Okay, kids, sing along with Uncle Phil: “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, Abbott and Costello sleep tonight. Near the jungle, the quiet jungle, Abbott and Costello sleep…”
Yeah, I know. That’s not how the song goes. But it does help introduce this week’s bootleg favorite, the 1949 safari comedy “Africa Screams.”
By the late 1940s, Abbott and Costello’s movie stardom was beginning to wane. Aside from the success of “Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein” in 1948, the duo’s movies were increasingly stale, repetitive and dull. Even their studio, Universal Pictures, sought to outsource their mediocrity with loan-outs to smaller production companies: in 1948 to the tiny Eagle-Lion Studios for “The Noose Hangs High” and in 1949 to the independent Nassour Films for “Africa Screams.”
“Africa Screams” finds Abbott and Costello as clerks in a New York department store. A wealthy society lady named Diana Emerson (Hillary Brooke) comes in one day inquiring after an out-of-print book called “Dark Africa.” Abbott, in an inane scheme which could only happen in the movies, convinces this lady that Costello is a big game hunter who was part of the “Dark Africa” expedition. (Costello’s character in the film is called Stanley Livingston, a truly weak African exploration joke.) Abbott and Costello create a bogus map of Africa for Diana, but wind up being forced to join her in a safari intended to uncover a cache of diamonds held by the hostile Ubangi tribe.
The safari consists of Abbott and Costello, Diana and her henchmen: two dimwitted grapplers (the boxers Max and Buddy Baer), a myopic sharpshooter (Shemp Howard) and a whiny effeminate character whose exact purpose is never clear (Joe Besser). In Africa, the group encounters lion tamer Clyde Beatty, who is searching for legendary ape Gargantua. There is also an extremely friendly gorilla who follows Costello everywhere, a crocodile who tries to take a bite out of Costello’s considerable backside, and a tribe of cannibals who invite Abbott and Costello to dinner – with the comics actually being the dinner. When Gargantua the giant ape crashes the party, these African cannibals turn white with fright (and that’s probably the single unfunniest thing to happen in any Abbott and Costello movie).
For the most part, it isn’t. “Africa Screams” is basically a hodgepodge of hackneyed gags tied around a lame riff on jungle adventure movies. Basic comic routines which appeared in numerous Abbott and Costello films are recycled here with a jungle motif. But the results are inevitably the same.
For instance: in the middle of the jungle, Abbott, Costello and Diana are at a table having a meal. Costello is seated opposite the other two, and behind them emerges a gorilla from the dense bush. While his tablemates are engaged in a thoroughly banal conversation, the gorilla stands menacingly at Costello, who becomes terrified to the point he cannot speak. He tries to attract the attention of the others by gesticulating wildly and making staccato gasps. When he finally gets his voice and tries to point out the gorilla, the creature disappears back into the bush. Costello’s companions look about in vain to confirm what he is describing, insist he is mistaken and go back to their conversation. Then the gorilla reappears and the sequence happens again. And again. And again.
Later on, Costello tries to prove his courage by having Abbott dress up in a gorilla costume (don’t ask where they got one). But when the real gorilla arrives, Abbott faints and Costello begins to bully the gorilla around – not realizing it is the genuine ape. He even locks himself in a cage with the gorilla and blithely tosses the key away. Abbott shows up, and Costello requires a minute to realize just what he has gotten himself into before he starts to bawl in a wildly exaggerated manner.
The gorilla itself has a fascinating backstory. In the original screenplay, the gorilla was female and fell in love with Costello. The Breen Office censors who controlled Hollywood’s output nixed that under the belief that it would condone bestiality. Thus, the gorilla’s gender was changed to male – the idea of a gay interspecies attraction was apparently less threatening than heterosexual relations across the species line.
And the gorilla was played by Charlie Gemora, who actually made a career out of playing gorillas in movies. In fact, he went ape for other comedy teams including the Marx Brothers in “At the Circus” and the Ritz Brothers in (what else?) “The Gorilla.” Some sloppy film writers credited Gemora with playing King Kong in the 1933 classic, and Gemora himself reportedly gave an interview taking credit for being the simian from Skull Island.
Abbott and Costello trivia buffs will recognize several cast members as being associated with duo’s more satisfying ventures. Shemp Howard appeared in their first three starring productions, and his return was somewhat surprising as Costello reportedly feared Shemp’s ability to steal scenes. Hillary Brooke and Joe Besser would work with the team memorably three years later on their television sitcom “The Abbott and Costello Show.” And Three Stooges fans obviously know this was the only time Shemp Howard and Joe Besser were in the same movie (Besser would replace Howard in the Three Stooges after the latter’s death in 1955).
“Africa Screams” was released by United Artists in 1949. It played on a double bill with “Love Happy,” the last feature starring the Marx Brothers. Abbott and Costello had elbowed out the Marx Brothers as the predominant comedy team of the 1940s, but by 1949 both groups were being pushed aside as Martin and Lewis began their stellar ascent with the film “My Friend Irma,” which significantly outgrossed this anemic double-bill. It is easy to see why, as “Africa Screams” and “Love Happy” are among the least entertaining comedies of their era.
Nassour Films went out of business shortly afterwards and the rights to “Africa Screams” fell into limbo. For years, the movie was unavailable for viewing; in his definitive 1975 biography “The Abbott and Costello Book,” film scholar Jim Mulholland rued that “Africa Screams” was the sole movie from the comics that was not in television syndication.
Today, however, it is impossible not to fall over “Africa Screams.” As a public domain title, there are endless bootleg dupes circulating on video, DVD and in online film presentations. It’s even available for downloading into the new video iPods. If that’s not bad enough, two different colorized versions of the movie were released on home video.
Some DVD distributors paired “Africa Screams” with another public domain title starring Abbott and Costello: “Jack and the Beanstalk” (which has been covered in an earlier Bootleg Files column). It is a cruel irony that the worst of Abbott and Costello are too easily available for bootleg fans.
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 January 20, 2006 in Features by Phil Hall
If you liked this article then you may also like the following Film Threat articles:
- THE BOOTLEG FILES: “AFRICA SCREAMS”
- THE BOOTLEG FILES: “JACK AND THE BEANSTALK”
- THE BOOTLEG FILES: “BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA”
- WHO IS ON FIRST?
- THE BOOTLEG FILES: ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET CAPTAIN KIDD
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