Who Done It?
Cast & Crew
Erle C. Kenton
Colonel J. R. Andrews, the executive director of the General Broadcasting System, is examined by physician Dr. Anton Marek, who worries that the radio executive is working too hard. Later, Andrews and producer Jane Little decide to hire trouble-making writer Marco Heller for their "Murder at Midnight" show. Also applying for a job on that show is ex-college professor Jimmy Turner. When Jimmy learns that Jane, an ex-student of his, is the producer of the show, he refuses the position, thinking that it is a "hand-out." Meanwhile, would-be radio writers Chick Larkin and Mervyn Milgrim work as soda jerks at a nearby soda fountain. When they learn that customer Juliet Collins is Andrews' secretary, Chick insists that Mervyn make a "play" for Juliet, in hopes that it might lead to work at GBS. When that fails, the two meet Jimmy, who gives them tickets to the "Murder at Midnight" broadcast that night. Andrews arrives late at the broadcast, having been detained on "government business," and dies suddenly at the beginning of the show. Chick and Mervyn rush out to call the police, then decide to solve the case themselves, confident that they will be hired at GBS if they do. The two return to the studio, pretending to be policemen, and, with Jimmy's assistance, discover that Andrews did not die of a heart attack, as originally diagnosed by Marek, but was murdered by electrocution. Chick and Mervyn leave the studio just as police detectives Lieutenant Moran and Brannigan arrive. Moran and Brannigan learn from Jane that Andrews had been talking to the FBI the day before his death, while Jimmy, Marco and Marek each offer motives for the others committing the crime. Later, when the policemen discover Chick and Mervyn searching Andrews' office, they think the two soda jerks are the murderers. The real murderer, however, is looking for Chick and Mervyn, as they have his glove, which was mistakenly left behind at the murder scene. While hiding from the police, Mervyn discovers a murdered Marek in a closet. Mervyn and Chick go to the police, but the body disappears before their return. Meanwhile, Jimmy and Jane search Andrews' office for clues. While Chick and Mervyn are chased by the police throughout the radio station, Jimmy and Jane discover a hidden file cabinet in the colonel's office, which contains secret codes with which foreign spies have sent messages overseas via the "America on the Air" broadcast. Andrews, they discover, had broken the code, so Jimmy re-writes the "Murder at Midnight" show for that evening, in hopes of catching the killer. Meanwhile, Chick and Mervyn finally escape from the station, only to return when Mervyn learns that he has won $10,000 on the "Wheel of Fortune" radio show. The two are arrested at the show by Moran and Brannigan, but later escape when Mervyn tricks Brannigan into putting on his own handcuffs. During the midnight broadcast, the real murderer, Art Fraser, is exposed, but he manages to escape. Meanwhile, Chick and Mervyn try to hide on the roof of the GBS building as the police search the premises, where they discover Fraser hiding there as well. After nearly being shot and stabbed to death, Mervyn is chased up the transmission tower by Fraser, only to fall on the spy when a broadcast sends 200,000 watts through his body. Chick and Mervyn are congratulated by all for capturing Fraser, though they are surprised that Mervyn was not electrocuted in doing so. In turn, Mervyn is shocked when he discovers that he can now turn on a lightblub by simply holding it in his hand.
Erle C. Kenton
Jerry Franks Jr.
Bernard B. Brown
R. A. Gausman
A. J. Gilmore
Charles Van Enger
Who Done It? (1942)
Released on November 6, 1942, Who Done It? rounded out Abbott and Costello's career-making year. In this spoof of murder mysteries, Bud Abbott stars as Chick Larkin and Lou Costello is Mervyn Milgrim, two aspiring radio writers who get pulled into a real murder case when the director of a radio station is killed during a broadcast of "Murder at Midnight." Helping to solve the case is program producer Jane Little, played by Louise Allbritton, and Jimmy Turner, played by Patric Knowles; Jane and Jimmy's romance simmers among the murder clues. Mary Wickes appears in a handful of scenes as a secretary who verbally spars with Costello.
