Posted March 7, 2013 by Phil Hall in Retro Cinema

Retro Cinema – Abbott and Costello Go to Mars

Abbott and Costello Go to Mars
Abbott and Costello Go to Mars

It appears that no one at Universal-International was paying very much attention to this film’s production, since the title is utterly incorrect: Abbott and Costello travel to Venus, not Mars. But, then again, if anyone had been actually paying very much attention, this tired endeavor would have been canceled before one frame of film was actually shot.

Lou Costello plays a childlike adult who is a resident at the “Hideaway Orphans Home” – no mean feat for a 47-year-old man who acts like an eight-year-old. Through contrived circumstances that bear no resemblance to real life, he winds up at a top-secret scientific facility, where courier/handyman Bud Abbott puts him to work. The duo wind up inside a rocket ship on the facility’s launching pad, and Costello accidentally hits a button that blasts them on a wild ride. The rocket lands in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, but Abbott and Costello take a look at the wild costumes worn by the revelers and mistakenly believe they are on an alien planet. Two escaped convicts hide on the rocket ship, which blasts off again for a trip to Venus and an encounter with a race of glamorous extra-terrestrials played by the shapely contestants from the Miss Universe pageant.

Abbott and Costello began their film career in 1940 with supporting roles in the musical comedy One Night in the Tropics. Their first starring role in Buck Privates (1941) launched them through the 1940s with an output that included two-to-four movies a year plus a weekly radio series. By the 1950s, however, audiences had more than enough of their antics, and the pair’s popularity began to sag as audiences looked away to the brash (and much younger) combination of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, who became the comedy team champs at the box office.

Part of the problem was the duo’s material – they exhausted their beloved burlesque routines in their earlier films and were forced to slog through silly new film material through the late 1940s and early 1950s that barely fit their on-screen personas. Their lack of enthusiasm was too obvious during this period, as most of their late-career films are stale. But the team was hardly played out – Abbott and Costello revived their well-worn routines for their television appearances, and the energy they displayed in revisiting the old favorites on the small screen stood in stark contrast to the enervation they offered on the big screen.

In a weird way, Abbott and Costello Go to Mars resonates as an anti-comedy – a would-be mirthfest that is so aggressively unfunny that it generates laughs for the wrong reasons. Abbott’s grouchy, distracted demeanor and his clear dislike for the childish material are actually funnier than Costello’s desperate attempt to liven up the inane proceedings with his too-broad portrayal of a dimwitted man-child. The special effects are pure Z-grade, although the notion of having the Statue of Liberty duck from an on-coming rocket is cute.

And some retro charm can be found in the concept of an all-female planet (a plot twist that popped up a few times in the cheapo sci-fi flicks of the 1950s). Of course, eagle-eyed viewers can have their own spot-the-star fun in trying to locate a then-unknown Anita Ekberg as part of the Venusian cheesecake brigade.

Phil Hall

Phil has written about cinema for the New York Times, New York Daily News, Hartford Courant, Wired Magazine, American Movie Classics Magazine, Tower Records Pulse! Magazine and the Organica Quarterly. He is the author of several books, including “Independent Film Distribution” and “The History of Independent Cinema.” Beyond film journalism, he is a former United Nations correspondent for Fairchild Broadcast News and a writer and editor for technology and financial publications.