Sunday, July 4, 2010
THE SPIRITS OF ‘76
Here’s a film that will be going into the “horror-onable mention” section of my book. It’s not a “horror-comedy” per se – it’s more of a fantasy-romance, but it does involve ghosts (albeit friendly ghosts) who take the opportunity to put a good scare in some folks as needed. For me, Abbott & Costello’s “The Time of Their Lives” is every bit as classic a movie as “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein;” even if it has more in common with “Topper.”
It’s also tied into the American Revolution, hence this post falling on America’s Independence Day. The film’s script is very well written. It tells the tale of Horatio Prim (Costello), a bumbling but masterful New England tinker in 1780 who longs to marry Nora, the housemaid of wealthy estate owner Tom Danbury. To that end, Horatio procures a letter of commendation from General George Washington in hopes of obtaining permission to marry Nora from Tom. Unfortunately, Horatio has a rival for Nora in butler Cuthbert (Abbott), who causes him trouble no end. But the real trouble comes from Danbury himself, who is secretly a traitor out to aid Benedict Arnold. Both Nora and Danbury’s fiancé, Melody (the luminous Marjorie Reynolds) learn of Danbury’s plot. Nora is captured and Danbury confiscates the commendation letter from her (she had been holding it for Horatio) and hides it in the mantelpiece clock, but Melody manages to escape on horseback in an effort to warn George Washington. She soon encounters Horatio, and the two are framed as traitors, executed and dumped into a well.
It’s here that the fantasy element kicks in. Horatio and Melody are now ghosts who haunt the grounds of the estate and will continue to do so until they can prove their innocence. They just need to somehow get the letter into the hands of the authorities who can rewrite the history books so the truth can be known. This becomes a more hopeful quest 166 years later when the estate is restored to its original condition, and that includes the original furniture. When the restoration is complete, the new owner invites some guests for the weekend to celebrate. Among the guests are psychiatrist Dr. Ralph Greenway, a descendent of Cuthbert (also played by Abbott). Horatio and Melody decide to have some fun “scaring” the guests. Horatio takes particular delight in spooking Greenway. A séance is held wherein the identity of the ghosts and their plight is revealed, resulting in the living doing what they can to help set Horatio and Melody free.
The film has grown in status over the years and has quite a following (and may have even inspired a line in the classic Gordon Lightfoot song, "If You Could Read My Mind"). In fact, while embraced by many Bud & Lou fans, it’s also been touted as “the Abbott & Costello movie for people who hate Abbott & Costello movies.” This is due to the exceptional dramatic acting of both Lou and Bud that full-bloodedly brings their well-written roles to life. They are both so good in this that it’s hard to say whether one outshines the other (although I might give the slight edge to Abbott whose rarely used talent for character acting is on full display here). It stands out from the majority of the team’s other films which primarily feature a variation on their con man/patsy burlesque characters. It’s one of the few films where the team stretched beyond their usual archetypes and managed to pull it off (for examples where this departure from the norm didn’t work in my opinion, catch “Little Giant” and “Dance With Me Henry.” Or don’t). It also includes a wonderful supporting cast, including horror-comedy stalwart Gale Sondergaard as the maid of the restored estate who definitely believes in ghosts. And it features beautiful sets, wonderful costume designs and marvelous special effects - a top-notch production all around.
If you haven't guessed by now, I consider "The Time of Their Lives" a wonderful film to watch on Independence Day... or any day, for that matter! Here’s the trailer for your enjoyment: