One age old argument of classic cinema is the debate over who was the better comedy team; Laurel & Hardy or Abbott & Costello. It seems a bit ridiculous. Laurel & Hardy were from the late silent era and 1930s. Abbott & Costello were from the 1940s and early 1950s. Laurel & Hardy specialized in slapstick. Abbott & Costello specialized in verbal burlesque routines. The argument is almost as futile as debating apples vs oranges. So why are the two teams often compared to each other? For one they alone dominate the field of comedy duos. No others screen comedians have stayed together as a team as long, and unlike teams such as Martin & Lewis, neither team went on to successful solo careers that dwarfed their team projects. Television syndication was another factor.
Since Laurel & Hardy worked for Hal Roach studios for most of their career, that created the situation where most of their films could be sold as a block to the same syndicate and aired on a weekly basis. Universal was able to do the same with Abbott & Costello. Other teams did pictures for multiple studios, or for studios who were reluctant to syndicate all their films to television. And both teams worked almost exclusively in black & white films which sets them apart from the teams who worked in the late '50s and beyond releasing full color movies that defined their careers. Finally, the majority of the other successful comedy teams had more than two people. The Three Stooges were always a trio, replacing members as they retired or died off. The Marx Brothers were also a trio, originally beginning as a quartet with Zeppo in the 1930s. The East Side Kids/Bowery Boys had a large rotating cast. In other words Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello were more similar than different.
All four men began as stage performers, Laurel in music halls, Hardy in vaudeville, and Abbott & Costello in burlesque. Both Laurel and Hardy made the transition to the film industry in the 1910s when the now famous Hollywood studios were just beginning. Because of his large bulky size Hardy quickly became one of the leading heavies ( actors used primarily as villains in comedies ) while Laurel spent years groomed to be the next Chaplin. His films failing to be hits, Laurel settled for directing, and began working for his old friend Hal Roach. At Roach's studio Laurel was once again lured into acting in comedies supporting other comedians. There he was reintroduced to Oliver Hardy, who had years earlier acted as a heavy in one of Stan Laurel's solo films. Roach had recognized that Hardy had talents beyond being a heavy and had cast him as different supporting characters in many films.
In 1926 both Laurel and Hardy found themselves supporting comedian James Finlayson, but they worked so well together on film that Roach soon decided to try them out in their own series. This turned out to be a success and the team continued to work together making films for Roach until 1940. One of the first movies Laurel & Hardy made as a team was the classic Battle of the Century (1927) which is best remembered for the climatic pie fight with a cast of hundreds that ends the film. In it's first reel was a boxing match between Laurel and heavy Noah Young. Extras were hired as spectators, one of them being 20 year old Lou Costello who was at the time aspiring to be an actor. Costello found no work other than as an uncredited extra in several films, and not too soon after Battle of the Century decide to give up and return home. Running out of money when he reached Missouri, Costello soon found work as a stage comedian at a burlesque theater. Eventually deciding that he had a future as a burlesque comedian, he began touring the country, occasionally teaming with other burlesque comedians, and developing his character that began as a Dutch immigrant, but eventually ended up as an immature grown man. He met another burlesque comedian named Bud Abbott, and the two soon formed a successful team in 1936, one which made the transition to radio stars in the late '30s and were eventually given an offer by then struggling Universal Pictures to play a bit part in one of their romantic comedies.
1940 had become a pivotal year for both duos. Stan Laurel was through with working for Hal Roach. The problem came when Roach decided Laurel & Hardy should make the transition from comedy shorts, which in the 1930s were hardly making enough money to pay for their production, to full length features that were making a lot of money. After all, theaters were giving top billing the Laurel & Hardy shorts, but Roach was renting them for a fraction of what he could get for a feature film. The problem with full length features was that neither Laurel nor Roach could figure out how to pad them out. Laurel and his team of gagmen were use to coming up with 20 minutes of material per picture, now they needed at least 60 minutes. Roach's solution was musical numbers and the occasional sub plot with other characters.
