Jack and the Beanstalk (1952) Blu-ray Review: Abbott and Costello Meet the Giant

When I was a kid, my uncle and cousins were all huge Three Stooges fans. I much preferred Abbott and Costello. We would argue about this, but I stood my ground. I preferred my comedy with a story. Abbott and Costello movies had some semblance of a plot, whereas the Three Stooges shorts were nothing but a series of gags. They were very funny gags, but they never had much in the way of an actual story to tell. Writing out those words just now I realize that, as an adult, I have written out similar arguments. On this very website, I have talked about how I like my comedy to come organically from a story rather than to just be a series of unrelated gags. Turns out at nine years old I was forming a theory of comedy that I’ve kept to this day.

Around the time I was forming those opinions, I got an Abbott and Costello double feature on VHS that consisted of Jack and the Beanstalk and Africa Screams. I loved Jack and the Beanstalk but for some reason, I don’t remember ever making it all the way through Africa Screams. Part of the reason was that Jack and the Beanstalk was a familiar story to me. I’d heard the fairytale since I was a baby. As much as this middle-aged cinephile would like to pretend I enjoyed classic films at an early age, nine-year-old me had little interest in most old movies, but since that was a familiar story and it was filled with silly gags, I could watch it repeatedly with joy.

Africa Screams on the other hand was a new story to me and it was in black and white. That made it much harder to hold my attention. It also takes a while for it to get going, which is death for a movie to a child. It was also the second film in the double feature and even at that age, I was the sort of person who wanted to watch both films in order. So I’d watch Jack and the Beanstalk first and then by the time I got to Africa Screams I was ready for something else. Transformers or Thundercats probably.

Whatever the reasons that double-feature VHS tape has stuck inside my memories as something special. Thus it was a real treat to see that it has now been released as a double-feature Blu-ray. I’m not entirely sure why these two films are continually released as double features. Both are relatively short (both clock in at under 80 minutes), both were released independently outside of the duo’s contract with Universal, and both are very much in the public domain.

It is that last part that causes all kinds of consternation for film fans and physical media aficionados. Like most films that make it to the public domain, these two have been released in numerous versions in a variety of formats over the years. Most of these have been cheaply made with little to no attention paid to quality. That’s not exactly the case with this release from VCI, but neither it is true that they have been carefully restored. But we’ll get to that in a minute. First, we’ll talk about the actual films.

Abbott and Costello’s contract with Universal allowed them to make one film per year independently. Universal had no desire to make a color film with them (color being much more expensive to produce than black and white film) and so in 1952, the duo made Jack and the Beanstalk under Costello’s film company Exclusive Productions.

Much like The Wizard of Oz, this film begins in sepia tones with a bookended story that sets up the main fairy tale which is fully colorized. Abbott and Costello play Mr. Dinkle and Jack respectively, two men in desperate need of a job. They get hired by a couple (James Alexander and Shaye Cogan) in desperate need of a babysitter. The kid (David Stollery) is a bit rambunctious but Jack talks him into reading the Jack and the Beanstalk book and we enter into the colorful, silly, semi-musical part of the movie.

The plot follows the fairy tale pretty closely and as such; there isn’t much need to discuss it. Costello is Jack, the dimwitted boy who sells the family cow for some magic beans from Mr. Dinklepuss (Abbott). The beans grow up into the sky to where the giant (Buddy Baer) lives. Silliness (and some not very good songs, and even worse dancing) ensues.

As mentioned I loved this film as a kid. As an adult…not so much. There are some good gags and some funny slapstick, but they come all too infrequently. The songs are bad and were clearly written to add in some run time. The bookended story is unnecessary and unfunny.

My nine-year-old daughter came into it somewhere in the middle and sat down to watch with me. After about fifteen minutes she turned to me and asked, “Daddy, why are you watching this?” But then she sat back down and kept watching it. So I guess that’s a mildly positive review from her.

Africa Screams is somewhat more interesting, quite a bit more humorous, and a whole lot more racist. Abbott plays Buzz Johnson, the owner of a bookstore, and Costello is Stanley Livington, his coworker who is afraid of everything including the cute little kitten that runs around inside the store. One day, Diane Emerson (Hillary Brooke) comes looking for a specific book. When told that it is out of print and they’ve just sold their last copy, she asks Livington if he can remember the map that was drawn inside the book and offers him $2,500 to make a copy of it. Smelling a jackpot, Johnson pretends that Livington is a great explorer and will not only draw the map but lead the expedition into Africa. Mild hijinks ensue.

There are lots of good gags involving various wild animals and the banter is much funnier than it is in Jack and the Beanstalk (though it is still not even close to their best work). Unfortunately, the African setting leads to some of-its-time racial stereotyping. The black characters are either servants who periodically get yelled out or part of a tribe of cannibals who tie our heroes to a stake and prepare them for a meal. It isn’t mean-spirited about it and this is very much something that comes out of its early 1950s time frame (the story is really a light spoof of similar adventure stories coming out around this time), but it’s still pretty ugly to watch.

Neither movie is really a classic nor the best work from the comedy duo. For that, watch a clip of “Who’s On First?” or one of their team-ups with a Universal Monster. There is enough silliness to make it worth watching if you are a fan, or if you have a small child who has already developed a theory of comedy.

Because these films have been in the public domain for so long, you can easily find them on home video. Usually in less than stellar versions. Most companies releasing public domain films simply grab whatever print they can find and knock out as many copies as they think they can sell. VLC has done a better job than that, but this is not the glorious restoration one might hope for. The good news is the transfer does come from the original 35 mm archival print. The bad news is that print is in pretty bad shape and it doesn’t appear they did a lot to clean it up. This means it looks better than a lot of copies you’ll find out there, but that it could still use a lot of work. There numerous instances of scratches, smudges and missing frames. But for the most part you can see the image clearly. Extras include a commentary track on Jack and the Beanstalk and some trailers.

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Mat Brewster

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