Abbott and Costello’s second feature, “Buck Privates,” opened in January 1941. Peacetime conscription was in effect, voted by Congress in late 1940, and only planned to last for one year. Europe was at war, China was being raped (literally) by the Japanese. Americans were torn about the prospect of war-Lindbergh, a hero and a Nazi admirer, together with his America First movement urged isolationism.
“Buck Privates” walks a cautious line. No mention of the raging European war, the bombing of London, the success of German U-boats. No discussion of America’s entering a war which, anyway, isn’t even directly mentioned. The theme was high-spirited patriotism and preparation. With the Andrew Sisters, Abbott and Costello provide a light-hearted view of conscription and basic training. It almost seems like a Boy Scout experience. (I don’t recall Basic Training at Fort Dix in 1965 as being any fun.)
Petty con artists, the duo mistakenly join the Army while trying to evade local police. The cop chasing them winds up as their company noncom. A rich young man and his former and now very resentful working class chauffeur are not only in the same company with the comedians, they’re vying for a pretty girl who seems attracted to both. A common formula for movies.
The film tracks the transformation of average young American men from all over the country who share two qualities: they’re happy to serve and they’re all Caucasian.
With some film from the Louisiana maneuvers, at the time the largest combat training exercise in Army history, the thin and predictable plot develops to the singing/marching end as the now ready recruits prepare to take their places in line units.
Propaganda? Well, Hollywood was starting to get on the patriotic bandwagon but cautiously. No one gets hurt in this film worse than receiving a punch in a barracks brawl or during a prize fight.
Abbott and Costello became picture palace luminaries with this still funny but unsophisticated look at Army life. With tickets costing, usually, two bits “Buck Privates” grossed $4 million, a remarkable box office take for the time. The film drew an Oscar nomination for the Andrews Sisters and their “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” number, a huge hit.
“Buck Privates” is an interesting look at Hollywood’s careful treatment of a politically sensitive issue, conscription and the path to war. It showcases two of America’s funniest comedians in a series of give-and-take dialogues that became the hallmark of their collaboration. Their routines remain very funny more than six decades later.