Laurel hardly approved of this, and was at odds with Roach as the duo began doing more and more musicals. Things came to a head around the time Laurel & Hardy made Swiss Miss (1938), a movie where the sub plot of a composer and his wife and musical numbers took up most of the feature. Laurel owed one more picture and then his contract was up. Roach reminded him that Hardy still had two more years under contract with the studio, and once Laurel was gone he would team Hardy up with another comedian. When Laurel did leave Roach announced that Hardy would team up with former silent movie star Harry Langdon in the movie Zenobia (1939), although in that movie the two comedians hardly have any screen time together, and spend most of it in court fighting each other over an elephant. In late 1939 Laurel agreed to return to Roach studios for the remainder of Hardy's contract. There they made two more features and were lent out to R.K.O. for The Flying Deuces (1939). The two features made in 1940, A Chump at Oxford and Saps at Sea were originally planned as streamliners, an invention by Hal Roach where a 40 minute extended short was shot and sold to theaters to be shown as a double feature package. However, Roach ended up having Laurel & Hardy shoot extra footage to pad out each film to full feature length, making the pacing in both awkward. Meanwhile, while Laurel & Hardy were about to leave their former studio and bring their act back to the stage, Abbott & Costello were filming their screen debut.
One Night in the Tropics (1940) was really an Allan Jones and Robert Cummings film with Nancy Kelly and Peggy Moran. A combination farce and romantic comedy produced as a semi-musical. Robert was engaged to Kelly until ex girl friend Peggy shows up attempting to get Robert back. His friend Allan is an insurance salesman who not only never loses a bet, but has never sold a policy that has ever needed to be claimed. Allan suggests selling Robert love insurance. If he is not married by the end of the month then he will be able to claim millions. And since Allan has never had to pay out a policy, his lucky streak should insure that Robert and Nancy are wed before any claim can be made. Things do get complicated on a trip to a tropical island resort when Allan begins to fall for Nancy, and Robert begins to fall back in love with old flame Peggy. Making matters worse, the policy was being backed by a local gangster who wants to insure that Robert and Nancy are wed so he does not end up paying, and to do so he follows Robert and Allan to the tropics with his two henchmen.
Here is where Abbott and Costello come in. Given minor roles as the bumbling henchmen they both basically have very little to contribute to the plot. This was stunt casting, done by the studio to cash in on Abbott & Costello's fame and hopefully boost the box office. They do not even show up until a good twenty minutes into the film, and their scenes are very brief. But when they do show up they end up performing their best comedy routines, which at the time had been made popular from their radio broadcasts. For example, in one scene they walk past a car that is playing a baseball game over the radio. Abbott immediately begins to lecture Costello about baseball, and the two immediately begin performing an abbreviated version of their famous Who's On First sketch. Another has them passing a hot dog stand on the street which is an excuse to launch into their Mustard sketch. Many other popular sketches by the duo are shoehorned into the movie, which ruins the film's flow. On the other hand, audiences enjoyed Abbott and Costello's routines better than the rest of the movie. Universal was so impressed that they decided to sign them to a five year contract, and immediately rushed their first movie, Buck Privates(1941) into production.
In order to get an Abbott & Costello film into the theaters within two months Universal needed a pre-written script that would need only a few new scenes to include Bud and Lou's characters. In the original script a spoiled rich playboy and his chauffeur are both drafted into the army. Both men do not get along, especially when they both vie for the same girl. But in a true Hollywood ending, end up bonding during a war game. The new material written to include Abbott & Costello have them accidentally enlisting when they mistake a recruitment center for a movie theater. All four men end up in the same unit, but their story lines rarely intersect. Bud and Lou spend most of the film in formula basic training gags where they predictably find ways to irritate the drill Sergeant, or stopping to perform one of their signature comedy routines. But while once again being relegated to the B plot, this time their screen time is the majority of the film, even adding a rare musical number for Costello to sing in, while the scenes between the playboy and his former servant are cut down to the minimum.
