THE BOOTLEG FILES: “JACK AND THE BEANSTALK”

I would like to start this week’s Bootleg Files column with a public statement of my support for the legalization of marijuana and a plea for those reading this column to write to their elected officials requesting that marijuana sales become legalized. This statement is not being made not as admission of my personal vices, but rather as a public service in regard to this week’s feature film, the 1952 Abbott and Costello fantasy “Jack and the Beanstalk.” You see, it is impossible for any adult to watch this film without the protection of having one’s senses lulled into reefer madness by the best of Colombia’s cannabis crop.

For those who approach “Jack and the Beanstalk” without the aid of a joint, good luck. This film was designed for the kiddie matinee audiences of a half-century ago, though it is hard to imagine any self-respecting tyke falling for this bizarre movie. Stone cold sober adults may have a hard time enduring this flick, too. As for Abbott and Costello fans, they’ve written this off ages ago.

“Jack and the Beanstalk” begins like a typical black-and-white Abbott and Costello comedy. The duo are unemployed bumblers who somehow get work as babysitters. They arrive together at their first client’s home, though one needs to pause and ask why two adults are required for this particular line of work, since there is only one child to watch. The kid is a bratty boy who asks Costello to read “Jack and the Beanstalk” as a bedtime story. Costello tries but cannot overcome the verbiage of the book, requiring the little boy to take the book and read aloud. If adult illiteracy is your idea of humor, then you are in the right film.

Costello falls asleep during the reading and dreams he is Jack in the story. The film abruptly switches to color, not unlike “The Wizard of Oz.” But whereas the MGM classic uses gorgeous Technicolor to call attention to its brilliant concept of the land over the rainbow, “Jack and the Beanstalk” uses the cheap Super Cinecolor process which poorly enhances the tacky art design and only calls attention to the film’s very low budget.

Unlike “Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein,” which deftly mixed the monster genre with the Abbott and Costello knockabout, “Jack and the Beanstalk” adheres very closely to the original fairy tale. Whatever subversive humor Abbott and Costello possessed was lost in this by-the-numbers approach. Yet there is also a big problem here: Jack in the original tale was a dumb but plucky boy, whereas Costello was 46 years old during production. The sight of a fat middle-aged man acting the part of a dimwitted child is too painful to consider. Abbott came across somewhat easier as the conniving butcher who sells Jack the magic beans. He is given a flowing wig which makes him look like a “Let it Be”-era Beatle and a sour moniker (Mr. Dinklepuss) to match his gruff demeanor. But Abbott clearly had no interest in this project and often appears to be distracted over something not connected to the madness at hand.

The comics eventually tangle with the giant (boxing champ Buddy Baer) and help liberate an imprisoned prince and princess (James Alexander and Shaye Cogan). The latter pair express their love by singing some of the worst songs ever shoehorned into a movie. At times, they are actually funnier than Abbott and Costello. There is also a giant housekeeper (Dorothy Ford) who engages Costello in a slapstick dance. This number was ripped off from the 1942 Abbott and Costello classic “Hold That Ghost,” which was funnier as Costello’s dance partner was the underappreciated Joan Davis, a truly talented comedienne. Dorothy Ford, in comparison, had no talent.

There is an inevitable chase involving the whole cast, a pursuit down the beanstalk, the chopping of the oversized vegetation, a musical number celebrating the giant’s demise and the return to the black-and-white babysitting scenario (remember that?) where Costello gets fired for sleeping on the job. The only thing missing, of course, is a single genuine laugh.

Incredibly, “Jack and the Beanstalk” was a big box office hit, not only in the U.S. but also in the U.K. (oh, those Brits!). This bode well for Costello, who backed the film through his Exclusive Productions for distribution through Warner Bros. But almost immediately, things went very wrong for the film.

In 1954, the company that designed Super Cinecolor went out of business. Costello died in 1959 and neither his estate nor Warner Bros. remembered to renew the film’s copyright. The film lapsed into the public domain, making it a target for any cinematic bootlegger. But these pirates of the 24fps scene had little to work with: the original negative and black-and-white separations were lost and for years the film was only available in a completely black-and-white print. An original preview print was eventually located and was poorly copied onto 16mm film stock. This was the source of the endless bad dupes which littered the market for years. The original preview print has never been restored, since there is no perceived value thanks to the high volume of cheap bootlegs.

Videos and DVDs of “Jack and the Beanstalk” have long been considered among the worst bootleg offering, at least in terms of visual quality. The Roan Group has a DVD which is the best visual quality on the market; it is sold by those sons of fun at Troma (http://store.troma.com/index.php?SCREEN=item&item=1498), though perhaps someday Troma could consider its own version of “Jack and the Beanstalk” (but let’s leave that thought for another day).

Abbott and Costello are fondly remembered today for their fast and funny comedy routines and for some of the most entertaining comedies produced in the 1940s. Outside of diehard bootleg video fans, no one in their right mind recalls “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Though if you follow my advice and watch the film through a marijuana haze, everything will be copacetic and the pain will not be felt.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on July 23, 2004 in Features by
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