Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Abbott & Costello Double Feature: Africa Screams/Jack & the Beanstalk: Madacy, fullscreen, languages: English Digital Mono, subtitles: none, double side-single layer, 16 chapters, rated NR, 157 min., $11.98, street date 3/30/99.
Starring Abbott & Costello, Hillary Brooke, Max Baer / Abbott & Costello, Dorothy Ford, Barbara Brown.
Like many in my generation, my familiarity with Abbott and Costello pretty much began and ended with "Who's on first". Based on that famous routine, I always figured they were mildly clever but not too funny; granted, it's hard to judge the actual humor of "Who's on first" because the bit has received such extensive replaying, but it just never seemed terribly entertaining or humorous to me.
As such, I didn't expect much from the Abbott and Costello DVD I borrowed from my father. It includes a double feature of 1949's Africa Screams and 1952's Jack and the Beanstalk. For one, Dad and I don't often see eye to eye on what's funny; he likes Woody Allen, I like SCTV. If he thought this program was amusing, chances were that I would disagree. (For the record, Dad got this DVD mainly because of his affection for Africa Screams; I don't know if he also likes Jack and the Beanstalk.)
However, the main reason I felt I would be bored with the A&C films stems from my belief that they just weren't terribly funny. No, I hadn't seen much of them, but I hadn't detected any reason to believe that they did anything I'd enjoy.
I was wrong. While I didn't find these films to be laugh riots, I thought they were both entertaining and decently funny. No guts were busted, but I laughed out loud a decent number of times, and for a grumpy curmudgeon like me, that's pretty impressive.
Lou Costello is the main attraction. He was clearly a terrific physical comedian, but not in the broad, stupid manner of the Three Stooges. No, he did great facial expressions and slow takes; he made his character a cartoon without being cartoony. I won't profess to be an expert on his skills after watching two movies, but I was quite impressed. Nearly all of the laughs in these movies stem from Costello's antics.
In a rare agreement with my father, I found Africa Screams to be easily the better of the two films. It's the more conventional comedy of the two, and it focusses more strongly on Abbott and Costello themselves. Their act didn't seem to vary much, but it worked tremendously well. Yeah, sometimes they repeated themselves unnecessarily, but most of the movie seemed witty and fun.
More ambitious but less successful is Jack and the Beanstalk. It retells the classic fable and makes it into a musical. It also diffuses the focus on A&C as it tosses in a prince and a princess to add some romance. No thanks; both the singing and the lovey-dovey are unnecessary and dull. The remainder of the film isn't all that great, either; Costello mines a few laughs as Jack but is actually funnier during the "modern day" segments that bookend the film. (Costello is supposed to be babysitting a boy; since Costello can't read well, the boy reads JATB to him and he fantasizes the action that we see in the movie.)
Chances are good that I won't become a big Abbott and Costello fan, but these films made me much more interested in them than I used to be. Both - but especially Africa Screams - offer some solid laughs and some very charming and entertaining performances, especially from Lou Costello.
Both Jack and the Beanstalk and Africa Screams appear in their original theatrical aspect ratios of 1.37:1 on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; since both are fullscreen presentations, they do not include enhancement for 16X9 televisions.
Without question, this is the worst DVD I've ever seen. Though both films look terrible, Jack is easily worse. It's a complete failure on all visual levels. The print used is in horrible shape; a wide variety of flaws - scratches, hairs, marks, spots, speckles, grain, and lines that run up and down the screen - permeate every second of this movie; they're absolutely relentless and unavoidable. The DVD probably features lots of digital artifacts as well, but the picture is so mucked up with other flaws that I couldn't tell. The image even wobbles and shakes from time to time.
Jack starts and ends in black and white, but most of the film is in color. Not very good color, though; hues look consistently washed out and pale. From the appearance of the film, you'd think it had been colorized - and colorized poorly, for that matter - but that's not the case; this sucker was always color. I can't imagine the original image looked anything like this, though.
Black levels are overly heavy and opaque; this problem occurs during both the black and white and color segments. Examine anyone with dark hair, and you'll see that their hair invariably looks like a big black blob. Shadow detail is hazy and weak.
While I refer to the black and white scenes, those segments are billed as being "sepiatone." Well, maybe that's how they were shot, but they look black and white now. There's no evidence of any sepia tint to the film.
Sharpness isn't terrible, though it doesn't seem good, either. Again, it's hard to tell how sharp the image is because it's obscured by so much gunk; it appears to be somewhat hazy but not horribly so, but that's just a guess. Anyway you cut it, Jack and the Beanstalk offers easily the ugliest and least watchable image I've seen on a DVD. Actually, I've seen bootleg VHS tapes that easily surpass this monstrosity; I'd be hard pressed to think of any form of video I've viewed that looks worse than this DVD.
Africa Screams provides an image that is easily superior to that of Jack, but don't take that as an endorsement; it also looks pretty terrible. Ironically, while sharpness was the strength (such as it was) of Jack, it's the low point of AS. The picture consistently seems very soft and fuzzy. Every once in a while I saw a shot that looked pretty decent - always close-ups - but those are the rare exceptions; everything else appears badly out of focus.
Surprisingly, the print used wasn't that bad. It seemed grainy and worn but it lacked the onslaught of scratches and marks I saw on Jack. Similar flaws pop up on occasion, but not terribly frequently. Artifacts seemed present to a degree, but the general haziness of the overall picture made it difficult to discern their existence. For a brief period during one scene, an odd green line appeared at the top of the screen; it stayed there for about a minute and then went home.
