My illusions are shattered. I'd been telling myself that there was a world of brilliant early Abbott & Costello films which I'd missed by being focused on their horror-comedies. The Naughty Nineties is structurally what I'd expected it to be, i.e. functionally plotless after the first half-hour and thereafter basically an excuse for the boys to wheel out their routines.
There's something of a story, of course. Bud and Lou are working on a Mississippi showboat in the 1890s, which runs into trouble when the captain falls in with crooked gamblers. Before you know it, he's in debt up to his neck and the gamblers are in charge, fleecing the passengers and menacing anyone who gets in their way. It's more or less the 1936 Universal musical, Showboat (1936). They even film it on the same boat. They even have lots of musical numbers, although fortunately they're both short and relevant given the setting. I didn't mind them at all.
Captain Sam Jackson is played by Henry Travers, who was also Clarence in It's A Wonderful Life and Dr Cranley in The Invisible Man. The most violent of the gamblers is played by one Alan Curtis, who probably hasn't done anything you'll have heard of but still does a respectable job of balancing menace with being the walk-on stooge in comedy routines. I quite liked him, but that's about it for the non-comedy, really.
I've seen Abbott & Costello films where I'm really watching for the story, but you can't do that here. There's not enough of it. What's more, the second half of the film isn't even pretending otherwise. The characters and the situation are all played for real, but somehow one doesn't mind at all that the plot development is being fitted in around the routines rather than the other way around. This film will stand or fall on whether you find Lou Costello funny, so I'm in trouble, aren't I? I don't hate him or anything. I admire the invention on display and I did laugh a few times in the second half. I found the routines interesting, but overall I don't think it's anything I'd recommend to anyone over the age of ten. If you don't know about this duo already, it's probably too late for you, but I'd guess that their humour would fascinate children. Anyone lucky enough to see them early has probably been hooked for life. The wordplay, the slapstick and the surrealism would all have gone down a storm with me had I caught it thirty years ago.
Costello is like a gullible but naughty child. You can tell him he's eating a catburger and he'll believe that it meowed when he sticks a fork in it. He'll follow ridiculous orders, even ones that weren't meant for him at all. He lives in a rubber reality world where anything might be a comedy routine and never blinks an eyelid at it. He reminds me of both Laurel and Hardy, all squeezed into the one character, but I think his gags owe more to the Marx Brothers. Now I understand the surrealism that so perplexed me in the duo's later movies. Here it's practically their trademark. They do a version of the mirror scene from Duck Soup, but without the Groucho moustache and eyebrows. There's a climactic chase scene so silly that I'll admit I laughed. Then there's the fishing scene, in which the entire joke is that you're watching the visual equivalent of a shaggy dog story. It's funny (ish) because it's unbelievable.
Then there's Who's On First? "They give ball players nowadays very peculiar names." "Funny names?" "Nicknames, pet names. Now on the St Louis team we have Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know is on third..." You can see where this is going, but what you won't be prepared for is how far they drag it out. Its length is just absurd. I went through in turn bemusement, amusement, perplexity, boredom and finally "wow." What I didn't know at the time was that this routine is famous. It was Abbott and Costello's trademark, to the extent that they copyrighted it despite having derived it from turn-of-the-century burlesque sketches like the Baker Scene (on Watt Street) and Who Dyed (a man named Who). This isn't the only time it appeared in their films, but it's the longest of them. You can even find it online. The scene's 1,134 words and nearly 200 lines long. Admittedly it's rattled off at breakneck speed, but even so that's more than four times the length of Hamlet's "to be or not to be" soliloquy.
Apparently several takes of this routine were unusable because the camera crew couldn't stop laughing. You can still hear them on the actual film.
I wouldn't warn anyone away from this film, but I'd advise against going in with false expectations. However at the very least I enjoyed seeing an earlier take on Abbott & Costello trademarks like their rubber-reality gags and hitting each other on the head. It's fun, or at least a passable time-waster. Mind you, it's also less original than it looks, using routines that you can see in other movies, both from this duo and other people. If I want to see Groucho Marx's Lifesaver's Candy routine, I'll go watch Horse Feathers. Costello's version is remarkable too, mind you. Overall, I suppose I liked this film. I'm absolutely the wrong target audience for Costello's style, but even so I only found him at worst mildly annoying and at best occasionally funny. This is a pleasant, amiable and at times deliberately absurd movie.