As a vehicle written especially for them, Who Done It? spotlights Abbott and Costello's trademark rapid-fire verbal patter and knockabout physical humor. The team had honed their craft in burlesque, rather than vaudeville where many of Hollywood's other musical and comedy performers had gotten their starts. William Alexander Abbott (Bud) first appeared as a straight man in a burlesque show in 1923, while Louis Francis Cristillo (Lou Costello) joined the circuit as a comic four years later. Both quickly learned the standard comedy routines that were part of burlesque at the time. The stock routines allowed comics to work interchangeably with any number of partners as need arose. Before television or radio, which disseminated comic material on a large scale, comedy routines were standardized, and many individual comics and teams performed the same material.
Abbott and Costello worked together occasionally during the 1930s but did not officially team up till 1936. They adopted personas familiar to burlesque audiences at the time: Straight man Abbott was the fast-talking schemer who would verbally badger his sidekick, Costello, who was the child-like patsy perpetually duped by the world. They perfected burlesque routines that depended on animated exchanges and colorful miscommunications delivered with exquisite timing.
When the team moved to Hollywood to star in movie vehicles tailored to their talents, they brought their finely tuned routines with them, in effect preserving them for posterity. In Who Done It?, they performed "Watts and Volts," a sketch involving verbal miscommunication reminiscent of "Who's on First?" Chick tries to explain electricity to Mervyn, noting that "volts are watts." The confused Mervyn asks, "What's volts?" to which Chick replies, "Exactly." The routine concludes with a nod toward "Who's on First?" when Mervyn tells Chick, "Next thing you know, you'll be telling me watts on second base." "Watts and Volts" was not actually in the script. Abbot and Costello inserted the routine into a designated scene, performing it from memory. They knew the routine so well that it was shot in a single take.
Abbott and Costello adlibbed several routines and lines throughout the film, though sometimes their efforts interfered with the slim plot line. In a scene in which Mervyn tries to woo Mary Wickes's character, Juliet, their dialogue was supposed to advance the story while comically referencing lines from Romeo and Juliet. But, the dialogue spoken by Costello and Wickes must have been dubbed over later, because the movements of Wickes's mouth do not match the lines heard onscreen, and their exchange is surprisingly low on laughs.
Other burlesque routines in Who Done It? include "Limburger," which makes use of pantomime and props. In the opening sequence, Chick and Mervyn are working as soda jerks at the station's lunch counter. A customer orders a limburger cheese sandwich, but the cheese is so malodorous that Mervyn can't force himself to fulfill the order. He finally delivers the sandwich wearing a gas mask. When Chick pulls the mask off his face, Mervyn has a clothes pin on his nose for good measure.
Abbott and Costello's working methods may have suited the immediacy of the burlesque stage, but they were not always compatible with the rigors of movie-making. The team ad libbed lines and inserted established routines into the existing material wherever they felt it might work, usually without consulting the writer or director. Costello disliked doing more than one take and often insisted the camera continue to roll from one scene to the next, rather than to stop and assess the suitability of a finished take. Subsequently, the pair did not always get along with their costars or the creative team. Patric Knowles did not want to appear in Who Done It?, because Abbott and Costello had been in burlesque. He feared it would lower his cachet as an established actor. Erle C. Kenyon, a veteran of American comedy who began his career as a performer for Mack Sennett's Keystone Studio, directed five films with Abbott and Costello. According to Chris Costello in her biography of her father, Kenyon and Lou were not on good terms during the production of Who Done It?, because neither Costello nor Abbott would not listen to Kenyon's instructions. Likewise, Costello and producer Alex Gottlieb did not see eye to eye over working methods. Gottlieb considered the comic's attitude toward work to be too informal, even lax. His frustrations over the Abbott and Costello film series led the producer to quit Universal the following year.
If 1942 was a career highlight, the following year proved to be profoundly unlucky, especially for Costello. In March 1943, he fell ill with rheumatic fever, which confined him to bed for several months. Upon recovery, he and Abbott decided to make their return to the spotlight on their radio program, The Abbott and Costello Show. During the final rehearsal on the day of the show, Costello received word that his son, Lou Costello, Jr., drowned in the family pool. He was forever changed by both events: He never got over the death of his one-year-old son, and he suffered permanent damage to his heart from the rheumatic fever. In a way, both events broke his heart.
