Wednesday, October 30, 2019

'Little Giant' is a change of pace for Abbott & Costello

It's been a long time, but maybe I'll be posting here again, every now and then...

Little Giant (1946)
Starring: Lou Costello, Bud Abbott, Jacqueline deWit, Elena Verdugo, George Cleveland, Mary Gordon, and Pierre Watkins
Director: William A. Seiter
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Kindhearted, but oh-so-dumb, Benny Miller (Costello) sets out to become a great salesman after completing a correspondence course.

"Little Giant" is very different than any of the dozen or so other films I've seen starring Abbott & Costello. Both headliners are, generally speaking, playing their usual characters (Abbott is sleazy and scheming, while Costello is guileless and honest to a fault), but with more intensity. They are also not allies against a common enemy; here, Abbott plays the part of a full-on villain, and the hapless Costello becomes one of his targets.

According to various commentators, this movie is a departure from the usual  Abbott & Costello model of including numerous Vaudeville-inspired routines either because the two stars wanted to do something different and stretch themselves, or because they were in the middle of an argument and they didn't speak except when on-set. Whatever the reason, there's a different vibe in the picture that extends well beyond the absence of the expected comedy routines. (There is still a single "traditional" routine in it, though.)

"Little Giant" sees Bud Abbott playing two different roles--a pair of identical cousins who are both sales mangers in the Hercules Vacuum Company. One is a crook who is skimming from the company and the other is a hard-working, honest man who wants to see his staff and company do as well as it can. Both have interactions with Costello's character, and each have a hand in his fate as a salesman to some degree. It's interesting to watch Abbott play an out-and-out bad guy with no redeeming qualities whatsoever--no matter how big a sleazebag he's been in other movies, at least he was a kinda-sorta a friend to Costello's character, even if it was an exploitive and abusive one. And, on the flipside, he also gets to play a nice, honorable character for once; the "good cousin" at Hercules Vaccum Company is a thoroughly professional manager who holds himself and his people to account and is one of the more likable characters in the film.

Meanwhile, Lou Costello is playing the typical babe-the-woods character, but without the usual bullying/guiding force of an Abbott-type character on his side, he comes across as even more hapless and hopeless than ever. I almost felt guilty laughing at his antics and pratfalls, and I felt deeply sorry for him when he became an object of mockery by his fellow sales associates. On the other hand, it was even more satisfying than ever before to watch him emerge victorious as a direct result of their mistreatment... and it was even more heartbreaking that ever to watch the villain get the upper-hand again and send poor Benny Miller slinking back to his hometown with his spirit completely broken. (In fact, One of the saddest scenes I've ever seen in a comedy happens toward the end of the film.)

Things look so dark toward the end of this film that when the happy ending does manifest, it felt a little forced. Although it follows perfectly logically from the events of the film (with the exception that one of the supporting characters must have grown a spine off-camera to bring it about), it still feels tacked on because of the emotional whiplash the audience is subjected to in the space of a few short minutes. Maybe if there had been some stronger hint of the trigger that sets everything onto a path toward a just end for the film's characters the ending would have felt a little more motivated; I can't really make up my mind on that count.

.All in all, though, this unusual Abbott & Costello film is well worth a viewing for those who enjoy their regular fair, as well as those who enjoy a well-made comedy. "Little Giant" is a fun story that's  performed by a talented cast. It's one of the eight movies included in The Best of Abbott & Costello Volume 2.

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