Bud AbbottAnita EkbergRobert PaigeMari Blanchard
Abbott and Costello Go to Mars
Medium: film
Year: 1953
Director: Charles Lamont
Writer: D.D. Beauchamp, Howard Christie, John Grant
Keywords: 1950s planet of women, comedy, SF, Universal
Country: USA
Actor: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Mari Blanchard, Robert Paige, Horace McMahon, Martha Hyer, Jack Kruschen, Joe Kirk, Jean Willes, Anita Ekberg, James Flavin
Format: 77 minutes
Series: << Abbott & Costello >>
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0045468/
Website category: SF
Review date: 26 September 2008
This film gets a bum rap among Abbott and Costello fans since it's mad as a bag of frogs, but after their horror-comedies it's like a breath of fresh air. It's funny! That always helps in a comedy.
Let me summarise the plot. Costello bumbles his way into a rocket scientist station and briefly gets mistaken for one Dr Orvilla, but fortunately this misunderstanding is soon cleared up. "He's seen the spaceship," says avuncular Dr Wilson. "Keep him with us." The scariest part is that this isn't even meant to be scary. I'm so glad we're not living in the 1950s any more. Anyway, Abbott and Costello cause a modest amount of havoc that ends up with them flying to Mardi Gras in Louisiana (which they think is Mars) and then Venus (which they think is Earth). That's right. Abbott and Costello don't go to Mars, despite being in a film called Abbott and Costello go to Mars.
Now then. You might think Venus is a hostile planet of volcanoes and sulphuric acid, where the atmospheric pressure is 92 times that of Earth and the mean temperature is 461.85 degrees Celsius. Not in this film, buster. However before we mock, it should be noted that this was almost a decade before mankind's first successful interplanetary mission with Mariner 2. The 1950s was a time when proper writers like Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury and C.S. Lewis had also been going apeshit with wacky visions of Venus. In the 1950s, even the straight SF and horror films look as if they're from another planet. In other words, we should be cutting this film some slack.
However.
Venus is priceless. This is unbridled Edgar Rice Burroughs flapdoodle. It's populated entirely by pretty girls in 1950s bikinis, for whom the producers were delighted to cast Miss Universe contestants. They speak English, go swimming in rock pools and in one brief scene have a sauna. Oooooh. They also have no men, having discovered the secret of immortality 400 years ago and kicked them them off the planet. (The immediate cause was the queen being angry at her cheating husband, but presumably she wouldn't have got rid of men altogether without the ability to sustain an all-female society.) We see a 400-year-old toddler wandering around, but otherwise everyone's a swimsuit model. Presumably they skinned and ate the ugly ones. One also has to wonder where all these human-looking Venusians came from. Parallel evolution? Alien invaders with very strong telescopes and the ability to body-morph? A super-advanced Aztec civilisation that saw Cortez coming?
Because of this they say things like, "What does a man look like? I've forgotten." Costello gets to be the queen's consort, suggesting that by now she's either gone blind or is absolutely gagging for it. "I must say it's rather nice to have a man around the house again. Are you married?"
What about their men, incidentally? Had Abbott and Costello's rocket gone where it was supposed to, perhaps we'd have learned that men are from Mars and women are from Venus.
There's also some goofy but forgivable science. The Earth looks terrible until you realise we're eight years before Yuri Gagarin. No one had seen the real thing. Meanwhile stars twinkle in space! Rocket travel involves what seems to be an attempt at portraying relativistic distortion effects! The last of those might seem absurd until you realise that the rocket seems to take about twenty minutes to do what might perhaps be a 25 million mile journey, which would make its speed 76 million miles an hour. That's about 11% of the speed of light. Brilliantly these complete novices can even land their rocket twice in a row without damage, bringing it down vertically on its landing struts on flat ground suitable for taking off again. Mind you, after their second flight they run out of fuel. That's hard-edged 1950s realism, that is.
Okay, I've had my fun. The good news is that the film made me laugh. It's built around the comedians in a way we didn't see with their horror-comedies. Abbott and Costello meet the Killer, Boris Karloff has a much better film struggling to get out, but not here. Their routines are also much better, without a single "it was here a second ago." There's also slapstick. This may not sound promising if you've read my previous reviews, but fortunately it's highly inventive stuff that in real life would probably put me in hospital. That's always funny. Well, nearly always. I hated it in Home Alone, but it's great here.
There are clever lines. The ESP balloons were funny. The plot is... well, you won't see much of it coming, that's for sure. Instead of being the dead weight on an otherwise high-class movie, here we have Abbott and Costello being often funny in a film that's in tune with the spirit of its age even if it's also demented. This is a movie where the Statue of Liberty ducks when a spaceship flies past.
Mind you, I admire its attempt to show relativistic distortion. A bullet falls to the floor because the ship is going so fast, which I have to presume is meant to be because of relativistic mass increase. Furthermore everyone talks like a 78 record being played at 33.
It looks good too. Silly, yes, but check out the rocket taking off and flying around. That's quality effects work, that is. The acting is solid and I even liked Costello, whose brand of goofball childishness makes a better fit with this kind of material than with a Boris Karloff horror film. Oh, and Martha Hyer wears a tight sweater. Who's Martha Hyer? Does it matter?
The funniest bits of this film are near the beginning, which is probably another reason why it's not better regarded. I still laughed on occasion at the Mardi Gras and on Venus, but the comic set-ups are flimsier. It's surreal and occasionally funnier than you'd expect to be watching Abbott and Costello assume that people in Mardi Gras carnival costumes must be Martians, but it's not the kind of joke you can sustain for too long. As for Venus... well. Um. Enough said. I also fail to understand what's so funny about someone with implausibly detailed scientific and technical knowledge. Look, that little girl knows all about thermodynamics! Wow. Um, congratulations? I couldn't call this film hilarious, but I laughed at several of its routines and it had me boggling at its 1950s SF-ness. You'll certainly never mistake that decade's science fiction for anything else, that's for sure.
I've seen this called Abbott and Costello's worst film, but it's a work of flaming genius compared with the non-comedic 1950s versions of this sub-genre ("manly all-American astronauts go to a planet of women who've never seen a male"). Cat-Women of the Moon came out in the same year, for crying out loud. Yikes. At least Abbott and Costello are watchable. I wouldn't pretend that this film is for everyone and it's certainly not something you can take even remotely seriously, but why would you want to?