by Susan Doll
Producer: Alex Gottlieb
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Screenplay: Stanley Roberts, Edmund Joseph, and John Grant
Cinematography: Charles Van Enger
Editor: Arthur Hilton and Philip Cahn
Art Direction: Jack Otterson
Music: Charles Previn and Frank Skinner
Costume: Vera West
Cast: Chick Larkin (Bud Abbott), Mervyn Milgrim (Lou Costello), Jimmy Turner (Patric Knowles), Lieutenant Moran (William Gargan), Jane Little (Louise Allbritton), Colonel J.R. Andrews (Thomas Gomez), Brannigan (William Bendix), Art Fraser (Don Porter), Marco Heller (Jerome Cowan), Juliet Collins (Mary Wickes), Dr. Anton Marek (Ludwig Stossel), Jenkins (Edmund MacDonald)
Who Done It? (1942)
The Best of Abbott and Costello, Volume One
So why the popularity? Because Abbott & Costello had a type of goofy charm that comes through no matter what the circumstances and at their best were undeniable masters of comic dialogues. Good evidence can be found in the new DVD set The Best of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Volume 1 which contains their first eight feature films from 1940 to 1942 (the only one missing from that period is Rio Rita, presumably to be included in the next set). Better yet the entire package has a list price of $24.98 and despite such a budget price the films show crisp remastering and respect for detail. There are also some good though brief production notes included. The one drawback is that the discs and packaging don't tell you which side of which disc has a particular film; that information is only given on an insert.
In their first feature, One Night in the Tropics the duo are second-billed as a test for their screen abilities. They do manage to get off a couple of striking routines but it's the followup, Buck Privates (1941), that really showed what they could do. This is one of their best efforts, with the two unintentionally enlisting in the Army and the mayhem that results from that encounter; just imagine Lou trying to follow a drill sergeant's orders! With U.S. participation in the war looming, Abbott & Costello made two more service comedies that same year as morale boosters. In the Navy and Keep `Em Flying both follow the Buck Privates pattern though with enough fast and and snappy bits to keep things lively. Keep `Em Flying is particularly helped by the presence of ex-vaudeville comic/singer Martha Raye (who ironically enough was in real life afraid of flying).
Other Abbott & Costello films tend to present a high concept situation where the boys are let loose. Thus you'll find them in a haunted house (Hold That Ghost), a dude ranch (Ride `Em Cowboy), the South Seas (Pardon My Sarong) and a murder mystery (Who Done It?). None are classics even by A&C standards but generally work on sheer momentum. Hold That Ghost showcases a stream of sight gags (Lou's reactions to a mysteriously moving candle), twisting patter, peculiar characters and even songs courtesy of the Andrews Sisters. It's never more than the sum of its parts but most comedies don't even have parts that good. Still, an example of A&C at their weakest is Ride `Em Cowboy, one reason being because the team doesn't appear as often in it. Much of the time is instead given over to a tedious plot and lame singers, with the notable exception of a 25-year-old Ella Fitzgerald girlishly romping through her breakout hit "A-Tisket A-Tasket" (though unfortunately backed by a Hollywood orchestra instead of a jazz band).
Despite that film, it's hard to go wrong with a set at such a low price. Abbott & Costello won't appear on any future Sight and Sound polls but neither will they be forgotten.
. To order The Best of Abbott and Costello, Vol. 1, go to TCM Shopping.
by Lang Thompson
The Best of Abbott and Costello, Volume One
Some contemporary sources refer to the film as Whodunit? Hollywood Reporter reported in May 1941 that writers Stanley Roberts and Edmund Joseph were working on the treatment for the film, which was then planned as the follow-up to Abbott and Costello's Ride 'Em, Cowboy (see entry above). This film, however, was not produced until the completion of another Abbott and Costello film, Pardon My Sarong (see entry above). According to a Hollywood Reporter news item and Hollywood Reporter production charts, Philip Cahn was assigned to this picture as film editor, although onscreen credits and contemporary reviews list Arthur Hilton in that position. During the film's "Wheel of Fortune" sequence, Lou Costello's character "Mervyn Milgrim" wins a radio, as well as $10,000. When he turns the radio on, he is greeted with a segment from the famous Abbott and Costello routine, "Who's on First?" which he quickly turns off, stating that "Every time you hear those two guys, it's `Who's on first, who's on second.'" Modern sources report that, with the release of this film, Abbott and Costello became the top box office attraction in the United States.