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Africa Screams

Africa Screams(1949)

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Africa Screams (1949) is easily the funniest of the independently-produced movies that Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made. That's probably an easy proclamation to make; the team shot most of their films during their association with major studios, especially Universal Pictures. Bud and Lou's other independent features included two oddball color movies distributed by Warner Brothers, Jack and the Beanstalk and Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (both 1952), a nondescript film for Eagle-Lion, The Noose Hangs High (1948), and their last feature, Dance with Me Henry (1956), distributed by United Artists. Africa Screams fell through the cracks to such an extent that it was not listed in Bud and Lou's filmography in the first edition of Leonard Maltin's book Movie Comedy Teams in 1970. Just a few years later, however, Africa Screams fell into the Public Domain, and began to appear constantly on late-night TV. For Abbott and Costello fans, if none of your local UHF channels carried The Abbott and Costello Show sitcom reruns or had the rights to the Universal package of feature films, then at least good old Africa Screams could be seen in the wee hours of the morning, along with other Public Domain standbys like Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946), John Wayne's Angel and the Badman (1947), and Bob Hope's My Favorite Brunette (1947). Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Africa Screams appeared on dozens of labels in VHS, often in murky, almost unwatchable editions.

As it turns out, Africa Screams itself is worthy of an upgrade from the years of PD viewing. The plot launches through a typical Costello situation: Buzz Johnson (Bud) and Stanley Livingston (Lou) work in a department store and field questions about an out-of-print book called Dark Safari. Stanley tells the inquiring hoodlums that he has memorized and can recreate a map that was in the book. The map, which details diamond mines in the Congo, is desired by the wealthy Diana Emerson (Hillary Brooke). Emerson has already hired the famous African explorer Clyde Beatty to take her through the Dark Continent, but she falls for Stanley's story and takes him and Buzz along on the expedition. In Africa, Buzz figures out that Stanley has no idea about the map, so they stall to save their necks. Along the way, the group encounters native cannibals, lions, crocodiles, and big game hunter Frank Buck, who is seeking a rare, gigantic orangutan. The movie offers the expected stagebound "jungle" with tame lions, rubber crocs, and men-in-a-gorilla-suit menaces. Lou gets to go through a wonderful grouping of reaction shots; Costello honed the Scared Take into a fine art, and as in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), he has plenty of opportunity to show off here.

Africa Screams has a dizzying number of familiar character actors and guest stars. Aside from Clyde Beatty and Frank Buck as themselves, guest stars include heavyweight boxers Max and Buddy Baer and, best of all, two "Third Stooges": Joe Besser appears as Harry, another member of the expedition (watch for the great "My tent's on fire" gag), and Shemp Howard is Gunner, a horribly nearsighted trail guide! The orangutans and gorillas (little distinction is made in the film, of course) are played by career-gorilla-player Charles Gemora. Besser and co-star Hillary Brooke, of course, would go on to be featured players on The Abbott and Costello Show on TV.

A niche market seems to have sprung up among DVD buyers – one which is willing to pay a bit more for the "definitive" edition of a movie available previously only in Public Domain Theater. Image Entertainment's release boasts a new transfer which they state is "Mastered from the original 35mm camera negative." It retails for about four times the price of an average PD copy (maybe more – you can probably buy a copy of Africa Screams at the Dollar Store), and it is worth it. I'm not sure if the transfer is actually from the camera negative or an internegative – there is the slightest hint of a boost in contrast, with a whiting-out of some of the brightest spots in the picture. But overall, the picture is sharp and the print used is immaculate. The sound is also nearly flawless.

An earlier Laserdisc edition of Africa Screams also contained some outtake footage, and it would have been nice to have seen that bonus feature retained here, but for the basic needs of having the film on DVD, it would be hard to beat this version.

For more information about Africa Screams, visit Image Entertainment. To order Africa Screams, go to TCM Shopping.

by John M. Miller