By Doug Gibson
I had the opportunity to watch -- again -- the 1946 Bud Abbott and Lou Costello ghost romp, "The Time of Their Lives." It's one of the comedy pair's more sophisticated, often witty films, and has aged very well. I'd rank it just below "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" in the duo's fantasy comedies and it's also one of the top 5 or 6 films the pair made.
What's interesting is that the film was a financial loser for Bud and Lou in 1946, although it did better when re-released five years later. One reason may be been because Bud and Lou were feuding at the time the film was made. As a result, the pair didn't play companions in "The Time of Their Lives" but separate character who barely share any dialogue together in the film. However, Lou's character -- playing a ghost -- does get to push around Bud's hapless modern-day psychiatrist.
But to the plot: It's 1780, and Lou plays Horation Primm, a poor tinker who has a letter of recommendation from General George Washington. He arrives at the estate of Tom Danbury, hoping to use the letter to win approval to marry one of Danbury's maids, Nora (Anne Gillis). However, the Danbury House butler, Cuthbert Greenway (Abbott) manages to shove the tinker in a large drawer for a while.
Meanwhile, evidence is emerging that Master Tom Danbury is a traitor, ready to assist Benedict Arnold. Nora finds this out and is briefly captured. Horatio's letter is hidden in a mantel clock on the estate. Danbury's fiance, Melody (played by Marjorie Reynolds) learns of Tom's treachery. She grabs the tinker Horatio and attempts to flee on horses to get help. However, in a misunderstanding, troops sent to capture Danbury shoot and kill Horatio and Melody. The now-dead pair, camaflouged by their riding clothing, are casually tossed in the well with a curse that they will never be allowed to leave the Danbury estate -- now burning -- until they can clear their names. There is a funny scene where Melody and Horatio discover they are ghosts.
The plot moves forward to 165 years later, with ghosts Melody and Horation living their long existence, unable to leave the estate, which has been rebuilt -- with almost all of the original furniture, saved from the burning, now in the new home. There is a funny scene where Melody makes a playful romantic move on Costello's tinker, only to push him off their tree when he admits that all he wants is to have his back scratched.
It doesn't take long for the new owners and visitors at the home, which includes psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenway, the butler's descendent, played, of course by Abbott, to learn that ghosts are haunting the home and want to convey a message. With the help of a housekeeper, Emily, played somberly by Gale Sondergaard, a seance is conducted where ghosts Melody and Horace get the message across that they need General Washington's note to clear their names and be allowed into heaven, where Horace can reunite with Nora, and Melody with Tom ... who we have learned, later renounced his treachery and became a good patriot.
The casting is superb. John Shelton plays Sheldon Gage, the new owner of the estate. Lynn Baggett is great as his fiancee, June, and wisecracking Binnie Barnes is very witty as wisecracking Aunt Millie, who psychiatrist Greenway sort of secretely has the hots for. Scenes of ghosts Horatio and Melody learning about electricity, phones and the radio are funny. Costello has a field day pushing around the scared descendent of his one-time romantic rival Cuthbert. There is also a funny scene where Abbott's psychiatrist, remorseful over his ancestor's mistreatment of Horatio, steals the original clock from a museum and in a wild chase on the Danbury estate, tries to elude the police while attempting to unlock the secret compartment that hides the Washington letter.
I can't highly recommend this film enough. It's a high-brow version of Abbott and Costello. To me it plays like a suspenseful, funny spoof of that era's genre ghost films, such as "The Uninvited." Despite the real-life tensions between the stars in 1945-1946 -- at one point Costello walked off the set, insisting he should play Abbott's role -- there's no evidence of tension between the two. Their performances are splendid and the comic timing superb. The 82-minute film was directed by Charles Barton.