Universal did plan on commissioning an original script specifically written for Abbott & Costello's second film. Hold That Ghost (1941) began with the scene where Lou watches a candle mysteriously move by itself across a table, something that does not happen when anyone else is watching, and from that premise expanded on the idea to create a script about a haunted house. Bud and Lou inherit an old abandoned house from a gangster, not realizing that he had hidden a fortune in stolen loot in the building, loot that other competing gangsters are also looking for. Bud and Lou along with a few other people end up spending the night in the creepy old house not realizing that it is gangsters that are haunting them. ( sorry, no ghosts. It would be another seven years before Abbott & Costello started meeting monsters. ) But Hold That Ghost would have to wait. While filming was completed on time, Buck Privates had become such a major hit that Universal decided to rush into production and release another service themed comedy starring Abbott & Costello. Once again digging through their archived unfilmed scripts they found what would become In The Navy (1941), a story about a popular singer who quits the business and evading the press and fans decides to enlist in the Navy under a pseudonym. On his trail, a persistent female reporter who ends up stowing away on his ship disguised as one of the sailors. Once again new scenes were written to include Abbott & Costello, including an impressive dream sequence where Lou impersonates the captain and nearly wrecks the ship. Once again Bud and Lou had very little to do with the actual lead plot of the movie.
The phenomenal success of Buck Privates had another effect, that after it's success all the major studios were looking to sign their own comedy team. 20th Century Fox decide that they needed their own equivalent of Abbott & Costello, and then realized that Laurel & Hardy were no longer under contract to Roach. While they continued to make a living performing on stage, Stan Laurel's agent had been shopping the duo around to all the major studios. The terms they were asking for was complete creative control of their films, something no studio was willing to do. By early 1941 Fox was more eager than ever to sign Laurel & Hardy, while Laurel's management was probably more willing to compromise on creative control. No one seems to know exactly how they ended up with the contract they had with Fox, but it is well documented that Laurel was shocked to discover that his role at Fox was to be as an actor only with the scripts, directing and editing to be handled by others. Their first assignment was Fox's answer to Buck Privates called Great Guns (1941).
In Fox's version of Buck Privates, instead of a spoiled rich playboy looking to use his fathers influence to get out of the draft, the lead is an overly pampered son of a wealthy family who insists on allowing himself to be drafted despite his parents objections. The lead in Buck Privates was abusive to his servants, and the second his chauffeur is no longer in his service he punches him in the face, something he had been wanting to do to his boss for years. The lead in Great Guns is good friends with his servants, who happen to be Laurel & Hardy, and when he shows up for his draft his servants insist on enlisting with him to insure he remains safe. Other than that the formula of both movies remains fairly similar, even ending with a climatic war game where this time Laurel & Hardy actually contribute to their side winning. Great Guns is clearly the superior movie, but with one important exception. The comedy is far weaker.
In Abbott & Costello's movies their comedy scenes mostly consisted of the routines they had been performing on stage for the past decade. By then they had been performing such skits as She's 10, Your 40 on stage for years and knew the precise timing to make the material work, and the knowledge of which material worked and which did not. Laurel & Hardy were given all new material, which they could have worked with had the studio allowed them to go off script and film different variations of the gags, showing the results to test audiences to see what worked and what didn't. This is how they made classic comedies at Roach. But this was not what Fox allowed. Shoot the material as it appeared on the script, and then find out if it was funny when the film is completed and in front of a paying audience. To add to that, Abbott & Costello had just begun making movies while Laurel & Hardy had 14 years worth of films behind them that fans could compare to their Fox films. There was clearly a down slide in quality that their older fans disapproved of, and despite Great Guns being far superior in every other aspect to Buck Privates, it will always be seen as the beginning of Laurel & Hardy's downfall.
Hold That Ghost would be released as Abbott and Costello's third film while Universal once again dug up an old service script for Keep 'Em Flying (1941) and once again wrote Abbott and Costello in so it could be rushed into production. This time Lou and Bud enlist with a friend into the Army's Air Corps where they become the ground crew. The original plot had a cocky barn storming stunt pilot joining the Army, and nearly being drummed out for subordination before he heroically saves a fellow pilot who's parachute gets caught in the tail of the plane he was jumping out of. Although Bud and Lou are presented as the lead's friends, they spend most of the movie uninvolved with him. Most of Lou and Bud's antics involve mishaps at the hanger, and predictably a sequence where they accidentally fly off in an airplane and frantically buzz the base while attempting to land. At this time Laurel & Hardy had been taking flack from critics accusing them of ripping off Abbott & Costello's Buck Privates. Those critics barely noticed that Universal's writers had ripped off Laurel & Hardy's Flying Deuces (1939). Comparing both movies, Flying Deucesis clearly superior, and that is saying a lot considering it was one of Laurel & Hardy's weaker Roach era films. In that movie the only romantic subplot existed merely as a device to get Stan and Ollie to join the Foreign Legion. Laurel & Hardy were clearly the central characters, and the film's producer allowed Laurel the creative freedom to craft his own comedy.
