Africa Screams is a 1949 Abbott & Costello film, and almost everything about the plot can be determined simply from that sentence fragment. Under direction from Charles Barton, Bud Abbott plays his usual slick salesman persona, while Lou Costello is a nervous little fellow who is afraid of animals to the point that even a house cat terrifies him (their character names hardly matter, as they’re playing standard roles, except that Costello’s character is named Stanley Livington, riffing on famed explorer Livingston). They’re recruited for an expedition to Africa by Hillary Brooke, who plays a woman ostensibly on a big game hunt but really after a lost diamond field. The expected hilarity ensues.
Abbott and Costello get some good laughs out of the audience along the way (though a few cartoony gags don’t work very well) and their usual relationship with each other works well in the jungle setting. It doesn’t quite shine, though, because there’s always the feeling that it’s just “Abbott and Costello in the jungle”; the surrounding plot never quite comes together on its own, most of the humor is easily seen coming, and the supporting cast is hardly used. This wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for the duo — it is, after all, an “Abbott and Costello” film, not an “Abbott and Costello and company” film — but it seems a little strange here, because this feature seems to have a definite element of stunt casting to the film.
Hillary Brooke’s character brings a couple of toughs with her to help out, and they are played by the boxing brothers Max and Buddy Baer. Max Baer was a world heavyweight champion, and so would have been very well known at the time. But the characters don’t amount to much more than set dressing; it would be like someone today casting football’s Drew Brees just to act as a doorman. It’s uncertain whether the Baers would have been good actors in the roles, as the roles just aren’t big enough for them to really do much beyond looking tough and complaining about Costello.
Also in the film are Clyde Beatty and Frank Buck, big game hunters who became Hollywood entertainers. They play themselves in the film, providing a running gag of Costello bragging about training and/or besting them only to discover who he’s actually talking to. The joke probably worked better in 1949 when more of the audience knew who these two were; for someone viewing today, after they’re largely forgotten, it loses some impact, especially as the casting doesn’t serve more of a purpose beyond the joke.
But what might be most interesting on the casting front, for today’s classic film fans at least, are a couple actors who weren’t examples of stunt casting. First is Joe Besser, long before he became a substitute Curly; it’s a small role as Hillary Brooke’s butler, but it’s entertaining and it’s nice to see him when he was still doing his own shtick. But he’s not the only Stooge on the screen. Shemp Howard plays the role of Gunner in the film, a rare late-career non-Stooge appearance. Although Shemp was a prolific character actor before replacing his brother Curly in the Three Stooges films, afterward he seldom strayed from the franchise. Of his last 75 films, Africa Screams is the only one not to be a Three Stooges film. (And is, as a bit of trivia, the only time that Shemp and Joe Besser are in the same film.)
And Shemp is as funny in Africa Screams as he is in the Stooges pictures. The character of Gunner is an irascible old marksman who is nearly blind, and Shemp plays the role to perfection. The sad thing is that with the focus naturally being on Abbott and Costello, there isn’t much opportunity for Shemp to really shine. He gets a few good sight gags (or should that be lack of sight gags?) but we don’t see nearly enough of him.
And he doesn’t see nearly enough of anything.
Although it’s an Abbott & Costello film, Africa Screams might have been better if it had spread the spotlight around a bit more. The side characters provide some decent humor, but they aren’t on screen enough to feel like anything more than window dressing. A little less focus on the stars might have helped the supporting cast and the plot to help the stars shine even brighter.