It’s hard to believe in today’s age of gritty, fact-based war tales, but there used to be a time in history wherein Hollywood actually encouraged Americans to join the Armed Forces. Movies full of glitzy song-and-dance routines delighted families across the nation, paining a pretty picture of life in the service, and — while we may look at such items in a highly cynical fashion today — they were the perfect way to alleviate the fears audiences had about war in a time of uncertainty.
One of the most famous examples is the 1941 Universal comedy classic, Buck Privates, starring the timeless comedic talents of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, who had their first top-billed film here, in a movie that grossed four million dollars (roughly sixty-million today) nationwide and launched them as legitimate film stars to boot.
Released less than a year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Buck Privates finds two necktie peddlers, Slicker and Herbie (Bud and Lou, respectively), running from a beat cop (Nat Pendleton) and taking refuge in a theater. Sadly for them, the moviehouse is not showing a movie: instead, it has been transformed in an Army Recruitment Center for the Draft — and the prizes they think they’re signing up for are actually enlistment forms. And so, Buck Privates Smith and Brown soon find themselves in Boot Camp, with a certain police officer now appointed as their tough drill sergeant!
Like most comedies of the time (especially ones with musical numbers), there’s a side story with a number of non-comedic characters. In this case, we have a long-running battle between a spoiled upper-crust playboy (Lee Bowman) and his former valet (Alan Curtis) vying for the affections of an army camp hostess (Jane Frazee). These boys are constantly at each other’s throats at first, but — naturally — come to be pals towards the finale of the feature.
Holding up the musical aspects of this feature are the iconic Andrews Sisters, who perform “You’re a Lucky Fellow, Mr. Smith,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “Bounce Me Brother with a Solid Four,” and “(I’ll Be With You When It’s) Apple Blossom Time.” Lou also gets a song under his belt here — an amusing number called “When Private Brown Becomes a Captain” that he performs while on kitchen duty along with the great Shemp Howard — while co-star June Frazee also belts out a ditty (“I Wish You Were Here”).
Of course, an Abbott and Costello film isn’t complete without a couple of classic routines. And Buck Privates is no exception. The Academy Award nominated feature includes the classic Drill Practice segment (which was originally supposed to be three minutes in length, but was extended to accommodate Bud and Lou’s adlibbing), which the Japanese government showed to their soldiers to show how stupid Americans were (!); the Dice/Craps Game wherein Bud tries to swindle Lou out of his money, only to find Lou knows a little more about the game than he leads on; and the epic brain puzzler, “You’re 40, She’s 10” bit.
Buck Privates makes its High-Definition debut as part of Universal Studios Home Entertainment’s 100th Anniversary Collector’s Series. The Blu-ray/DVD Combo features a nice new transfer that, despite the use of Digital Noise Reduction, still looks better than any other home video release I’ve ever seen to date. Audio-wise, we have a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that doesn’t sound very different than the mono mix on the old DVDs. Optional English (SDH), Spanish, and French subtitles are included.
In terms of bonus materials, Buck Privates contains three generic “100 Years of Universal” featurettes (which are standard items on these releases), which cover various aspects about the studios. Items actually related to the main feature include a Realart re-release trailer of the film from the late ‘40s (which is basically the original theatrical trailer, only with new title cards), and the 1994 TV special Abbott and Costello Meet Jerry Seinfeld, which is a nice addition to have here. Another nice addition is found within the book-style case: a booklet about the film and the legendary duo itself, with a special introduction by John Landis.
While the DNR element may turn some of you away from this classic, this is a great release overall, and I’m very excited to see Bud and Lou (and Shemp, too!) in High-Definition. Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come: I would love to see other A&C movies hit Blu-ray in the future.