Saturday, October 31, 2009
ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)
RATING: **** out of ****
PLOT: A crate containing the remains of Dracula and the Frankenstein monster is shipped from Europe to the owner of an amusement exhibit (“McDougal’s House of Horrors”) in La Mirada, Florida. Working for the courier service are Chick Young (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur Gray (Lou Costello). Chick is puzzled that such a beautiful, dark-haired and statuesque beauty as Sandra would want to be Wilbur’s girlfriend… but she is in league with Dracula for a nefarious purpose: transplant the simple, pliable brain of Wilbur into the brutish body of Frankenstein’s monster! Also arriving from Europe is Larry Talbot, determined to stop Dracula’s evil plan… but he has a secret of his own: when the moon is full, he transforms into the Wolf Man! Can Chick and Wilbur survive this frightful encounter with not one but three infamous movie monsters?!
REVIEW: What can I possibly say about “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” that hasn’t already been said many times over? Its status as both the ultimate horror-comedy and a classic comedy in general is both deserved and set in stone. How could it not be? Sometimes all the pieces of a project fall together “just right,” and this is one of those cases.
Its been suggested that this film would be considered the greatest horror-comedy of all time merely due to the fact that it actually contains the flagship monster movie characters from the first two decades of talking pictures. And this is partially true – from the time “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” first made audiences gasp in terror in 1931 through the monster mash-ups of the 1940s like “House of Dracula” and “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man,” the ghoulish gang at Universal Studios were the most popular of film fiends.
Likewise, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello had already shown in their classic feature “Hold that Ghost” as well as in a brief bit in a spooky carnival funhouse from "Keep 'em Flying" that Lou Costello being scared equaled big belly laughs for audiences. The more he squirmed in fear, the more viewers squealed with laughter.
But having Abbott & Costello actually meet the classic movie monsters was something else altogether. There’s an overused expression, “like catching lightning in a bottle.” If there can be a concrete definition of that expression, “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” is it. And not just because Dracula uses electricity to revive the Frankenstein monster!
To claim this is a classic due to the dynamite combo alone does an injustice to three very important facts, however.
First, we must consider the script. As David J. Hogan mentions in his excellent essay on the film in MIDNIGHT MARQUEE ACTORS SERIES: BELA LUGOSI, the screenplay for this movie is one of the best conceived ever. The construction is iron-clad – everything happens for a reason, time passes in believable ways, and any exposition used to convey information is appropriate. There is nothing extraneous in this script.
Second, the supporting cast is top-notch. The fourth actor to don the famous neck bolts, Glenn Strange had been essaying the Frankenstein monster since 1944’s “House of Frankenstein.” While Karloff’s monster is the beloved classic that brings tears to the eyes, it is Glenn Strange’s version of the monster that is the most recognizable. It was the most merchandised and became the favorite to feature on monster magazine covers like “Famous Monsters of Filmland” and “Castle of Frankenstein.” It also inspired the look of TV’s classic sitcom (monster) dad, Herman Munster. To a generation of “monster kids” who grew up with these magazines as well as “The Munsters” and the Universal horror movies rerun on TV’s “Shock Theater,” Glenn Strange’s monster was the most definitive in appearance.
Next came Lon Chaney, Jr. as the cursed Larry Talbot, aka the Wolf Man. Chaney was the only actor to play this character in the Universal movies, so having him reprise the role here gave the film a definite shot of legitimacy. Not to mention heart and pathos for the laughs and thrills to play off of. Outside of the Frankenstein monster, was there ever a more sympathetic monster than the Wolf Man? Heck, he wasn’t even dead like the Frankenstein monster. He was only dead inside.
The coup de gras in casting was getting Bela Lugosi to don the cape once more as Dracula. While he played both real and fake vampires and a variety of fiends in other films, Lugosi had not played Dracula on film since the original 1931 classic. He played the role countless times on stage, but when it came time to bring the Count back to movies, Universal turned to Chaney, Jr. and John Carradine instead… and there are all sorts of theories as to why. This time, for whatever reason, Universal decided to bring back the original Count, and Lugosi rose to the occasion with an energetic performance that put many younger actors to shame.
