This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
There aren't many films that deserve classic status for just a single scene. But The Naughty Nineties is one of them. This 1945 vehicle for the Bud Abbott and Lou Costello comedy duo features what is perhaps the finest recorded performance of their renowned "Who's on First?" skit. The sketch has the pair talking about baseball players, and the players have commonplace words and phrases for nicknames. (Who's on first base, What's on second, I Don't Know is on third, etc.) The joke is that the Costello character doesn't realize the words and phrases are the names, and he thinks the Abbott character is jerking him around. It's a witty, masterfully sustained piece of extended wordplay, and Costello's handling of his character's mounting exasperation is hilarious. The rest of the film is a better than average Abbott and Costello comedy. The setting is a showboat on the Mississippi River in the 1890s. Abbott plays an actor who oversees the boat's stage shows, and Costello is his sidekick and gofer. In the first act, the captain (Henry Travers) loses most of his equity in the ship in a crooked card game. The gamblers who now have controlling interest turn the boat into a floating casino. The actor, the sidekick, and other ship personnel connive to restore ownership to the captain. The plot is slight, and it has a quick, easy resolution. It doesn't strive to be anything more than a scaffolding for Abbott and Costello's comedy routines. The standout after "Who's on First?" is probably "Eating Catfish," in which the Costello character believes his catfish dinner has been prepared from a (still meowing) housecat. The "Lower/Higher" sketch, which has Costello's character mistaking orders to the stage crew as singing directions, is pretty funny as well. The director, Jean Yarbrough, keeps the pacing brisk.