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Screen villain Boris Karloff, bandleader Jimmy Dorsey, heavyweight boxing champion Max Baer, filmmaker Mack Sennett - these are just a few of the high profile celebrities to appear in the films of comedy team Abbott and Costello over the years. Yet, it was much rarer to find an Oscar® winning actor playing opposite the duo which is why Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952) is such a novelty. As the notorious pirate of the title, Charles Laughton attacks his role with relish, sending up his previous screen image as the cruel and sadistic Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty. (1935). He gets to raid English ships, double cross his rival Captain Bonney (Hillary Brooke), and constantly terrorize the boys on their way to Skull Island in search of buried treasure. He even gets a brief song solo in one of the film's opening production numbers. That's right, folks, it's a musical comedy.
The real mystery of Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd is Laughton's decision to appear in a low-budget Warner Bros. comedy second billed to Bud and Lou. Was he in a career rut or just slumming? Neither, actually, according to the film's producer, Alex Gottlieb, who was pressured by the comedy team to hire Laughton after the latter expressed an interest. "So I went to Boston, saw the play he [Laughton] was in, and went backstage," Gottlieb recounted (in Abbott and Costello in Hollywood by Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo). "I said, 'Tell me. Why would you, an Oscar®-winner and everything, why would you want to be in a picture with Abbott and Costello?' He said, 'You want to know why, honestly? I don't know how to do a double-take. I think I can learn from Lou.' Can you imagine? He said, 'This is a very funny man. You don't realize how talented Lou Costello is. '"
It was common knowledge among the cast and crew who worked regularly with Abbott and Costello that the duo had a loose, improvisational style of working that could be intimidating to seasoned professionals who faithfully followed the script. In fact, prior to shooting, co-star Hillary Brooke advised Laughton, 'You have to learn to work with Lou; he can't learn to work with you.' Instead of taking offense, Laughton took the suggestion to heart and learned to expect the unexpected. Director Charles Lamont later recalled that Laughton "was absolutely marvelous. You know, he wouldn't let a stuntman do his pratfalls for him. The first day he was on the set, Laughton saw Sailor Vincent dressed in a costume identical to his. 'Oh, no!' he yelled. 'I want to do my own pratfalls! That's why I'm making this picture. I want to be a buffoon!" I said 'Okay, it's your rear end" (from Abbott and Costello in Hollywood).
Despite his reputation for mostly serious roles, Laughton was no stranger to comedic characters, having delighted audiences in such films as Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) and The Canterville Ghost (1944). Stanley Cortez, the cinematographer of Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd, said "the idea of Charles Laughton playing Captain Kidd opposite Abbott and Costello in itself is a very funny concept. I had known Charles Laughton from a picture called The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1950). I know that Charles had a very good sense of humor, and he played right along with them, which doesn't happen very often."
Audiences and critics alike were most receptive to Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd when it opened theatrically. The Los Angeles Time wrote, "Charles Laughton is here, debuting in slapstick, and adds prodigiously to the fun and may be said to almost steal the picture," while Variety noted that "Laughton hams delightfully, thoroughly enjoying himself in abandoning longhair dramatics for low comedy." Nevertheless, admirers of Laughton's work in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Les Miserables (1935) or The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) may feel Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd is unworthy of his talent. But if you want to see the Oscar&-winning actor hit in the head with a shovel (twice), get doused with a bucketful of sea water or hung upside down from a ship's mast, this is a dream come true.
Producer: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Alex Gottlieb
Director: Charles Lamont
Screenplay: Howard Dimsdale, John Grant
Cinematography: Stanley Cortez
Film Editing: Edward Mann
Art Direction: Daniel Hall
Music: Raoul Kraushaar
Cast: Bud Abbott (Rocky Stonebridge), Lou Costello (Captain Feathergill), Charles Laughton (Capt. William Kidd), Hillary Brooke (Capt. Bonney), Fran Warren (Lady Jane), Bill Shirley (Bruce Martingale).
C-70m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford
Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952)
Though celebrated for his dramatic roles - in particular, his Academy Award-winning turn in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), his Oscar nominated performance as Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), and his sympathetic portrayal of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) - Charles Laughton was a born comedian, and an Abbott and Costello fan to boot. When the opportunity presented itself for Laughton to work with the manic ex-vaudevillians, producer Alex Gottlieb told screenwriter Howard Dunsdale "We got Laughton for Captain Kidd - can you come up with something?" Laughton had already played the historical figure in Rowland V. Lee's budget swashbuckler bio Captain Kidd (1945) and merely loosened up his interpretation (and lost the historically inaccurate Cockney accent) for Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952), a SuperCinecolor musical set during the days of high seas piracy. Though the classically trained Laughton initially had difficulty matching the rhythms of long-time improvisers Bud and Lou, he eventually learned to toss out the script and work the funny, enjoying this opportunity to play "the bloodthirstiest rogue in all the world." Laughton would borrow cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, for his directorial debut, The Night of the Hunter (1955), while the film's assistant director, Robert Aldrich, directed his first feature the following year, with the baseball drama Big Leaguer (1953).
By Richard Harland