Two weeks after the release of Keep 'Em Flying the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and Hollywood respectfully stopped making armed service comedies. For Abbott & Costello this meant that Universal had to once again scramble to find a different script that this time did not involve soldiers. Plans for a Buck Privates sequel were put on hold. The clock was ticking. Universal had made a deal to lend out Abbott & Costello to M.G.M. in trade of some of their contract stars, and they were expected on the M.G.M. set by early 1942. The film Universal came up with was called Ride 'Em Cowboy (1942). Once again an existing script that Abbott & Costello were injected into. And this time the haste in the rewriting of the script is evident. While in past films their existence was explained as either being a close friend of one of the romantic leads, or ending up in the same armed force unit, this time they have no connection whatsoever to the A plot characters. The writers ended up doing handstands to keep Lou and Bud in the story.
It begins at an east coast rodeo where Bud and Lou are selling snacks. The romantic leads travel off to the west, and to make sure Abbott & Costello end up at the same ranch they go through a sequence of far fetched events. First while attempting to retrieve a coin that has dropped down the back of a lady's dress they accidentally give their boss a hot foot. They are chased after and take refuge in the back of a trailer, only to have some workers herd some cattle into the same vehicle and also throw in a cow costume. The trailer is brought to a train yard where the cattle are removed, along with Bud & Lou in the cow costume. When the costume comes apart they are chased after by railroad workers, and take refuge in a caboose where some other cowboys headed back west are also staying. The train pulls out, and Bud & Lou end up going west. Once they arrive at their destination Lou finds a bow and arrow to play with, and accidentally shoots it through a heart painted on the side of a tepee. According to Native American law, this means that Lou has to marry the obese girl living inside who happens to also be the chief's daughter. Lou will have none of this, and once again he and Bud are chased, grabbing onto the back of a moving bus that just happens to be heading to the same dude ranch that the romantic leads are heading to, and where Bud & Lou immediately find jobs working with the rest of the cowboys. Whew! By this time Universal must have realized they would need to start writing original scripts for Abbott & Costello, which would eventually happen, but would have to wait until after they returned from M.G.M.
Any plans M.G.M. had for putting Abbott & Costello in another armed service film was dashed with the events at Pear Harbor. what M.G.M. eventually made was Rio Rita (1942) The movie begins with Bud & Lou working in a Texas pet shop trying to make enough money to travel back to New York City. After predictably getting fired they decide to hide in the trunk of a car they believe is headed back to New York, not realizing it is on it's way to a Texas border town called Vista Del Rio. From there the plot gets muddled. The driver of the car is a celebrity named Ricardo Montera who possibly once lived in the town and is now returning after a ten year absence to make a radio broadcast from the town's resort hotel. There he meets Rita who was just a young girl the last time he saw her, and has now grown into a beautiful young woman. Rita owns the hotel, and after discovering a starving Abbott & Costello, gives them a meal and offers to hire them as house detectives. And there are Nazi spies, apples with radios hidden in them, a code book that both the Nazis and American spies are after, and somehow the radio broadcast is going to be used by the Nazis to transmit orders to other spies elsewhere in the country. None of this is ever fully explained. The film itself has the appearance of once again being another pre-existing script that Abbott & Costello's characters are written into. The biggest giveaway is that it fails to follow what was then a strict formula with the studio. All comedies must have the hero reach a low point where the audience feel sorry for him, followed by the hero saving the day and winning the respect of everyone. This film did not have that low point. Abbott & Costello had been working with scripts that their parts had to be written into, the only exception being Hold That Ghost.