Rounding out the cast are some key supporting players. Frank Ferguson as Mr. McDougal, owner and proprietor of McDougal’s House of Horrors, is spot-on perfect as someone who is looking to get a big return on his investment – in this case, the remains of the original Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster. This makes him all the more testy when couriers Bud and Lou don’t handle his exhibits with care. This film also has a terrific pair of beautiful female leads: blonde Jane Randolph as the insurance investigator with an eye for Costello and brunette Lenore Aubert as Dracula’s co-surgeon with an eye for Costello’s brain! These gals are no mere eye candy, however – the actresses do a formidable job fleshing out their characters as strong, resourceful women.
But what makes this film truly legendary has to be the dynamic that straight man Bud Abbott brings to the table. While Laurel & Hardy, the Three Stooges, the Bowery Boys and others all made outstanding horror-comedies, containing wonderful scare-takes from comic geniuses like Stan Laurel, Curly Howard and Huntz Hall, they don’t have the acerbic Bud Abbott to play off of. When Lou’s eyes bug out and he stammers and stutters, desperately trying to convince his partner that the candle really is moving, there really is a secret passageway, and Dracula and the Wolf Man really do exist and want to do them harm, Bud’s dismissive agitation makes Lou’s fear all the more funny. In a massive hamburger already loaded with delicious ingredients, Bud Abbott is the “special sauce” that elevates the film from savory snack to exquisite entrée!
The success of this film ensured that Abbott & Costello would go on to make more horror-comedies, both feature films and on TV, where they reprised haunted house routines from “Hold that Ghost” on their TV show and even met the Creature from the Back Lagoon on an episode of the Colgate Comedy Hour. While all contained varying degrees of fun, none reached the heights of “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.” That lightning flashing through the sunroof of Count Dracula’s lab? Yep, for this movie, they bottled it!
BEST DIALOUGE EXCHANGE:
Lon Chaney (as Larry Talbot): When the moon is full, I become a wolf.
Lou Costello (as Wilbur Grey): You and 20 million other guys!
BEST GAGS: The moving candle routine, Costello unknowingly sitting on the monster’s lap, the rotating door… and much, much more!
SPOTTED IN THE CAST (well, really heard): Vincent Price, who does a great cameo as the voice of the Invisible Man for the film’s closing gag. Price had previously played the role in 1940’s “The Invisible Man Returns.” What most viewers don’t realize is that in 1948, Price had not yet been established as a reigning horror star! Outside of “Invisible Man Returns,” Price had appeared in a couple of period films and a noir with slight horror overtones, but his outright horror career was still to come with his 1950s pair of fright films, “House of Wax” and “The Fly.” So the use of Price’s voice in “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” was not a nod to Price’s horror career, but a foreshadow of things to come!
BUY THE FILM: “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” has been released on DVD not once, not twice, but three times - once as a stand-alone DVD, once in a 2-disc collection with 7 other A&C movies, and once in a massive collection containing every film A&C made for Universal Studios. The stand-alone edition has some great extras that repeat on the massive collection, but DO NOT repeat on the 2-disc collection. You can buy these DVDs here:
FURTHER READING: There are countless blog posts about the making of this film, many containing great behind-the-scenes stories. The best of these comes from the Frankensteinia blog which you can read by clicking here. You’ll also want to hunt down a copy of the indispensable book, Abbott & Costello in Hollywood by Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo. If you want to fully immerse yourself in the story, you can also buy the script which has been collected into book form by MagicImage Books. There is also a book called The Horror Spoofs of Abbott & Costello by Jeffrey S. Miller but I haven’t read it yet so I can’t offer an opinion on it.
Watch the trailer here:
BE SURE TO JOIN US AGAIN IN TWO WEEKS WHEN WE TAKE A LOOK AT LAUREL & HARDY'S "THE LIVE GHOST!"