Bud Abbott and Lou Costello spent three of their first four films as leading men in characters who bumbled through the army, the navy, and the air force. All these films were released in 1941, before Pearl Harbor; it seems that once the armed forces were off to Europe and Japan, they were off limits. Their first release of 1942, Ride ‘Em Cowboy, a movie shot before and completely unrelated to the war, marked the last before a return to films about servicemen in the late forties. It’s not surprising—the two comedians and the filmmakers they worked with were not ones to take risks—but it’s disappointing that the two sacrificed the chance to make a film of the moment. Instead, Ride ‘Em Cowboy is just like all of their other films, with its obligatory, uninteresting subplots to pat the running time, musical numbers serving no real plot function, and occasional funny gag from the two comedians.
In this picture, the two play Willoughby (Costello) and Duke (Abbott), vendors at a local rodeo who end up with a job at a ranch despite knowing nothing about cattle or horses. Also at the ranch is best-selling western author Bronco Bob Mitchell (Dick Foran). To try to win the heart of a cowgirl (Anne Gwynne) working on the ranch, Mitchell attempts to become a real cowboy like those he writes about. Along the way, Willoughby is diverted by a group of stereotyped Native Americans, who try to get him to marry one of the women of their tribe. That subplot culminates in what is perhaps the film’s one especially funny sequence, a long chase scene full of visual gags.
Arthur Lubin had directed all of the comedians’ films so far, but after this film, he moved on. “They were becoming difficult to work with,” he later said. “They were bored. They arrived on the set later and later each day. One day Bud was ill and couldn’t come to the studio. The next day Lou was ill. And for the first time, they were beginning to complain about the scripts.”1 A set visit published in Collier’s describes Lubin shooting the film: “Lubin looks on complacently. In the early days of his association with the wacks, he learned never to yell ‘Cut,’ never to worry about the script, never to worry about the dialogue, never to worry about the picture.”2
Costar Anne Gwynne, working with Abbott and Costello for the first time, had a much better time with the duo. “Universal was like a little town—everyone knew one another,” she later said. “I had seen Bud and Lou many times when they were making their other pictures. I’d even take my grandmother to see them. So I knew them, but I didn’t know them. I never had a problem working with them because they were real professionals, and they were so natural and so funny—especially Lou—you felt right at home with them. These two fellows were old burlesque boys; they knew the ropes. They were so fresh and delightful and funny. They weren’t burned out and they loved doing what they were doing. Every time somebody laughed, they were in ecstasy. There was a genuineness about them.”3
Perhaps the most notable aspect of Ride ‘Em Cowboy is that it contains the first screen appearance of Ella Fitzgerald. The twenty-five-year-old singer appears in a minor role, performing in some of the musical numbers. Most famous is her performance of her hit song “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” while on a bus. The movie jumps to life during that scene; Fitzgerald has a lovely screen presence the other musicians in the film can’t match. Unfortunately, she stayed away from films for most of her career; her next screen appearance wasn’t until 1955, and she would only ever appear in two other films.
Even though Lubin was fed up with the duo, he still appreciated his time with them, saying, “I learned everything about timing from them.”4 Abbott and Costello get some moments to showcase that timing, but as a whole, Ride ‘Em Cowboy is bogged down by its musical numbers and the romantic subplot no one asked for.
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References [ + ]
|1, 4.||^||Jim Mulholland, The Abbott and Costello Book (New York: Warner Books, 1975), 80.|
|2.||^||Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo, Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (New York: Perigee Trade, 1991), 74.|
|3.||^||Furmanek and Palumbo 1991, 71.|