AFRICA SCREAMS – A Look Back at 1949
The St. Louis Globe-Democrat is a monthly newspaper run by Steve DeBellis, a well know St. Louis historian, and it’s the largest one-man newspaper in the world. The concept of The Globe is that there is an old historic headline, then all the articles in that issue are written as though it’s the year that the headline is from. It’s an unusual concept but the paper is now in its 25th successful year! Steve and I collaborated recently on an all-Vincent Price issue of The Globe in 2011 and he has asked me to write a regular monthly movie-related column. This month’s St. Louis Globe-Democrat is written as if it’s 1949, the year Joe Besser starred with Abbott and Costello in the comedy AFRICA SPEAKS.
Our town’s Joe Besser is well on his way to being a distinguished comedian and even has a role in the newest Abbot and Costello film AFRICA SCREAMS. Born in 1907, Joe is the 9th child of Polish immigrants Morris and Fanny Besser of Florissant. He’s been fascinated with show business, especially comedy and magic, since he was a child and has become a headliner on the Orpheum, RKO, Paramount, and Loew’s theater circuits, as well as the Broadway stage, often with Jimmy Little serving as his straight man. Joe has appeared in a few movies; most notably EADIE WAS A LADY as Professor Diogenes Dingle opposite Ann Miller but a role in a film starring box office champs Bud and Lou should introduce him to a whole new audience.
Abbot and Costello have taken a leave from their work at Universal Studios, where they have been the among the top ten box office attraction in Hollywood for the past several years. They are still under contract there but have gone to work for Huntington Hartford, heir to the A&P supermarket fortune. Mr. Hartford, one of the country’s wealthiest men, has decided to get into the motion picture business and has hired the comedy duo for the inaugural production of Huntington Hartford Productions, an independently financed comedy entitled AFRICA SCREAMS, the title being a play on the name of the popular 1930 documentary Africa Speaks! AFRICA SCREAMS was filmed at Nassour Studios o Sunset Boulevard in sixteen days with a budget of $5450,000. It is being released by United Artists and has been directed by Charles Barton who has directed the Bud and Lou in six previous films including their horror hit ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN.
In AFRICA SCREAMS Bud and Lou play department store booksellers Buzz and Stanley. They are approached by Diana Emerson (Hillary Brooke) who’s looking for a copy of the book Dark Safari, written by a famed explorer and offers to pay $2,500 for a map inside the book she thinks will lead to a stash of diamonds. Buzz devises a plan to pass off Stanley as a great explorer who can reproduce the map from memory. The two agree to accompany Diana on an African expedition, where the boys run into crocodiles, a tribe of cannibals, lions, a gorilla, a giant ape, and every other sort of trouble one could find in the jungles of Africa.
AFRICA SCREAMS is fast-paced and funny with Bud and Lou both in fine form. A highlight is when Abbott does the familiar but hilarious bit where he thinks Lou has been killed and delivers a mournful monologue about what a pal Lou was and how he is to blame…..though Lou’s standing right there. The odd compact car that Lou drives near the end of the film is a Crosley, made by the Crosley Motor Co. a company previously known for making refrigerators. The boys are backed by a colorful supporting cast. The film not only spoofs the type of real-life jungle safari adventures made popular by explorer Frank “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” Buck in the early 1930’s (Wild Cargo 1934, Fang and Claw, 1935), it features the famed hunter playing himself in a supporting role. Buck isn’t the only jungle Bwana in AFRICA SCREAMS. Clyde Beatty, “the World’s Greatest Animal Trainer” plays himself and his scenes with the big cats are impressive. Beatty has his own Circus, and has appeared in many films before, including a starring role in the 1937 15-part Columbia movie serial Jungle Menace.
Boxing brothers Max and Buddy Baer are cast as Hillary’s intimidating henchmen Boots and Grappler. The 6’3” Max has been appearing in films since THE LADY AND THE PRIZEFIGHTER (1936), but this is the motion picture debut of his younger, and larger at 6’7”, brother Buddy. The two bruisers have a clever scene where they’re duped by monkeys into fighting each other. At one point Buddy says to Max “I’ll hit you harder than Louis ever did”. This is of course a reference to current World Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis who fought and defeated both Baer brothers.
Shemp Howard, who replaced his brother Curly three years ago in The Three Stooges has a small role in AFRICA SCREAMS as a squinty killer who wears thick glasses and repeatedly bumps into things, but it’s St. Louisan Joe Besser who really steals the show as Diane’s butler, Harry. One hysterical scene has Besser interrupting Abbot and Costello by dashing into a tent to get cup after cup of water. When the boys finally ask him why he needs so much water, he responds by telling them that his tent is on fire. Besser has another funny moment when he hears someone reveal a secret; he punches the guy on the arm and in his best spoiled-brat voice says, “Ooo, you’re such a snitch!”. Besser is terrific in AFRICA SCREAMS and shows great potential as a big-screen comic.
1950s Abbott and Costello went back to Universal where they made nine more films (in addition to two for Warner Brothers). Their popularity diminished as their place as Hollywood’s hottest comedy team was taken over by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and Universal dropped Bud and Lou in 1955. Both suffered health problems and their final film together was DANCE WITH ME HENRY for United Artists in 1956. Lou Costello died of a heart attack in 1959 at age 52. Bud Abbot worked little after Lou’s death but did voice his character in the 1966 Abbott and Costello cartoons made by Hanna-Barbera before his death in 1974. Frank Buck seemed healthy enough in AFRICA SCREAMS but died the following year from lung cancer. Clyde Beatty died in 1965. Max Baer would die in 1959 but his brother Buddy would co-star with Abbott and Costello again as the giant in their 1952 version of JACK AND THE BEANSTALK. Buddy p[layed played the title role in the 1958 horror film GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN and played the heavy on dozens of TV shows before his death in 1965. Shemp Howard was still working as a Stooge when he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1955. Joe Besser, who was making comedy shorts at Columbia studios at the time and had been a regular on the Abbot and Costello TV show (along with his AFRICA SCREAMS boss Hillary Brooke), replaced him as a member of the Three Stooges. Besser made 16 shorts with Larry and Moe over the next two years but declined to star in their feature films and was himself replaced by Joe DeRita. Besser returned to films and television, most notably as superintendent “Jillson” on The Joey Bishop Show, and the voices of Babu in an animated version of I Dream of Jeannie and the character Putty Puss on the cartoon series The Houndcats. Joe Besser died of heart failure in 1988 at age 80.