Hold That Ghost turned out to be as big a hit as Buck Privates, and now Fox wanted to put Laurel & Hardy in their own version. What they came up with was A-Haunting We Will Go (1942). Script writer Lou Breslow went overboard with the crime aspect of the film. For the final third Laurel & Hardy's characters disappear while the rest of the cast investigate the murder of a body found in a prop coffin. The story has Stan and Ollie as two out of work vagrants hired to transport a coffin cross country. What they do not realize is that the body inside the coffin is actually alive, a wanted crime boss sneaking into his hometown to collect money he inherited in a will. While on a train they meet Dante the Magician and are offered a job as his assistants when they reach their destination. Mistakenly the coffin Stan and Ollie are transporting is mixed up with a prop coffin of Dante's containing a fake mummy. The crooks get the mummy instead of their boss, and then head to the theater where Dante is performing to find the real coffin. The coffin is used during a trick, and out pops the dead body of one of the gangsters. The police are called and the theater is sealed. The rest of the film is a "who done it?" without Stan and Ollie, the two only turning up at the very end of the film for a brief sight gag after the mystery is solved and the killer is caught along with the rest of the gangsters. Hold That Ghost was clearly superior to A-Haunting We Will Go, which was one of the low points in Laurel & Hardy's career. It was also the first time Laurel & Hardy went head to head against Abbott & Costello as their next Universal movie Pardon My Sarong (1942) was released on the same day.
Pardon My Sarong was the first Abbott & Costello movie since Hold That Ghost to be specifically written for the duo, rather than the other movies which took pre existing scripts and wrote new scenes to include their characters. Yes, Robert Paige and Virginia Bruce are cast as the romantic leads, but their scenes are minimal while the bulk of the film centers around Bud and Lou's characters. All four are on a yacht which gets damaged during a storm and ends up marooned on an island. There they run into a friendly tribe of island natives and European man who says he is an archaeologist who came there to study them. It is no surprise that the archaeologist turns out to be the leader of a band of thugs who have been stealing precious jewels from the natives, using fire works to make them believe their volcano god is active and wants them to continue sending warriors into a taboo temple to lift the curse. The natives adorn each warrior with a jewel pendent, and once alone in the temple they are apparently killed off by the waiting thugs. Of course the natives mistake Costello as the next warrior selected by their volcano god to enter the temple.
While the romantic leads do their part to uncover the truth about the thugs, the surprise here is that the script writers allowed Costello to be the one who saves the day. While fighting the villain Paige is knocked out cold allowing Virginia to be dragged off to the villains boat. Meanwhile Abbott & Costello have been chased around the temple and through the forest by the thugs, ultimately giving Lou the chance to knock them all into the river while swinging on a vine. Paige is still unconscious, so it is Lou who swims after the villains boat and has the climatic fist fight. And while Virginia and Paige inevitably end up in each other's arms, the movie does allow Costello the dignity of ending on a romantic high note. The beautiful daughter of the chief has fallen in love with him, and the movie ends with them kissing, leading into the ending sight gag where an over excited Costello jumps into the lagoon to cool off and causes it to steam.
Pardon My Sarong easily beat A-Haunting We Will Go at the box office and would go on to be the second highest grossing film of that year. This is not to say that the Laurel & Hardy films were not themselves hits. They were doing so well at the box office that although Fox was distributing them as the B feature, many theaters were placing them on the marquee as the A feature. And while they were not approaching the box office success of the early Abbot & Costello pictures, they were still a good investment for Fox. But Laurel was still disheartened knowing that if he had been allowed artistic freedom on the Fox films then he could have produced comedy masterpieces so funny that they could have matched or beat Abbott & Costello in box office revenues. Now that Universal was taking better care on the Abbott & Costello scripts the quality of their films were improving measurably. This would be evident in their next Universal film Who Done It? (1942). Taking note of the success of Hold That Ghost the studio had the duo put into another murder mystery. The general manager of a popular radio station is killed live on the air when his microphone is rigged to electrocute him. Bud convinces Lou that if they pretend to be the police detectives and are able to solve the case before the real police show up then it will help their own aspirations of becoming radio writers with their own detective series.
For the first time Abbott & Costello's characters dominate the entire film, with only the briefest of scenes including possible romantic leads, two of the suspects who once dated years earlier. Another pleasant surprise is that there is no musical filler at all. Not once do any of the cast members break out in song, and despite taking place at a radio station, not once does the movie show an established singing act performing. ironically, just as Universal was beginning to remove the music from the Abbott & Costello films, Fox was putting Laurel & Hardy into their first musical since working at Roach. The reason for this was to introduce their newest singing starlet Vivian Blaine, and they felt the best place to do it was in one of the Laurel & Hardy films. But this would all have to wait until after they finished filming a movie for M.G.M.
