In Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s documentary Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow (1987), there’s footage of Buster reminiscing about his days as a gag writer at MGM…and in describing working with Bud Abbott & Lou Costello (who made three films at the studio while on loan from Universal) he had this to say about the duo’s rather casual approach to moviemaking: “When do we come and what do we wear?” Keaton, who was a bit meticulous in his approach to movie comedy (one of the many reasons why he’s revered as one of the greats), also noted with a trace of whaddya-gonna-do resignation: “Then the day they started shooting they find out what the script’s about.”
Abbott & Costello were able to parlay their fame as top burlesque comics and featured laugh getters on radio’s The Kate Smith Show into a successful film career that began with 1940’s One Night at the Tropics. The duo made many classic comedies: Buck Privates (1941), Hold That Ghost (1941), Who Done It? (1942), and more. But fashioning vehicles for Bud and Lou was not always an easy task…and one of the reasons is that the boys weren’t always enthusiastic about doing material that wasn’t “tried-and-true”; if they had their druthers, they’d fill up 75 minutes of film performing their classic routines. You don’t have to be a studio head, of course, to realize that this would only be good for a movie or two before the well would run dry…so the writers behind the team’s hilarious Universal comedies were always careful to use those routines sparingly, generally limiting each movie to spotlighting two or three classic bits. The writer chiefly responsible for making certain the old meshed with the new was a man named John Grant, whose professorial looks (seriously, you could mistake him for an English Lit instructor) masked an encyclopedic knowledge of burlesque comedy.
Grant’s credit on Bud and Lou’s films often read “special material for Abbott & Costello” or “additional dialogue” but he also earned recognition for the screenplays of some of the duo’s funniest films including The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap (1947) and Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). In The Noose Hangs High (1948), the team’s first film for an independent studio (Eagle-Lion), Grant shares billing with co-scribe Howard Harris (reworked from an earlier Universal screenplay, For Love or Money, penned by Charles Grayson and Arthur T. Horman)…and you kind of get the impression that John let the boys go hog wild with the classic routines because there’s a lot of reliable chestnuts in this one. For example, Noose features a sequence where Bud’s Ted Higgins and Lou’s Tommy Hinchcliffe arrive at a swanky restaurant with the intention of running up a huge bill (they’re in trouble with gangsters, and have decided they’ll be safe in the pokey)…and all of the action stops for six or seven minutes to allow them to teach a refresher course in burlesque; they do “Hole in the Wall,” “Mustard,” “You’re Forty and She’s Ten,” and several others that had already been given a workout in their earlier films.
But the classics do get a little “shaking up” in Noose; Bud makes familiar movie thug Mike Mazurki (playing a none-too-bright henchman) his patsy with the old “Ten Dollars You’re Not Here” gag (when Mazurki tries for payback by pulling it on Lou, the little guy tops him with a twist). And in the highlight of the movie, Lou swaps Bud for a new straight man in the “Mudder and Fodder” routine—Leon Errol, playing a gambler who never loses. (Bud and Lou performed “Mudder” in 1943’s It Ain’t Hay…but never as well as here.)
ERROL: I changed my bet from Lolly C to Lucky George because Lolly C is off her feed…
COSTELLO: She’s off her feed?
COSTELLO: Well, what does she eat?
ERROL: Her fodder…
COSTELLO (forlorn): Mr. Caesar…
COSTELLO (earnestly): She eats her fodder?
COSTELLO: Well, what does her mother eat?
ERROL: She eats her fodder…
COSTELLO: Look, Mr. Caesar, suppose a little horse is born… (Voice trembling) Where’s his papa?
ERROL: In the pasture…
COSTELLO: Now, does the little horse eat the papa?
ERROL: Oh, of course not! His papa’s in the pasture and his fodder is in the barn…
COSTELLO (as frustration starts to build): Now wait a minute…don’t make silly of me or something…
ERROL: No, no, no, no—what’s the matter?
