|Ivars Peterson's MathTrek|
March 27, 2000
Among the notable omissions are several movies featuring the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Probably most famous for their "Who's on first" baseball routine, Abbott and Costello made arithmetic shenanigans the basis of a number of their comic dialogs.
Abbott and Costello became a comedy team in 1936, becoming popular on the burlesque stage, then achieving wider acclaim by performing on radio. Released in 1941, their second movie, Buck Privates, was a box office hit. In this World War II comedy, Abbott and Costello play tie salesmen who accidentally enlist in the army to avoid getting arrested.
The mathematical centerpiece of Buck Privates is a word problem reminiscent of those spoofed by John Scieszka and Lane Smith in the delightful book Math Curse (see The Cow in the Classroom, March 4, 1996).
Abbott: You're 40 years old, and you're in love with a little girl, say 10 years old. You're four times as old as that girl. You couldn't marry that girl, could you?Fast-talking, inveterate con man Abbott had a sneaky way with numbers (aided by mangled logic), especially when they had dollar signs next to them. Here's another encounter from Buck Privates, one echoed in several later movies.
Costello: No. ?
Abbott: So you wait 5 years. Now the little girl is 15, and you're 45. You're only three times as old as that girl. So you wait 15 years more. Now the little girl is 30, and you're 60. You're only twice as old as that little girl. ?
Costello: She's catching up. ?
Abbott: Here's the question. How long do you have to wait before you and that little girl are the same age?
Costello: What kind of question is that? That's ridiculous. If I keep waiting for that girl, she'll pass me up. She'll wind up older than I am. Then she'll have to wait for me!
Abbott: Do me a favor. Loan me $50.Abbott then entices Costello into a silly, double-or-nothing number game.
Costello: I can't lend you $50. All I've got is $40.
Abbott: That's okay. Give me the $40, and you'll owe me $10.
Costello: How come I owe you $10?
Abbott: What did I ask you for?
Abbott: What did you give me?
Abbott: So you owe me $10.
Costello: That's right. But you owe me $40. Give me my $40 back.
Abbott: There's your $40. Now give me the $10 you owe me. That's the last time I'll ever ask you for the loan of $50.
Costello: How can I loan you $50 now? All I have is $30.
Abbott: Give me the $30, and youll owe me $20.
Costello: This is getting worse all the time. First I owe you $10, and now I owe you $20!
Abbott: So you owe me $20. Twenty and 30 is 50.
Costello; Nope! Twenty-five and 25 is 50.
Abbott: Here's your $30. Give me back my $20.
Costello: All I've got now is $10!
Abbott: Take a number, any number at all from 1 to 10, and don't tell me.Toward the end of the movie, during a boxing match, Costello is knocked to the canvas, and the biased referee gives a quick count: 2, 4, 6, 8, 10.
Costello: I got it.
Abbott: Is the number odd or even?
Abbott: Is the number between 1 and 3?
Abbott: Between 3 and 5?
Costello: No. I think I got him.
Abbott: Between 5 and 7?
Abbott: Number six?
Costello: Right. . . . How did he do that?
Costello: What's this? 2, 4, 6, 8, 10? What happened to 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9? Ref: I don't like them numbers. They're odd.Such nuggets of mathematical fun turn up not only in Buck Privates but also in other Abbott and Costello movies. The 1941 film In the Navy, for example, features a hilarious episode in creative counting. Costello comes up with three different ways to prove that 7 times 13 equals 28.
If you look and listen closely, you'll find an amazing amount of number play in those old Abbott and Costello movies.
Copyright 2000 by Ivars Peterson
Peterson, I. 1996. The cow in the classroom. MAA Online (March 4). Available at http://www.maa.org/mathland/mathland_3_4.html.
Reinhold, A.G. 1997. "Math in the Movies". Math Horizons (April):9.
Scieszka. J., and L. Smith. 1995. Math Curse. New York: Viking.
You can find the Abbott and Costello official fan club Web page at http://www.abbottandcostello.net/nw_fanclub.asp.
The Math in the Movies Web page can be found at http://world.std.com/~reinhold/mathmovies.html.
Comments are welcome. Please send messages to Ivars Peterson at email@example.com.