Abbott and Costello already had a very successful career by the time Abbott and Costello Go To Mars came about. They had lampooned the Army, Hollywood, high society and horror films, so with the popularity of the science fiction film flying high, this idea seemed a no-brainer.
No one could mistake Abbott and Costello Go To Mars as a serious science fiction film. Even if the comedic duo’s reputation didn’t precede them, the farcical nature of the story should be tip off.
If you weren’t sure what trailer you were watching, the opening of this one might seem like another stock sci-fi film. But no sooner has the rocket blasted off, then the audience is shown Abbott & Costello, ensuring that laughter will be on the schedule with this film. The plot seems to be pretty laid out. The pair accidentally launch the rocket and land in Mardi Gras, mistaking it for Mars. Somehow they end up on the “manless” planet Venus with loads of lovely ladies surrounding them. Those wacky guys!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Abbott and Costello Go To Mars was the 31st film for the pair. Unlike a majority of their films, the two characters do not know each other at the start of the film. Orville (Lou Costello) is the oldest boy (about 38 years old) at the local orphanage. After crashing his toy plane through a window, he hides from the police in Lester’s (Bud Abbott) truck, which is making a delivery to the local top-secret rocket lab.
After some confusion between Orville and Dr. Orvilla (Joe Kirk) the boys are put to work unloading supplies into the rocket ship for its trip to either Mars or Venus. Dr Wilson (Robert Paige) takes a vote amongst the scientists as to the planet they should fly to. Unfortunately, they don’t get the chance as Orville accidentally presses some buttons and launches the ship into a wild ride through New York’s Holland Tunnel and ends up landing them in the bayou outside New Orleans.
Thinking they’re on Mars, the pair puts on spacesuits and venture into town which is currently having Mardi Gras. The weird costumes and clothes do nothing to convince the pair that they’re anywhere but on Mars. Meanwhile a pair of escaped convicts, Mugsy and Harry (Horace McMahon & Jack Kruschen) find the rocket ship and decide to stowaway when the “spacemen” return. They find an extra set of spacesuits and a raygun, and decide to hold up a bank in the meantime.
When Lester & Orville return, they find the criminals who hijack the ship, and force them to blast off. This time the ship really makes it into outer space, and heads towards Venus. Orville discovers a society of beautiful women who have banished all the men in their society. The queen, Allura (Mari Blanchard), decides to give Orville a choice to be King, but is quickly reminded why men were banished in the first place.
Mugsy and Harry attempt to make themselves indispensable, but Orville and Lester convince the ladies that they are criminals. Allura gives them all a chance to leave and return home, which they do. The city hails the boys as heroes in a ticker-tape parade, while Mugsy and Harry are carted back to prison.
“I hereby claim Mars in the name of the United States of America.” – Lester
History in the Making
Abbott and Costello Go To Mars was obviously made to capitalize on the popularity of science fiction films and space flight that had grabbed the imagination of the public in the early 50s. As mentioned above, this was the 31st film of 35 for the comedy pair. The film was made towards the end of their career, when a number of problems had cropped up between the two men. These issues showed, as the interactions between Bud & Lou did not seem as fresh or as funny as they had in previous films.
There were still a number of funny moments in the film, which capitalizes on the bickering nature of the relationship between Abbott & Costello. The film also benefits from being one of the first comedic sci-fi films created for a comedy team or actor. The end of the decade would see other films by the likes of the Three Stooges (Have Rocket, Will Travel) or Jerry Lewis (Visit to a Small Planet) that attempt to use sci-fi as a crutch. And compared to those films, Abbott and Costello Go To Mars is a masterpiece.
The film makes ample use of science fiction tropes that had been present in other sci-fi films of the time. The use of magnetic boots, planning on visiting one planet but ending up on another, and finding a race of humanoids on that new planet have been sci-fi elements seen in films previously reviewed here on Sci-Fi Saturdays.
