BOOTLEG FILES 340: “Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd” (1952 comedy starring Bud Abbott, Lou Costello and Charles Laughton).
LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public exhibition of this film.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On a couple of questionable VHS video labels.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The film has been out of circulation for years.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: A properly restored version needs to be completed before it can return.
“Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd” is a strange film. This is not because of anything that appears on the screen – the production is fairly quotidian and more than a little disappointing. The strangeness, however, comes from the highly unlikely conglomeration of talent that came together.
The film was part of a two-production deal that Bud Abbott and Lou Costello signed with Warner Bros. Under this deal, the comics would independently produce a pair of feature films that the studio would distribute. Costello was responsible for the production of the first film, “Jack and the Beanstalk,” while Abbott took charge of the other film, which was intended to be a spoof of pirate movies.
Where things began to get weird was the idea of approaching A-list Charles Laughton to co-star with the B-level comedians. Laughton had memorably played the infamous pirate Captain Kidd in a 1945 film, so it made sense for him to reprise the character. Laughton was also celebrated for playing Captain Bligh in the 1935 classic “Mutiny on the Bounty” – thus, audiences already had a strong connection between the actor and high seas action.
Abbott and Costello dispatched their co-producer Alex Gottlieb to approach Laughton. Gottlieb visited Laughton in Boston, where the star was appearing in a play. To Gottlieb’s astonishment, Laughton was excited about doing the film – the actor never did a slapstick movie and he was excited at the prospect of being part of a “low comedy” romp.
Indeed, Laughton’s willingness to go all-out for the sake of a laugh surprised everyone attached to the film. In the classic book “Abbott and Costello in Hollywood,” Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo quoted director Charles Lamont about Laughton’s dedication to the project. “(He) was absolutely marvelous,” Lamont recalled. “You know, he wouldn’t let a stuntman do his pratfalls for him. The first day he was on the set, Laughton saw Sailor Vincent dressed in a costume identical to his. ‘Oh, no!’ he yelled. ‘I want to do my own pratfalls! That’s why I’m making this picture. I want to be a buffoon!’ I said, ‘Okay, it’s your rear end’”
Joining Laughton on-screen was popular singer Fran Warren (in her only film appearance) and Hillary Brooke, the glamorous leading lady in Abbott and Costello’s classic sitcom. Behind the camera was an ambitious assistant director named Robert Aldrich (who would soon make a name for himself in the director’s chair) and ace cinematographer Stanley Cortez (who was best known for his landmark camerawork in “The Magnificent Ambersons” and would later film Laughton’s 1955 “Night of the Hunter”).
And speaking of cinematography, “Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd” was the duo’s only full-color feature. But due to the film’s low budget, the production used the Super CineColor process, a less-than-satisfactory alternative to the pricier Technicolor.
Unfortunately, the very talented crew and the color film stock could not compensate for the lame script or the enervated antics of Abbott and Costello. By the time this was film was shot, the comedy team had been in films for a dozen years and were more than played out. The duo was unwilling to test out new material and preferred to rehash well-worn gags and situations. The paucity of gags may account for a bizarre surplus of music – “Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd” has six dreadful songs sandwiched into a 70-minute running time.
The film takes place on a Caribbean island where Abbott and Costello are, inexplicably, waiters at a tavern frequented by pirates. They are witness to the alliance between a pair of notorious nautical figures – Captain Kidd (Laughton) and the female adventurer Captain Bonney (Brooke) – who form an uneasy partnership to locate a buried treasure on the mysterious Skull Island.
Through typical bumbling, Costello mixes up the treasure map with a love letter that a young noblewoman (Warren) intended for a singer at the tavern (Bill Shirley). The lovers, the waiters and the two pirate captains all wind up on Skull Island, where a mad scramble for the buried treasure ensues.
The only genuine point of interest here is seeing Laughton get his wish to play the buffoon. In the course of the film, he is doused with water, pinched in his chubby cheeks, handcuffed, tripped, twice smacked on the head with a shovel, made to converse while blowing soap bubbles (this is achieved via lame animation), and hung upside down. Strangely, he seems to thoroughly enjoy himself throughout this excessive nonsense – and that stands in stark contrast to Abbott and Costello’s grouchy, mechanical approach to the same material. All of the reviews for the film noted Laughton’s uninhibited (if unlikely) performance – although, in retrospect, many film scholars considered the film to be a nadir of Laughton’s distinguished career while Abbott and Costello fans consider the film to be among the team’s weakest.
However, “Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd” was a popular box office attraction when it was first released – the kiddie audience, which couldn’t get enough of Bud and Lou, was happy to overlook the dubious content. In 1960, one year after Costello’s death, the film was theatrically re-released by RKO Pictures. It is not clear why Warner Bros. handed off the big screen rights for a second-run to the ailing RKO.
“Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd” used to turn up as part of the film programming on local TV stations during the 1960s and 1970s, but since then it seems to have dropped from circulation. It turned up in the 1990s on a VHS label promising “RKO Classics” (an odd label, considering it was neither a classic nor an RKO film), and it also received a VHS release from a pair of sketchy labels specializing in public domain films. However, the film is not in the public domain – in fact, a bootlegger who recently attempted to post the complete production on YouTube was smacked down for an unauthorized posting.
Crummy bootleg DVD copies are not difficult to find – they appear to come from a faded and scratched-up 16mm print. A proper commercial DVD release, however, would require the restoration of the film’s color cinematography, and I assume this expensive labor is holding up the film’s return to the marketplace.
But, seriously, unless you are incredibly eager to see Charles Laughton being hit with a shovel or rolling his eyes at the sagging antics of Abbott and Costello, this film is not worthy digging up. Unlike the film’s treasure chest, this one can stay buried.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!