Black levels seemed fairly dense but not as heavy as those of Jack. Yes, that hair-helmet syndrome still occurred, but the tones appeared more natural and not nearly as oppressive. Shadow detail remained pretty weak and thick, though still superior to anything we saw in Jack.
Since I clear found AS to offer an image far superior to that of Jack, you may wonder why there's such a small difference in letter ratings. Yes, there doesn't seem to be much of a gap between an "F" and a "D-", but the fact is that an "F" doesn't adequately summarize how bad Jack looks. If anything lower than an "F" existed, I'd award that to Jack, but I guess I'll have to stick with it.
Both films offer poor mono audio that's consistently a little better than each movie's picture, but not by much. Note that both soundtracks are loud; when I loaded the DVD, I quickly had to rush to the TV to crank down the volume from its normal spot.
Again, Jack is the lower quality of the two movies. The sound seems very harsh and strident and is almost always distorted; a great deal of crackling can be heard on this track. Bizarrely, the audio also appears dull and lifeless; how something can be flat and edgy at the same time is a mystery, but this soundtrack accomplishes it. Music and effects are the worst offenders - they seem paper-thin - but dialogue also suffers badly. The only reason I refrained from giving the soundtrack of Jack an "F" is that as terrible as it sounded, I could usually understand what the actors said, so I couldn't call it a complete failure.
Africa Screams suffers from some of the same problems but to a lesser degree. Distortion occurs pretty frequently, but not with any near the virtual constancy of the audio from Jack. Audio seems pretty dull and flat, but maintains a semblance of naturalness in the dialogue and we even hear some decent low end at times. It's a bad track, but it's not completely horrible.
This DVD is so bad that it couldn't even present monaural sound correctly! A problem that occurs during both films is the "floating mono" effect. By that I mean that the audio is always monaural but that doesn't mean the sound emanates from the center, which would be much too logical. No, it comes from the middle at times, but it also flies around the front; the right side occasionally dominates, but it's usually the left that carries the day. In fact, most of the second half of AS offers audio that sounds like it's coming from a spot about three-fourths of the way between the center and left channels (with it being closer to the left speaker). Why is this? Damned if I know.
Actually, I have a theory. I suspect both films were transferred from videotapes; many of the audio problems and some of the video issues - like that green line during AS - seem similar to tracking errors seen on videotapes. The wobbliness of the video also resembled the effect noticed on a worn-out tape. I don't know for certain this is the truth, but it would sure make sense.
This DVD evens mucks up its extras and access menus. The folks at Madacy who mastered it were too lazy to bother with sensible, logical chapter stops. Instead, each film has a predefined interval for each chapter; those of Jack last ten minutes and nine seconds, and those of AS go for nine minutes and 49 seconds. It doesn't matter in the least that each new chapter begins right in the middle of a scene - or even a line! That's the way they are, and that's that! This stupid decision basically eliminates the entire purpose of chapters, but that's okay, since this program essentially eliminates the entire purpose of DVDs.
It gets dumber. A number of supplements appear. There are brief biographies of both Abbott and Costello plus a filmography for the two. Nine different Abbott and Costello "facts" are included; these are an odd collection of both the whimsical and the tragic. A trivia game provides ten questions about various A&C films; a correct answer gets "rewarded" by a happy clip from Jack whereas a mistake is "punished" by a scene of a snapping crocodile from AS.
All of this is well and good. None of the extras is very special, but they're generally okay and are actually much more than I would have expected from this crummy offering. The weird part stems from the execution of these pieces. In a sane world, the same supplements would be included on both sides of the DVD. But of course, that would make sense, so it can't happen on this disc.
As such, the different supplements are split between the two sides. Abbott's biography is on the AS side while Costello's appears with Jack. Each side includes five different trivia questions. One side gives us a filmography for 1940-46 whereas the other reveals the remainder of their careers. Each side features four exclusive "facts" while both relate the origin of Costello's "I'm a bad boy" catchphrase. The DVD clearly provides enough space for all of the supplements to appear on each side, so why split them up this way? That's yet another mystery.
The biggest mystery would be why anyone who reads what I wrote would buy this piece of trash. It's a shame that this DVD is so terrible because both of the movies are fun and entertaining, and the package is awfully inexpensive. I also suppose that it's possible these movies look as good as ever; I have no idea if previous releases appeared equally bad or even worse.
Nonetheless, I sincerely hope that anyone potentially interested in this DVD will pass on it. To buy this disc sends the message that quality doesn't matter and studios can foist upon us whatever horrible transfers they wish. Jack and the Beanstalk and Africa Screams may never receive the restoration they clearly need, but there's a better chance of it happening if consumers refuse to accept dreck like this. Avoid this DVD at all costs.
Note: while the comments in this review refer to the Madacy DVD that includes both Jack and the Beanstalk and Africa Screams and lists for $11.98, be warned that a number of different DVD editions of each of these films exists. A stop by Image Entertainment's home page showed five different versions of AS and three different copies of JATB. (These numbers both include the double-sided DVD from Madacy I reviewed plus another Madacy edition that provided the movies on two separate discs.) I have no idea if the non-Madacy DVDs are any better than this one, but let the buyer beware; it's clear that these are public domain titles, and since all of the distributors involved are "no names," I wouldn't expect much from them.
Current as of 1/8/2000
The Abbott and Costello Home Page--"The families of Bud and Lou want to welcome you to the official Abbott & Costello Home Page. In conjunction with the Abbott & Costello Fan Club, it is our goal to help bring you the latest news and information."
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