Who Done It?

Who Done It? Universal Pictures 1943.

Before watching the movie:

What can one expect from an Abbott and Costello movie? Bumbling into trouble, one-liners, slapstick. I can’t point to anything about this movie that I think is going to be truly remarkable. It’s a vehicle picture coming out of the Hollywood machine of the Golden Age contract films model.

I have nothing to point to that I’m very interested in, beyond seeing Abbott and Costello get into trouble and be silly for a bit. They’re what sell the movie, which is the whole point.

After watching the movie:

Chick Larkin and Mervyn Milgram work the soda counter of the GBS radio station to get an opportunity to pitch the detective show they want to write. They talk to Jimmy Turner, writer, and Jane Little, producer, at their counter, and get invited to attend the broadcast of Murder at Midnight. But before the show begins, the network president, Col. Andrews, is murdered by electrocution through his chair being connected to his microphone’s circuit. Chick and Mervyn decide that impersonating police detectives in order to solve the crime will make their show a bigger seller, but just after they make a breakthrough the real police show up. Now the police have Chick and Mervyn as their prime suspects, and the murderer thinks they know too much.

There are all kinds of examples of soft anthologies where the characters you came for drop into, interrupt, and warp someone else’s story around them. Abbott and Costello aren’t technically the same characters in every movie, but they essentially play their onstage personas exactly the same. From a story perspective, the plot teased with Jane and Jimmy having a romantic history, and Jimmy trying to turn down the job he just got with the studio because he feels that Jane’s involvement in his hiring is “charity from a woman”, is more interesting than the mystery writers trying to break into the business and getting caught up in a real investigation. I don’t mind it being placed with less importance than Chick and Mervyn’s capers, because they’re the reason the movie exists, but the Jane and Jimmy story is almost completely unused. They feel like they’ve had their motivation introduced and then been sent into the other room and told to wait an hour.

As a vehicle for a comedy act, the script is of course largely a series of excuses to string routines together. However, even with a theme as thin as “radio showbusiness”, the bits don’t tie together as much as I would’ve liked. Every bit on its own is great fun. But there’s a physical comedy sequence with an acrobat act that’s going on at this radio studio for some reason, and then a very long sequence where the duo escape the police chasing them around the radio station and concern themselves with collecting the prize Mervyn just won on the radio gameshow. One set of stakes with high tension is traded for a completely different set of relatively lower stakes. I try not to mind showstoppers, but they should at least make sense within the plot and pacing.

I’m not sure if it’s more the school of entertainment I’m used to or that I’m generally a “different things in separate compartments” kind of person, but I’ve never been exceptionally moved by variety. If I came for a story, I want a story. If I came for independent bits, I want independent bits. If I came for music, I want music. That’s not how this works, and it’s clear that that’s not how it’s supposed to work. I’m sure it works well by its own standard, I just don’t like that style of putting a movie together, and I keep forgetting that that’s the style that used to exist. So I didn’t have as much fun as I wanted to have, but it was fun.

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