COSTELLO (emotional): Mr. Caesar—now—the little horse’s papa, isn’t that his fodder?
ERROL: Now, how can that be? The papa never saw the little horse’s fodder!
COSTELLO (choked up): Didn’t he ever come home nights?
By the way, the “Lolly C” in the routine is an in-joke reference to Lou’s mother Helen “Lolly” Cristillo, who in the fine Hollywood tradition of nepotism was an “associate producer” on the film. (Lou’s then-brother-in-law, Joe Kirk—who’d go on to play “Mr. Bacciagalupe” on their later TV series—has a bit part as one of Welden’s goombahs, too.)
The Noose Hangs High remains one of my favorite Abbott & Costello vehicles—an often-ignored comedy that’s fun because it allows the team to trot out those old routines, with solid direction from one of the duo’s favorite directors, Charles Barton (The Time of Their Lives, Buck Privates Come Home). The story is simple: Ted Higgins (Bud) and Tommy Hinchcliffe (Lou) are a pair of window-washers mistaken for messengers by racketeer Nick Craig (Joseph Calleia); he instructs them to collect $50,000 from one of his colleagues (I know this will shock you…but he’s played by Ben Welden), and when Colleague has his goons trail the boys in an attempt to retrieve the money, Tommy puts the cash in an envelope and mails it to Nick for safekeeping. They return to Craig’s office to explain that the loot didn’t go south—they must wait till until the morning mail is delivered.
With the arrival of USPS…the envelope is found empty. Ted and Tommy are on the hot seat for the missing moolah because Craig owes the amount as a gambling debt to eccentric millionaire J.C. McBride (Errol). The duo is able to persuade Nick to allow them to track down the vanished funds before McBride’s deadline of 36 hours (if Craig fails to pay, McBride will give the D.A. a ringy-dingy), and though they’re able to find the recipient of the largesse—secretary Carol Blair (Cathy Downs)—through the magic of cinema…they’re not quite out of the woods yet (because Carol has spent all but $2,000 of Nick’s “nest egg”).
As previously stated, The Noose Hangs High was Bud and Lou’s first independent effort and according to Chris Costello’s biography of her famous pop, Lou’s on First, the duo “breezed through that shooting schedule” (while their home base of Universal was transitioning to Universal-International) though they still found time to engage in their famous on-the-set pastime of high-stakes card games. Future producer Howard Koch, who worked as an assistant director on the film, would do his best to coax the grown delinquents back to work before finally finding their Achilles’ heel: “If they were unduly reluctant, I’d remind them that they were the producers, which worked when nothing else did. They didn’t mind spending money on cards, but the idea that their production money was going down the drain got them moving.”
As producers, Bud and Lou surrounded themselves with not only relatives but folks with whom they worked with in the past and were most comfortable; the opening sequence, where Lou’s Tommy is having a tooth extracted, features their old crony Murray Leonard (the convict in the “Pokomoko” routine from Lost in a Harem ) as a nearsighted screwball who doesn’t exactly put his patient at ease (“I’m Dr. Richards, the painless dentist…painless!” “Well, I ain’t!“). Other familiar A&C faces include Elvia Allman and Benny Rubin, and the entire production is crammed with loads of character faves: Fritz Feld (as a psychiatrist), Ellen Corby, Jimmie Dodd, Russell Hicks, Fred Kelsey, Isabel Randolph, Minerva Urecal, and Herb Vigran, just to name a few.
The Noose Hangs High made its DVD debut in 2005 from MGM/UA Home Video…but in August of 2017, my bosses at ClassicFlix re-released it in both a DVD and Blu-ray version. The ClassicFlix release is snazzy, featuring bonuses in the movie’s original trailer plus a nice image gallery with stills, lobby cards, and other promotional stuff. I truly believe that Noose is one of A&C’s funniest pictures and having Leon Errol along, of course, is icing on the cake. Ivan-Bob says check it out.