That film was Air Raid Wardens (1943), and for the first time since working for Hal Roach, M.G.M. wanted a script specifically written for Laurel & Hardy. Not only had the duo appeared in three major M.G.M. productions in the past, but with the studio acting as distributor for Hal Roach Studios there had been an implication that Laurel & Hardy were among the roster of stars working at M.G.M. The studio did not want a reworking of Abbott & Costello, after all they already had that duo under contract for two more pictures, but rather they wanted the classic Laurel & Hardy from years ago. They even hired a number of old Hal Roach scriptwriters. But what they failed to realize was that 99% of Laurel & Hardy's comedy came from improvising their routines on set, and not from a pre-written script. With out the ability to improvise, Laurel & Hardy were stuck with filming exactly what was written down verbatim. And if a comedy bit failed to work, Laurel was given no opportunity to tweak it and re-shoot it until it did work. Air Raid Wardens failed to recapture the quality of the Roach era films, but was on par with the films they had released for Fox so far. And they were just about to go well above par with their next film.
Abbott & Costello reverted back to the same formula musical comedies with It Ain't Hay (1943) and Hit The Ice (1943), after which they disappeared from the screen for more than a year due to Lou catching Rheumatic Fever, a disease that nearly killed him and left him bedridden for several months with the possibility he may never walk again. Laurel & Hardy now had the screen to themselves. Fox wanted them to appear in a musical with Vivian Blain, a new starlet the studio was trying to promote. Neither Laurel nor Hardy sing in Jitterbugs (1943), but do perform in a two man Swing band that travels the carnival circuit. On the road they run into a con artist named Chester Wright who tricks them into selling fake gas pills at their next gig, guaranteed to turn water into gasoline. Before getting run out of town by an angry mob, Chester falls for a singer named Susan ( Blain ). He discovers that she has just been tricked out of her life savings by another group of con men, and vows to help her get the money back using an elaborate con game. For many Laurel & Hardy fans, Jitterbugs is the highlight of the post Roach movies. While still not as good as their earlier films, it does give them both the chance to play different characters, in this case Hardy disguised as a Southern gentleman and Laurel as an elderly woman. All part of the con they are pulling, which comes close to being as good as the one pulled in The Sting (1973) three decades later. The verdict, Jitterbugs is not great, but it is good, and worth watching.
Jitterbugs was followed up the same year with Dancing Masters (1943). While most Laurel & Hardy fans pass this film and the ones that follow as terrible, in recent years with their release on DVD some opinions are changing. Dancing Masters was much funnier than the majority of Abbott & Costello films released up to that point. It borrowed heavily from past Laurel & Hardy movies, as did the films that followed. Fox finally figured out Abbott & Costello's winning formula. No matter what the movie, the scripts always contained a few of the teams popular comedy routines from their stage shows. Even in their worst movies, Abbott & Costello were given scenes to shine in with their own material. Laurel & Hardy may not have had memorable stage routines, but they did have years worth of movies that contained memorable gags. Dancing Masters lifted gags from Battle of the Century ( although not the pie fight ), Thicker Than Water (1935) and County Hospital(1932) as well as reviving their mixed up hat routine.
Costello made a full recovery and returned to the film set in mid 1944. While Universal had more than a year to come up with a good script, what they came up with instead was the mess In Society (1944). It starts well enough with Abbott & Costello playing bumbling plumbers who end up flooding a mansion. The owners write a letter of complaint, but an invitation to a weekend party is sent in the envelope by mistake. Once again there is a romantic sub plot, and plenty of annoying music numbers. And tacked on to the end, a chase scene lifted from a W C Fields film. A film with a strong beginning falls completely apart by the third act. Universal had rushed the film through production. The reason? Costello had finally recovered, but Universal owed him and Abbott to M.G.M. as part of the lend-out deal, and were now a year overdue. So they made their M.G.M. film first. Universal wanted to release an Abbott & Costello film before M.G.M., hence the rush through production. The M.G.M. film, Lost in a Harem (1944) was one of Abbott & Costello's weakest movies, possibly the worst of all their early films. You may think this gave Laurel & Hardy the advantage, but their second film for M.G.M., Nothing But Trouble (1944) was just as bad, and perhaps Laurel & Hardy's all time worst film. 1944 was also the year Laurel & Hardy released what fans once called their worst movie, The Big Noise. In recent years opinions have changed, and it is recognized as one of the teams better post Roach movies. But overall 1944 was not a good year for either team.