Destination Moon showed how well magnetic boots can keep one from floating around in the weightlessness of space. Of course, Costello uses them for comedy purposes, getting stuck on parts of the ship. But this also becomes a useful element of the plot when he uses the boot to take away Mugsy’s gun.
The other tropes were seen in the first film I looked at, Rocketship X-M. In that film, the crew was planning on going to the moon, but accidentally made it to Mars. Here, Bud & Lou take off for Mars, but end up in New Orleans. And then when they take off again and land in a gaseous environment (Venus), they believe they’re only in Los Angeles! They also discover “aliens” on Venus, much like the crew of X-M found on Mars. But instead of scarred, irradiated mutants, they find dozens of shapely and sexy women, all who are played by the winners of the Miss Universe contest from 1952. A clever cross promotion the producers came up with.
In this film there is no deeper societal commentary. It’s a comedy through and through, playing the whole space-travel genre for laughs. It borrows elements from Flash Gordon, and other space-serials of the 50s to make fun of, and joke about. But, even though it deals with some advanced notions, it is very much a film of the 50s.
The producers obviously wanted to provide something for the older members of the audience, primarily the swimsuit clad women of Venus. The final third of the film is fashioned by something called the “male gaze,” which is a feminist theory that posits the depiction of women in film is made from, and for, the perspective of the heterosexual male. What better chance for laughs when the average and somewhat dumpy looking Costello becomes surrounded by dozens of women? His childlike charm makes him instantly likable and attractive to these women. Surely a dream for many audience members.
Also, why would a race of women banish men from their planet? And these women, who are all immortal or at least very long lived, are all stuck in their early 20s, and wearing swimsuits. This is not a strong and thriving race, like the Amazons in the Wonder Woman films. It’s place is purely there to stroke the male ego and provide some “eye candy” for the gentlemen in the theater. The inclusion of this portion of the storyline, was not necessarily unique to comedies of the era. The idea of a “female society” ruling another planet would show up later that year in the (very) B-film Cat-Women of the Moon. These films may have been precursors to the dawning of the bombshell or vixen in Hollywood film and to the films of Russ Meyer, whose later 50s and 60s films are part feminist and part sexplotation, such as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
I likened this part of the film to a friend as the Bachelor Party of the 50s. Providing titillation and sexualization in the film, for use in the trailers, and to entice people (probably men) into the theater to see the film. While these elements do not overshadow the remainder of the film, the Venus segment does remind viewers of the era in which the film was made.
The Science in The Fiction
The film does not try to get any of the science it depicts, correctly, except maybe the description of how a spaceship works, as explained to Costello by a pair of 10 year olds. Not that anyone is expecting solid science from a sci-fi comedy, but it seems like something that they could at least try.
Mugsy, who is an erudite crook, often talks way above his partner’s head, discussing things like the Laplacian theory or the tidal theory, observations about rocketry, or even just the number of states in the US (at the time of the film, there were 48)! But one thing he gets completely wrong is the distance to Mars. He is quoted as saying the distance is 35 million miles, when in actuality, it’s nearly four-times that at 140 million miles. Technically, the closest Mars could ever be is about 34 million miles, so I guess he could be correct. But on average it’s closer to the 140 million miles number.
The film also shows the rocket ship making all sorts of weird stunts while flying. It flies past buildings, loops, and flies in and out of the Holland Tunnel. These are all done for comedic effect, as the boys continue to attempt to control the rocket, but to no avail. The best one of these gags, is probably the Statue of Liberty “ducking” just as they are about to fly into her head!
The Final Frontier
One interesting fact that I’ll close on is this film introduced a new actor that would go on to great heights in comedy, both in film and on television. Harry Shearer plays a boy at the beginning of the film asking Orville how a spaceship works. Shearer would go on to play prominent roles in the film This is Spinal Tap, and the TV series, The Simpsons.
As far as the final Abbott and Costello films go, where they attempt to crossover with other genres, Go To Mars is adequate. I personally prefer the Universal Monster films where they meet Frankenstein and Dracula, but this film did have some genuine chuckles in it.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.