Obituary:Arthur Lubin

When Universal Pictures assigned him to direct Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in their first starring film, Arthur Lubin didn't even know they were a comedy team; he thought they were dancers. Buck Privates (1941), the film they made together, was the most successful movie the studio had then produced, grossing over $4m and shooting Bud and Lou to top stardom.

Arthur Lubin was born in California and educated at Carnegie Tech, Pittsburgh. He became an actor in the 1920s, appearing on stage in Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms, and on screen in many films. In the silent drama His People (1925) he played Morris, an ambitious Jewish law student who, ashamed of his humble family background, pretends to be an orphan after falling in love with a judge's daughter. The New York Times said: "Arthur Lubin deserves great credit for his work as Morris."

Lubin turned to directing in 1934. After grinding out workmanlike quickies for Monogram and Republic, he moved in 1936 to Universal, where most of his films were made for the next 19 years. Typical of his early low-budget assignments were I Cover the War, Adventure's End, Idol of the Crowd and California Straight Ahead (all 1937), in which John Wayne played, respectively, a newsreel cameraman, a whale fisherman, a hockey player and a truck driver. He also directed mysteries such as Mysterious Crossing (1936), melodramas such as Prison Break (1938) and Karloff/Lugosi horror films such as Black Friday (1940) before Bud and Lou entered his life.

After a sneak preview of Buck Privates, a jubilant Universal awarded Lubin a $5,000 bonus and told him to start developing follow-up vehicles for Abbott and Costello. After directing their hugely successful In the Navy, Hold That Ghost, Keep 'Em Flying (all 1941) and Ride 'Em Cowboy (1942), Lubin bowed out. "They came on the set late," he later explained, "they didn't know their lines, and I think they were beginning to get tired of one another . . . But it was five fabulous pictures with those boys. They were very good for me. They gave me a reputation."

Universal demonstrated this by handing him the ambitious Eagle Squadron (l942), the first film this cheese-paring studio ever made that exceeded 100 minutes, and the lavish Technicolor remake of The Phantom of the Opera (1943), which starred Claude Rains as the Phantom, Susannah Foster as the heroine and Nelson Eddy as the hero. "We dyed his hair black," Lubin told an interviewer. "Whoever heard of a blond Frenchman?"

Wartime audiences lapped up lightweight escapism, and this was amply provided by Lubin's White Savage (1943) and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944), both of which co-starred Maria Montez and Jon Hall. In the same comic-book style was one of my favourite films, the post-war kitsch classic Night in Paradise (l946). Set in a land called Lydia, it involved the efforts of Aesop (Turhan Bey) to steal the Princess Delarai (Merle Oberon) from the ruthless Croesus (Thomas Gomez). Lubin also directed one of my least favourite films: New Orleans (1947), a blatantly fictionalised "history of jazz" that played down the black man's contribution, and cast Billie Holiday as a maid.

A surprise hit for Universal was Francis (the Talking Mule) (1950), the first of six Francis films Lubin directed. Thanks to Francis, he soon became "King of the Fanciful"; he made Rhubarb (1951), in which an alley cat inherits a baseball team, It Grows on Trees (1952), in which a scatty housewife finds that two trees in her backyard are sprouting $5 and $10 bills, and The Incredible Mr Limpet (1964), in which a timid bookkeeper, rejected for naval service in the war, magically becomes a dolphin and helps the US Navy track down enemy submarines.

By now Lubin had crossed into television, as producer- director of Mr Ed (1961). Whereas Francis was a mule who spoke only to Donald O'Connor, Mr Ed was a horse who spoke only to Alan Young. Variety wrote: "Maybe a talking horse is commercial, but there has to be more than an idea to put it across." None the less, the series stayed firmly on the small screen for four profitable years.

For the big screen Lubin directed Herman's Hermits in Hold On! (1966) and the Spanish-made Rain for a Dusty Summer (1971). In 1989, at the age of 90, he was trying to persuade Paramount to let him remake Rhubarb. Asked by an interviewer for the secret of his youthful face and figure, he replied: "I have never smoked in my life, and I think that has had a great deal to do with my physical appearance and keeping me healthy. I had one minor operation when I was 18 years old. Outside of that, I live in the California hills and enjoy life."

Dick Vosburgh

Arthur Lubin, film director, producer and actor: born Los Angeles 25 July 1899; died Glendale, California 12 May 1995.

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