1945 nearly saw the end of both teams. Abbott and Costello made two more films for Universal, Here Come The Co-Eds and The Naughty Nineties, the later which contained the definitive film version of the "Who's On First" routine. With the completion of that film, Abbott and Costello announced their break up. Laurel & Hardy also saw an apparent end to their movie career with The Bull Fighters, after which Fox cancelled their contract, releasing the duo from any obligation to make the studio any more films. Stan Laurel was actually thrilled this had happened. He had been fed up with the poor quality films the duo had been forced to make for Fox. Deciding it was time to retire from films, Laurel & Hardy created a successful stage show. Abbott & Costello did not have that luxury. Although officially broken up, they were still under contract and were obligated to continue making films for Universal. The next two were Little Giant (1946) and The Time of Their Lives (1946), both essentially Lou Costello solo projects with Abbott included in the cast.
A year later Bud and Lou worked out their differences and re-teamed. Universal celebrated with a sequel to their biggest hit, Buck Privates Come Home (1947). A renegotiated contract allowed the team to produce one film a year outside the studio. In the years to follow Abbott & Costello would make their greatest comedies, including the all time classic Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). But it was also the years where they made their worst films, specifically the independently produced Jack and the Beanstalk (1952) which usually turns up on various top ten worst ever movie lists. Laurel & Hardy returned for one last movie, Atoll-K (1951) a foreign produced film that was an improvement over their Fox and M.G.M. films. Unfortunately, Stan Laurel was just recovering from a major illness and looked ghastly, which takes it's toll on being able to enjoy the film. Unreleased in the United States until 1954 when it got a limited release as Utopia, it barely made a dent at the box office. Abbott & Costello continued to make films for Universal until 1955's Abbott & Costello Meet The Mummy, after which their contract expired. While Universal was not interested in signing the team for another contract, they were interested in being the distributor for their final independently produced film, Dance With Me Henry (1956). Soon after Abbott & Costello broke up for good.
So, who was the better team? In the years their films overlapped, Abbott & Costello easily beat Laurel & Hardy at the box office. Abbott & Costello were the biggest stars at their studio, and as Universal's top stars, their movies got a lot of promotion and the best distribution. Laurel & Hardy were not the biggest stars at neither Fox or M.G.M., but instead were doing films for those studios B divisions. As those studios lesser films they neither got the promotion or distribution of a major release. And their genre, slapstick, was by 1940 considered old fashioned. Never the less, their movies were extremely profitable for Fox. Quality-wise, while Laurel & Hardy were making the weakest films of their careers, overall their films were funnier than the films of Abbott & Costello. If both teams careers in whole are taken into consideration, Laurel & Hardy had a string of classic feature films at Hal Roach Studios that were far superior to the Abbott & Costello features. But that is an overall assessment. According to the American Film Institute, on their 100 greatest comedies list, Abbott & Costello come out on top. Their one entry on the list, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, comes in at #56, while Laurel & Hardy's sole entry, Sons of the Desert (1933), just barely makes the list at #96. But what it really comes down to is taste. Laurel & Hardy were the masters of physical comedy. Abbott & Costello were the masters of the burlesque comedy skit. Two different styles of comedy. Apples and oranges.
Deborah Minter from U.S, California on December 30, 2017:
Good article! Personally I could not pick myself, I enjoy watching Laurel and Hardy and the Abbott and Costello films. I love the old comics.
Charlie LeSueur from Phoenix, AZ on June 23, 2016:
Very fascinating article. Thank you for the information especially about the period where Abbott and Costello made "Little Giant" and "The Time of Their Lives." This makes more sense than what I've read elsewhere about those two very strange films.
Chiara on December 25, 2014:
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Laongdaw on December 22, 2014:
I respectfully disgraee. Creatively changing recipes brings new life to food in the kitchen. I understand where you're coming from, but food grows and changes as culture does.
drbj and sherry from south Florida on December 21, 2012:
This is an excellent review of Laurel and Hardy in comparison to Abbott and Costello, two very talented comedic partnerships. Thank you for your assiduous research and fascinating details, stethacantus. BTW, I think I know a famous relative of yours ... stethoscope.