THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES is often referred to as an “Abbott and Costello movie for people who don’t like Abbott and Costello” but as a fan of the comic duo I find that proclamation a bit off base. The film does distinguish itself from the popular formula pictures they made during this period that often contained well-honed routines and the two funny men don’t exchange much direct dialogue but it still contains the same kind of slapstick humor and fast-paced jokes that made them one of the most beloved comedy teams in Hollywood during the 1940s. The movie also benefits from the input of two Bay Area-born talents; writer Walter Leon and director Charles Barton.
Leon penned the scripts for such memorable horror comedy classics as THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1939), THE GHOST BREAKERS (1940) and SCARED STIFF (1953) while Barton was responsible for directing many of the best Abbott and Costello features including BUCK PRIVATES COME HOME (1947), ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN(1948), and ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE KILLER, BORIS KARLOFF (1949). The Leon and Barton team were able to craft a smart, thoughtful and laugh-inducing horror farce that makes great use of Abbott and Costello’s playful burlesque-style humor and deft comedic timing.
The spooks in this amusing ghost romp are played by Lou Costello and Marjorie Reynolds, two would-be American Revolutionary heroes accused of being traitors. Unless this unlikely duo can find a missing letter that proves their loyalty to General George Washington, they’re doomed to haunt the 166-year-old Danbury estate now owned by Sheldon Gage (John Shelton) who has recently rebuilt the house that once stood there complete with period antiques as well as some modern conveniences. During one extraordinary weekend, Sheldon invites his psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenway (Bud Abbott), his fiancée, June (Lynn Baggett) and her Aunt Millie (Binnie Barnes) along with a housemaid (Gale Sondergaard), to stay with him at his new historic home but soon afterward they’re all awakened by strange noises and odd occurrences that lead them to believe the house is haunted.
The humor in THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES mostly arises from the way the two old ghosts relate to their new world. Lights flicker on and off and radios mysteriously turn on because the ghosts don’t know how modern electricity works. Tables are knocked over, items are broken and books mysteriously fly off shelves because one ghost in particular, the lovable Horatio Prim (Lou Costello), just happens to be extremely clumsy. But alongside the film’s more funny moments, there’s a gentle and melancholy aspect to their antics exemplified by the lovely Marjorie Reynolds who plays the feminine phantom, Melody Allen. Melody can’t resist playing the old harpsichord in the house simply because it’s a sweet reminder of her past and she tries on modern gowns that she borrows from the living female inhabitants in an attempt to feel more human and alive. Reynolds is terrific as Costello’s female companion in the afterlife and the two have genuine chemistry making it easy for us to care about them and wish them success in escaping the curse that’s kept them haunting the Danbury estate for 166 years.
Besides Marjorie Reynolds, the entire female cast of the film is exceptional. Particularly the tall and lanky Binnie Barnes who is terrific as Aunt Millie. She and Bud Abbott get to share some of the film’s funniest lines together. And the naturally menacing Gale Sondergaard is also perfect as the paranormal-obsessed maid who becomes the target of the film’s best running gag. Sondergaard plays things straight and in turn, she manages to generate the most scares just by her mere presence. She also commands the film’s most frightful scene, which takes place during a séance when the house guests attempt to contact the restless spirits.
The film contains some impressive special effects by Jerome Ash who’s probably best remembered for his work on the early FLASH GORDON and BUCK ROGERS serials along with David S. Horsley who assisted on many of the Universal monster movies including THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935) and THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940). Working with a limited budget of just a few thousand dollars, they were able to create some genuinely eerie as well as extremely funny visual tricks that are still effective today.
THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES is most often compared to the much-loved ghost comedy TOPPER (1937) starring Cary Grant and Constance Benett, which was followed by a number of popular sequels and a television series. I appreciate TOPPER but I might be one of the few who finds THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES to be a funnier and more memorable movie. Your own mileage will vary of course and it might just depend on how much you appreciate (or don’t appreciate) Abbott and Costello’s comedy but I hope you’ll consider giving it a look. It’s a great way to kickstart this phantom-filled month.
by Kimberly Lindbergs and originally published on TCM.com October 2, 2014