AFRICA SCREAMS doesn’t exactly yell welcome to Wokeontheland, but the title for the fitfully amusing 1949 Abbott & Costello adventure farce was meant to be a play off a well-known 1930 documentary narrated by Lowell Thomas, Africa Speaks! That hoary relic is rightfully considered exploitative, but the harmless A&C lark, while it has a few moments that rankle, is so obviously a kid-oriented buffoon-fest that getting in a huff over it seems like a waste of outrage best spewed elsewhere.
Glib bookseller ‘Buzz Johnson’ (Bud Abbott) talks ‘Diana Emerson’ (Hillary Brooke) into accepting fellow book salesman ‘Stanley Livington’ (Lou Costello) as an expert on Africa. Never mind that Stanley is terrified of animals, even kittens—“I was 15 years old before I ate my first animal cracker.” The guys don’t realize Diana has hoodwinked them into helping her locate a diamond treasure in the jungle. Cue escapades with lions, apes of all sizes, Diana’s hooligan henchmen, crocodiles and cannibals.
It starts slow, but builds to some pretty good gags, under the guide of frequent A&C director Charles Barton. The script was written by Earl Baldwin, and the silliness safari, done up for $500,000, made it to 77th place in ’49, grossing $4,200,000. Costello naturally gets in plenty of his trademark physical shtick and manages micro-variations of them like the pro he was. While it’s certainly not their best movie by a long shot, it might be Abbott’s most well-developed role in the slew, getting a chance for a little of what could pass as dimension beyond mastering patter and barking commands.
In the 79 minutes, besides the stars, going in twos into the “arc” of the plot are three more semi-pairs of characters from real-life blended with that of show biz. The muscle behind the bad girl’s scheme is provided by legendary boxer Max Baer and his towering brother Buddy: they get into a roughhouse scene where it looks like they might not be fully pulling all their punches, any one of which, if connected, would remove the normal human head. For supporting gags are two members of the changing combos that made up The Three Stooges, Shemp Howard and Joe Besser. Since Shemp was a gifted clown and good with dropping a joke line to effect, his brief moments as a nearsighted marksman get smiles. Besser, on the other hand, with that blackboard-meets-fingernails nancyboy act he cultivated, stepping in when Shemp died in 1955,, has gone down as the least funny of all the fill-in’s who succeeded the immortal Curly (just ask a Stoogist).
The most interesting casting brings in famed lion tamer Clyde Beatty and equally lauded adventurer, wildlife collector and author Frank Buck. The surprisingly unprepossessing Beatty doesn’t light up the screen with his dialogue delivery or presence, but when he steps into a cage filled with lions it’s hard not to awed by his nerve wielding a whip and a chair. A different kind of showman, and looking suitably rugged, Buck plays along better with the material.
Hollywood’s go-to-ape-guy, Charles Gamora, does the surefire laffs gorilla costume stuff. Bringing up the gear, of course, are the uncredited African-American extras and bit players who suffered through their careers in mostly subservient roles. Leading them is Bill Walker (1896-1992), who amassed 186 credits between 1946 and 1987. Grandson of a freed slave, Walker was a WW1 vet, a bandleader and singer, was known for his efforts in the Civil Rights Movement, served two decades on the Screen Actor’s Guild Board of Directors, and was married for 33 years to ‘Our Gang’ leading lady Peggy Cartwright: a rare interracial marriage in Hollywood: ironically she was the youngest cast member in 1915s The Birth Of A Nation (!) For ordinary movie fans, Walker is best-remembered as the deacon in To Kill A Mockingbird. Fortunately, looking at the fossil-era fun of Africa Screams doesn’t demean him, although the original ad art for this movie would certainly qualify as offensive.