It was the first starring vehicle for the former vaudeville and radio double-act of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, following their successful guest star spot in the previous year’s One Night In the Tropics. Combining the slick wisecracking of Bob Hope and the harsh physical slapstick of the Three Stooges (and sharing with both these acts the complete absence of sentimentality or depth of characterisation) they caught exactly the mood of the times, ushering in the slicker, brasher American comedy of the war years. (Among the many who found themselves being ushered out as a result were Laurel & Hardy, whose decline began with a rushed-together slavish imitation called Great Guns the following year.)
Though the team is now top-billed, this is still basically a variety show, in which their self-contained routines (such as the hilarious ‘crap game’ – a rare example of Lou outsmarting Bud) are spaced out between scenes of romantic subplot and the era-defining songs of the Andrews Sisters. (Later films would integrate them more fully – their best writer John Grant is here credited only with ‘special material’ for the duo – but little of their subsequent work found them in quite such sparkling and energetic form.) The surrounding sequences have a semi-documentary feel, beginning with actual newsreel footage of President Roosevelt signing the draft bill and the drawing of the first number, and proceeding to realistic scenes of enlistment, basic training and manoeuvres. It seems clear that the chief purpose of the movie was to prepare a population for war – there are several long and earnest speeches about the serious importance of it all, and a massive parade for the climax – with Bud and Lou and the Andrews Sisters (singing ‘Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy’ and ‘You’re a Lucky Fellow, Mr Smith’) serving as recruitment tools.
It certainly worked – both stars and film became smash hits, and Universal rushed them into navy and air force follow-ups. However, the official peacetime sequel, Buck Privates Come Home (1947), was not a success, perhaps indicating that the times had moved on again, and the post-war world was no longer as optimistic or as innocent as the one that welcomed them so fulsomely here.
Plenty of ammunition here, of course, to use against anyone who claims these boys are not among the greatest of screen comedians.