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The Time of Their Lives

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello could never be accused of creating great art, but, at their peak, they were one of the more popular teams appearing in movies. Although the tone is far different, their success can be readily compared to Jim Carrey's in the Ace Ventura movies - people who found them overbearing simply couldn't fathom anyone who was a big fan. Still, they had millions of devotees, and The Time of Their Lives (1946), a cleverly executed ghost story in which Bud and Lou barely even speak to each other, is one of their strongest outings.

Costello plays Horatio Prim, a Revolutionary War soldier who's wrongly executed as a traitor. He then revisits the world many years later, accompanied by a beautiful ghost (Marjorie Reynolds), to establish his innocence and be allowed into heaven. Abbott plays a psychologist who, unfortunately for him, resembles the person who sentenced Prim to death all those years ago. Lots of supernatural activity occurs around an old mansion, as Prim torments the psychologist all the way to a happy ending.

The comedy team of Abbott and Costello is usually mentioned in the same breath, because one seldom saw them managing scenes alone, a la the Marx Brothers. They were a true comedy duo, with Bud playing the straight man and Lou supplying the yucks. But Costello was beginning to feel stifled as their career-built-for-two skyrocketed, and longed to branch out into other kinds of performances. He eventually got his wish with a picture called Little Giant (1946), in which he played a role that stood apart from his partner. When it turned out to be a hit, the experiment was tried once again with The Time of Their Lives.

Producer Val Burton wrote the original treatment for The Time of Their Lives in 1944, although at that point it was to be called The Ghost Steps Out, and the ghosts were a dandy and his African-American valet...a bit beyond the reach of Abbott and Costello. A year later, Walter DeLeon and Bradford Ropes re-worked the idea. John Grant then contributed additional dialogue. For a while, it looked like there might be a plagiarism lawsuit, as The Time of Their Lives bore a slight resemblance to a Broadway show called The Gramercy Ghost, but it eventually fizzled out.

The Time of Their Lives, with its ghost-conjuring trick photography - Reynolds had to darken her hair in order for her shots to work properly - was the most expensive Abbott and Costello vehicle up to this point. But a detailed accounting of the special effects is enough to make George Lucas weep. Studio records show that the lordly sum of $2,000 was spent on test shots of "heaven," roughly $1,500 was burned on thin wires that were used to make objects "float," and several other gags cost anywhere between $250 to $750! Nowadays, you couldn't cover Drew Barrymore's daily lunch and laundry tab for 250 bucks.

At one point, Costello, who seemed far more ready to break up the team than his easy-going partner was, phoned director Charles Barton and insisted that he and Abbott switch parts. "I think Lou had been off for two or three days, and he thought we were shooting a lot more with Bud than with him- because he never read a script. Neither did Bud. Anyway, Lou wanted to switch parts or else he wasn't coming to work. That meant scrapping weeks of footage. So we just sat and waited him out. When he did come back, everything was beautiful sailing from then on."

Luckily for Barton, neither man needed much preparation to give a decent performance. "Both had photographic memories," he said. "They could glance at a script once, and they'd know it. They were very quick learners who hated rehearsals." It's not surprising that, with Abbott and Costello, timing really was everything.

Director: Charles Barton
Screenplay: Val Burton, Walter DeLeon, John Grant, Bradford Ropes
Producer: Val Burton
Music: Milton Rosen
Cinematography: Charles Van Enger
Editing: Philip Cahn
Art Direction: Jack Otterson, Richard H. Riedel
Principal Cast: Bud Abbott (Cuthbert/Dr. Greenway), Lou Costello (Horatio Prim), Marjorie Reynolds (Melody Allen), Binnie Barnes (Mildred Prescott), John Shelton (Sheldon Gage), Jess Barker (Tom Danbury), Gale Sondergaard (Emily), Robert Barrat (Maj. Putnam).
BW-82m. Closed Captioning.

by Paul Tatara

VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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