Buck Privates (1941) – A Review
It’s comedy and music at the dawn of WWII.
The 1940 peacetime draft is on as it looks like Uncle Sam will be needing millions of good men very soon. Making a panicked escape from an angry policeman, street peddlers Slicker Smith (Bud Abbott) and Herbie Brown (Lou Costello) inadvertently sign up to the army and bring along their verbal and physical comedy with them.
How ironic is it that their sergeant that they’ll be training under is the same cop that was chasing them!
Among the draftees is a spoiled rich guy (Lee Bowman) who is looking to get out of the army and back to his cushy life. His former put upon valet (Alan Curtis), who has also been drafted, is enjoying their now equal status. Then a pretty camp hostess (Jane Frazee) shows up, turns both their heads and they compete for her attention.
And all this comedy and romance is broken up by the famous Andrew Sisters singing some of their most popular wartime hits, including ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’.
This was not only on the cusp of the United States entering WWII, which was less than a year away when Buck Privates was first released, but also the start of Bud and Lou’s popular film career. Buck Privates was the second movie they had appeared in and subsequently it would become one of the biggest hits of the year. It catapulted them to big-screen super-stardom after which they would make over two dozen movies together in the next fifteen years.
And this is a good one. There’s a very standard story of the love triangle between Bowman, Curtis and Frazee. It’s adequate, but there’s nothing that will make you remember much of it – at least I didn’t. A lot of the old comedies with classic comedians have what I always thought of as ‘the slow parts’. Which is while the funny men are off-screen more traditional looking leading actors step in and a side story – usually a romance – takes place. There’s typically some musical interludes and it fills up time until the comedy stars show back up again.
I might be sounding a bit cynical with this, but I know I’m not alone with my boredom of these ‘slow parts’. I’m watching for the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello. Maybe these sections of the movies went over well with audiences back then, but today when I watch them they’re the ‘slow parts’ and it’s the scenes I want to fast forward through.
In Buck Privates these particular scenes aren’t all bad and don’t grind things to a halt like I might have thought. I actually started to enjoy watching Bowman’s spoiled arrogance and Frazee’s coolness towards him at the start. Gradually Bowman has a change of heart about his patriotic duty to the army and wanting to prove himself to his fellow soldiers, which wins him the respect of Cutis, Frazee and the men. It’s not bad.
But the real draw to the movie is of course Bud and Lou. The movie is mainly a series of vignettes of basic training with Lou goofing up, getting into trouble and Bud instigating his hapless pals problems. It’s good stuff.
A lot of their scenes seem to be just bits that were taken from their act and incorporated into the army setting. Most of them, like the dice game, the ‘being in love with a little girl’ convo, could have been set anywhere. The famous drill instruction bit is really the big scene exclusive to them being privates in the army. The rest are just sort of dropped in, but that doesn’t mean it makes them any less funny.
While I might complain about the musical scenes in old comedies, here The Andrews Sisters are great to watch. The music and dancing is a lot of fun. Those scenes in particular takes you back to that era when patriotism and rallying everyone to fight was of the utmost importance. The movie does a great job sending that message, along with providing laughs from Bud and Lou.