movies—one of the duo’s Universal romps was conspicuously missing: 1943’s It Ain’t Hay. Hay was based on a short story by Damon Runyon, “Princess O’Hara,” and had been previously tackled by the studio in a 1935 vehicle featuring Jean Parker, Chester Morris, and Leon Errol. But Hay’s Runyon pedigree would result in a legal battle between Universal and the author’s estate, and though the movie had previously made the rounds on cable television outlets the copyright entanglements had not been ironed out at the time the team’s classic comedies were getting their first DVD treatment.
That all changed in 2008, when Universal repackaged the previous DVD releases into one honking big set known as Abbott & Costello: The Complete Universal Pictures Collection. The decision I had to make at the time was: could the absence of It Ain’t Hay from the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives justify a re-purchase of movies I already owned? I eventually vetoed the purchase; I know there were complaints that the previous releases sometimes wouldn’t play properly in newer machines…but since I hadn’t experienced any problems in that arena I didn’t sweat it. Besides, through my formidable connections with Mom-and-Pop video outlets, I already owned a VHS copy of Hay. (Okay, I’m making this sound more important than it is: Martin Grams, Jr. sold me the flick.)
When Universal Studios Home Entertainment launched their MOD “Universal Vault” series, my opportunity to obtain It Ain’t Hay on DVD presented itself in 2011…but the prohibitive cost of MOD discs kept it away from Rancho Yesteryear until January of this year; Oldies.com had a sale on “Vault” titles and I grabbed the movie for eleven dollars. It’s been a good while since I’ve watched the film (I don’t think I even have the VHS copy anymore—it probably vanished during one of our many moves) so it’s the perfect item for the blog’s participation in Overlooked Films on Tuesdays.
Though Runyon’s “O’Hara” is refashioned as a vehicle for Bud (as Grover Mockridge) and Lou (cab driver Wilbur Hoolihan), it keeps the basic concept of a thoroughbred race horse that’s kidnapped and is unwittingly used to pull a hansom cab around New York City. (In many versions of the story—notably an adaption presented on radio’s The Damon Runyon Theatre on February 20, 1949—the “King O’Hara” of the story has snuffed it, leaving his daughter “Princess” to eke out a living.) In the A&C version, Wilbur gives the O’Hara’s livelihood (a horse named Finnegan) a bite of his peppermint stick candy…and the nag dies soon after.
Because Princess (Patsy O’Connor) and King (Cecil Kellaway) depend on the now-departed Finnegan to put groceries on the table, our two financially-strapped heroes now must figure out a way to get an equine replacement. A trio of Runyonesque ne’er-do-wells—played by Eddie Quillan (Harry the Horse), David Hacker (Chauncey the Eye), and Shemp Howard (Umbrella Sam; when asked why he always carries around an umbrella he retorts: “How should I know—I’m a Damon Runyon character!”)—clue Wilbur and Grover in that there’s a horse named “Boimel” stabled at a racetrack whose owner will gladly give away. The duo unfortunately take the wrong horse—racing champion “Teabiscuit”—and must move heaven and heck to return the horse before they find themselves in further hot water.
There’s something about the literary output of Damon Runyon that lends itself to classic movie comedy: Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis appeared in a version of Money from Home in 1953, and Bob Hope went to the well twice with Sorrowful Jones (1949) and The Lemon Drop Kid (1951). (Lemon was a remake of a version released in 1934 as was Jones [Little Miss Marker] …but Marker also saw another version released in 1980 as well as inspiring a 1965 Tony Curtis romp, Forty Pounds of Trouble.) Sadly, with only a few exceptions (Lady for a Day  and A Slight Case of Murder  are the ones that immediately come to mind), the author’s unique world of gamblers, boxers, actors, grifters and hustlers aren’t as well-served in movie adaptations as we might like. (The best is the 1955 musical Guys and Dolls…which Runyon didn’t technically write, but his short stories provided the inspiration for the 1950 Tony Award-winning stage hit.)
As such, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that It Ain’t Hay is more Abbott & Costello vehicle than a faithful representation of Damon Runyon. Not that Hay is a bad film; it’s aggressively average A&C but a lot of fun if you’re willing to park your brain in neutral. It allows the duo to squeeze in their famous “Mudder and Fodder” routine, which gets stretched across several scenes in the film. (I still think—and I’m gambling Hal will back me up on this—that that classic exchange gets a better workout in 1948’s The Noose Hangs High, with Leon Errol taking over from Bud as straight man.) Bud and Lou also do a version of “Betting Parlor,” which is one of Hay’s highlights, featuring support from Richard Lane, Andrew Tombes, Ralph Peters, and TDOY fave Herb Vigran.
The sequence set inside the cafeteria—run by a character named Grant (Selmer Jackson), a nod to the duo’s longtime collaborator John Grant—is also good for many guffaws; it introduces the antagonist of Hay, Gregory Warner (Eugene Pallette), an “efficiency man” who has the misfortune to cross swords with Wilbur and Grover throughout the film’s eighty-minute running time. (The scene where Lou’s Wilbur eats one strand of spaghetti at a time—as three bouncers, including Mike Mazurki and Matt Willis, look on—is a riot.) Naming the bad guy “Warner” was inspired because it produced this large laugh-getting exchange between Wilbur and Grover when they hear a knock on their hotel room door:
GROVER: Go answer the door…It might be Warner…
WILBUR: It won’t do no good…we’re all signed up with Universal!
The bad news of It Ain’t Hay is that you have to sit through a lot of musical numbers shoehorned into the (admittedly) thin plot; if you’re fans of Grace McDonald and Leighton Noble (and really—who isn’t?) you might have a dissenting opinion…but considering Noble’s character is only around to add a little wartime flavor to the picture (he’s an Army pal of Wilbur and Grover’s, in town to scare up talent for a big show) I think they could have surgically removed him from the proceedings and no one would have noticed. The child actress who plays Peggy “Princess” O’Hara is Patsy O’Connor, Donald O’Connor’s niece (Donald was also on the Universal payroll at the time); she avoids a lot of the cloyingness that rankles me about most kiddie thespians, and she would later appear in such Universal tunefests as You’re a Lucky Fellow, Mr. Smith (1943) and Moonlight in Vermont (1944).
It Ain’t Hay would be the third and final credited assignment on an Abbott & Costello film by journeyman Erle C. Kenton; Kenton had sat in the director’s chair on two previous Bud & Lou films—Pardon My Sarong (1942) and Who Done It? (1942), considered two of the duo’s best—but by the time of his fourth A&C film, Hit the Ice (1943), Kenton’s frequent clashes with Costello finally reached a breaking point and he was replaced by Charles Lamont. (To rush In Society  into theaters, Universal assigned two of that comedy’s production numbers to Erle…but again, he received no credit.) In addition to his cafeteria duties, John Grant is credited with co-writing the screenplay along with future blacklistee Allen Boretz (the co-author of the stage smash Room Service). Good news, everyone—Abbott & Costello’s “lost” film is no longer lost, and if you’re a fan of their movie comedies Hay is a real gloom chaser.